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What is Social Learning and How to Use it in the Workplace

From infancy, we observe the world around us and what we see. Through this process, we discover what elicits a positive or negative response.

Social learning is a term that describes how people learn in informal situations—which is the education that makes up most of our lives. When Harvard Business School’s online program introduced social learning, course completion rates increased to 85 percent. These programs focused on students working together to solve real-world problems rather than passively absorbing information from an instructor.

While formal learning in a classroom environment has its place, social learning can be beneficial for organizations to optimize engagement, increase knowledge retention, and reduce training costs. Discover practical strategies to promote social learning in your organization.

What is social learning theory?

Social learning theory combines behavioral theory, or the idea that we learn through conditioning, and cognitive theory, which focuses on attention and memory in learning.

This theory, proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura, says that new behaviors are learned by observing and imitating others. Learning is a cognitive behavior and process that happens in social settings, and social interaction helps drive curiosity and motivation to learn. Because this method involves observing and imitating human behavior, observational learning is a component of social learning.

Social learning theory helps explain behaviors other theories don’t, including our ability to do things we don’t have direct experience with. For example, if you’ve never played basketball and someone handed you a basketball and told you to shoot it, you’d lob it toward the basket. You know that because you’ve seen others do it.

Observation goes beyond seeing behaviors. You can also learn by listening to others describe an activity and reading about things. That means our social experiences aren’t limited to in-person interactions.

You see social learning displayed in the well-known 70-20-10 learning model, which shows that employees learn:

  • 70% of what they know from job-related experiences
  • 20% from social interactions
  • 10% from formal educational experiences

 In other words, 90 percent of learning happens in interactive, social environments.

4 principles of social learning theory

According to social learning theory, there are four parts of social learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.


You have to focus and pay attention to learn in a social environment. Anything that distracts attention will hurt the process, and things that help you focus, like novelty or interesting topics, will help.


Retention is an individual’s ability to store or retain information. Many things impact retention; some people can “get” something with fewer repetitions than others. But, in the end, retaining information is vital to perform a task in the future.


Reproduction is the process of acting out what we’ve learned. The more you practice the activity, the better you get at it. Research shows that imagining yourself doing a task can help you perform better.


Motivation is why we do anything at all. When it comes to social learning, our motivation comes from seeing someone else rewarded or reprimanded for specific behaviors. For example, when we see a coworker turn in a report and win an award, it makes us want to create work that also wins awards.

Developing training that considers these four principles can create social learning environments that encourage success and discourage unhelpful behaviors. 

Why does social learning matter?

Social learning is a natural way for people to learn, making it appealing to a wide range of employees in your organization. It’s easier to create a learning culture when there are multiple ways for employees to learn when and how they’d like to.

Employees value informal learning experiences like social learning over other methods. Eighty-seven percent of employees identify social knowledge sharing as essential, while only 37 percent feel the same about formal company training. 

Remember that social learning is founded on observation, meaning leaders, managers, and executives must set an example. When these individuals model appropriate and inclusive behavior, for instance, it helps shape other employees to behave similarly. “Do as I say and not as I do” fails because social learning is so powerful.

Another important element of social learning is reinforcement. Unfortunately, companies often reinforce behaviors opposite to what they claim they want. 

For example, an organization can say it wants collaboration but then award bonuses based on individual achievement. Because employees see those who focus on personal accomplishments being rewarded, they won’t be motivated to collaborate.

When your organization adopts social learning, you’re acknowledging the power of collaboration and setting a positive example, and you should recognize and reward individuals who uphold these values.

Why organizations should adopt social learning in the workplace

Social learning is already happening in your workplace. For example, people with formal and informal authority are seen as examples of what works and doesn’t work within your organization, and other employees adopt these behaviors accordingly.

Adopting social learning doesn’t mean doing something completely new; it means harnessing a process already in place and using it to create better information retention and adoption of new processes.

You can use intentional social learning during new hire onboarding to reduce the time it takes new staff to orient to your company and learn your processes. Conduct training classes collaboratively and consider using a more experienced team member as a role model.

Social learning can also help you maximize team members’ talents and help them develop their careers. You can offer intentional social learning opportunities such as job shadowing, mentorship, and collaboration to help staff learn new skills and retain information.

Social learning can be an effective tool to drive change in your organization. Many companies face the consequences of a poor culture, toxic work environment, and unprofessional behavior. Social learning can help create a better, more fair, and more inclusive workplace.

The benefits of social learning at work

Because social learning is an already-existing process, you don’t have to get people to do something unnatural or change major functions to reap the benefits. Instead, you need to be intentional about the modeling and imitation that already exist in your organization.

