The School for Health and Care Radicals uses social learning principles to enable change activists in the NHS to capitalise on opportunities arising in the social era. This classics piece explains what social learning is, how the social era is different to the industrial era and how the two combined can lead to an explosive release of energy and action for change in health and social care.


What is social learning?

The way in which organisations develop their employees depends on their assumptions about how learning happens. If they think that learning happens through observation and practice through joint activity, they invest in creating platforms for collaboration, for timely sharing of experiences, story-telling and experimentation.

You may have experienced this kind of employee development. You may also have experienced the kind of development that is underpinned by behaviourist, cognitivist and constructivist models of learning. It is most likely that you have experienced a combination of these:


The impact of implicit learning models on what organisations do:

Learning models Assumptions about learning What organisations do
Behaviourist model Learning is about moulding behaviour Reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour
Cognitivist model Learning is about integrating an explanation Provide training via lectures, talks, tests
Constructivist model Learning is about working out the question for yourself Provide coaching and facilitation
Social model Learning is about observation and practice through joint activity Provide platforms for timely sharing of experiences and stories between people as well as community self-organising


Bandura’s (1991) ‘Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation‘ states that social learning is a powerful lever for change. He thought that when learners are given the opportunity to observe others, they very quickly process new knowledge and act upon it based on internal regulators such as ethical standards and self-efficacy. To the learner, they are simply engaging in social activity but actually, they are unconsciously learning (Vygotsky, 1962; Marsick & Watkins, 2001).

Rogers (2013) in ‘Diffusions of Innovation‘ emphasised the importance of giving learners the opportunity to experiment: the feedback gained from experimentation (successful or not) enables deeper learning. For example, PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) cycles are commonly used in organisations that deploy quality improvement methods as an organisational learning strategy. However, the crucial step of acting on what one has learned can be very hard to take, in organisational environments where fear and risk are high. Context is everything. However, as the School for Health and Care Radicals demonstrates and as Bandura believed, difficult contexts can be mediated by informal networks which support the individual and develop high levels of self-efficacy and drive towards a common purpose.

One important feature of the social model of learning is that it provides opportunities for individuals to share tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is characterised by a memory for specific events and knowledge that we are unable to explain (Polanyi, 1967). When people tell stories and have conversations about their experiences they begin to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (Kolb, 1984).

In an organisational context,

“The conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge is critical because it is a prerequisite to the knowledge amplification process wherein knowledge becomes part of an organisations’ knowledge networks” (Herschel, Nemati, Steiger, 2001:107)

Networks and communities of practice provide safe places for learners to construct explicit knowledge based on tacit knowledge sharing. They may also motivate individuals to experiment with new ways of working informed by this new knowledge, by enhancing their sense of purpose/ethical obligation and self-efficacy.

Lave & Wenger (1991) explained how newcomers are socialised into communities. They start from the margins of the community and gradually move from ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ into ‘full participation’. They learn how to talk, how to behave by interacting and tuning themselves with existing participants. As they become enculturated, they move towards the centre of the community, embracing traditional values and ways of doing things and becoming more empowered to act on behalf of the community.

Engestrom (1999) identified the value of boundary-spanners – people who work at the edge of networks enabling cross-fertilisation of knowledge between different contexts. In the social era, boundary-crossing is much easier and, therefore, more diverse points-of-view can influence how organisations change.


What characterises the social era?

Interaction on social media platforms has become widespread. In the UK, over eight in ten of adults go online and over two-thirds of those have a current social networking site profile (Ofcom, 2014).  The most popular platforms are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Linkedin, which are used for personal purposes in 76% of the cases (CIPD, 2013). 26.6% of people use social networking for work purposes (in 2013), and this number is growing. So organisations are now beginning to exploit their potential.

These brave organisations are seeing fundamental shifts in power, leadership focus, how products and services are developed and what defines their competitive strategy:


Comparing the social era with the industrial age:

Industrial age Social era
Power Boardroom Living room
Leadership Campaigning Engaging
Products & Services Organisation defines the “offer” Community defines the “offer.”
Competitive strategy Price Trust

Adapted from Peter Aceto (In Coine & Babbitt, 2014)


This shows how the social era represents a “monumental shift in the way we think work and live” Coine & Babbitt (2014: p8).

And it couldn’t come at a better time.

In the past, social collaboration was so undervalued, that the potential of social learning could never be reached.  Oscar Berg said, “the majority of the value-creation activities in an enterprise are hidden and thus not recognised or valued”. What the social era offers, is an opportunity to increase the visibility of social collaboration: Oscar Berg: The Collaboration Pyramid Revisited

As the social era increases the visibility and value of social collaboration, so communication and learning becomes democratised. Infrastructure no longer controls the distribution of knowledge and power. Dialogue can now happen on level playing fields between health professionals and patients, clinical and corporate functions and other diverse perspectives where silos and barriers have been constructed and previously hindered change. At the centre of this new world of “connectivism” is the opportunity to connect on common purpose. In social spaces, purpose is combined with key activities that enable change: Julian Stodd – From Intent to Purpose: stages of community.


Watching social learning flourish in a social era

Albert Bandura is now 90 years old. Do you think he notices the sheer scale of opportunity that the social era offers our capacity for social learning? For example:

* We can now observe many more people at work (e.g. through blogging and Working Out Loud).

* We can build our self-efficacy and connection to purpose through social support from the masses, which in turn encourages us to take action. For example, one tweet from a member of the School for Health and Care Radicals recently said, “ It’s encouraging to make changes when you know others are on your side #SHCR dare to do it rather than not do it :)”

* We can seek feedback from our networks on the action for change that we take.

* We can connect with people who amplify our impact, which in turn will convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge – the type of knowledge that becomes “known” in organisational networks and influences their direction of travel.

* We can all be Engestrom-like boundary spanners – thereby bringing thought diversity and better change solutions to the table.

The world is moving quicker than ever before – complexity rules our work and to keep up, organisations have to be agile. This means harnessing the leadership potential of those working on the edge of organisations. Social models of learning provide a structure for releasing this social capital. The social era provides the ecosystem for social learning to truly flourish.



This classics piece was  written by Dr. Rosanna Hunt, @rosielhunt Research Associate in the Horizons Group at NHS Improving Quality and Stella Martorana, @StellaMartorana Research Associate @CIPD