When you tap into social learning, you create measurable change. For example, if you have a team member teach a concept to their peers, you’ll notice that learners will be more engaged. You’ll notice that retention is better on skill-check exams, and you’ll see better performance in both simulations and actual work.

Social learning also increases the transfer of knowledge among teams and departments. When people openly share what they know to address common problems, you can quickly and effectively identify and address skill gaps.

Another important benefit of social learning is that it can be initiated by employees while working together. You don’t need a professional trainer to create a curriculum—the learning can happen naturally in the flow of work. That means problem-solving and innovation are always available to the team rather than being isolated to specific learning or brainstorming sessions.

When managers and leaders are involved in social learning, it helps create better management decisions. Instead of acting alone, leaders engage their peers and employees in discussing the best way forward. This can also lead to better adoption of the results by the team.

Social learning also improves employee relationships, encourages open communication, and improves employee engagement. People who feel instrumental in creating solutions will be far more involved and focused than those waiting to be told what to do.

Because social learning is already happening, harnessing it has no downside. It just takes some intentionality, and your organization will reap many benefits.

How to introduce social learning to your organization

How can you be intentional about directing social learning so that it benefits your organization? You can take advantage of this natural process in various ways.

Flipped learning

Instead of having a teacher or expert present information for an extended period, consider flipping the learning process. Once the information is presented, have a student teach it to a peer. You can even pair people up and have them teach each other.

Teaching the concept requires a more in-depth understanding, which can be a great way to solidify new material while taking advantage of social learning.


Turning a learning process into a game is a great way to help people learn. In addition, it can help overcome learning anxiety by making the process fun instead of stressful. 

Many organizations use competitive games to teach, but be careful with this approach. Being competitive can damage team unity and individual relationships. Instead, think about a way to make the game cooperative, where the entire learning cohort competes against an outside force in a learning game.

You can also use simulations, roleplaying conversations, and more to help employees learn sales and work concepts in a fun way.

Tie teamwork into e-Learning

You might think of e-Learning as an individual learning experience, but with the right all-in-one learning platform, you can also incorporate social learning.

This might include shared questions and answers, leaderboards for gamification, and discussion. You can also do an e-Learning module individually and then use the other social learning approaches to reinforce the lesson, such as having students re-teach it to each other. 

You can also use social media and communication or chat platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Employees can share their learning or discuss projects, initiatives, or challenges.

Use an organizational wiki or knowledge base

Another way to take advantage of social learning is to have an organizational knowledge base that employees can add to. You can have one person champion the wiki, monitor changes, and ensure they are appropriate. 

This type of collaborative learning allows everyone to contribute and creates a go-to resource for your processes, new ideas, and more. 

Leverage expert knowledge

Finally, you can implement social learning by leveraging the knowledge of in-house experts. For example, you can choose a well-respected team member to showcase their expertise on a particular topic or business process. In addition, they can go beyond the basics and share the tips they use on the job daily.

This allows modeling that others can imitate and increases buy-in for change by showing a successful team member doing things the right way.

How to make social learning effective

Social learning can be effective when you’re intentional about how people model human behavior and how others imitate this behavior. You need to direct those interactions to reinforce how you want work done in your organization. 

Some informal learning tips include:

  • Make it easy to ask questions and get answers immediately
  • Create a way to ask questions virtually for remote employees or those who aren’t comfortable speaking up in a group
  • Ensure that answers to common questions are available anytime so that learners can access them on demand
  • Create a community of coaches that are available for advice, tips, and roleplay to reinforce concepts
  • Reward team members who are willing to share their expertise with others

Remember, one of the basic concepts of social learning is that people will imitate what they see rewarded. Therefore, if people are ridiculed for sharing knowledge or taking time to coach a colleague, you’ll damage the power of social learning for your team members.

Take advantage of social learning in your organization today

Social learning is a powerful process that’s already happening in your business regularly. When you harness it, you can be intentional about the shared information and modeled behavior. You can also use positive reinforcement to encourage ongoing social and collaborative learning.

WorkRamp can help; with our All-in-One Learning Platform, you can build social learning processes like gamification into your L&D strategy. This will increase employee engagement and information retention and improve the learning process.

Want to learn more about how to use WorkRamp to deliver exciting employee learning and development programs? Contact us to schedule a free, personalized demo.


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Anna Spooner

WorkRamp Contributor

Anna Spooner is a digital strategist and marketer with over 11 years of experience. She writes content for various industries, including SaaS, medical and personal insurance, healthcare, education, marketing, and business. She enjoys the process of putting words around a company’s vision and is an expert at making complex ideas approachable and encouraging an audience to take action. 

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