The Concrete Benefits of Social Collaborative Learning

A Practical Case Study Using Organizational Network Analysis

calendar icon
June 27, 2023
Team Engagement

We’ve all experienced Social Collaborative Learning at least once in our lifetime. Maybe you had a buddy in your new job. Or perhaps you had a close friend to guide you when you joined the new club?

Chances are that this buddy or friend introduced you to other colleagues; they’ve shown you the etiquette and expected behaviors in the new place; they’ve told you about the unwritten social rules. Equally important, you’ve learned a lot by observing their different techniques. At one point, you could even exchange a few tips and tricks of your own with them.

Social Collaborative Learning (SCL) is natural, and we don’t give much thought to it. Because of that, it’s a neglected powerful approach to enhance teams and business performance.

What is Social Collaborative Learning?

Social Collaborative Learning (SCL) is an approach to learning and growth that focuses on collaboration, communication, and connection among individuals and teams.

By leveraging the power of social networking and communication, businesses can cultivate an environment of shared ideas, knowledge, and learning that will lead to increased productivity, creativity, and innovation. With SCL, companies can foster an environment of collaboration and learning that can help to drive their success and growth.

The True Measure of Success

The true measure of success is what you achieve with others.

Traditionally, we emphasize our individual abilities and expertise. We assume that because we have the knowledge and prior experience in using it, we’re ready to replicate it anywhere we go.

The over-emphasis on the content is the sin committed by formal training and development programs. We assume that once people acquire knowledge, they’re ready to apply it.

We all attended, at least once, fantastic training with groundbreaking content and technique. It could be a new approach to designing a product, a new method to understand the customer experience, or a full certification in Product Management. We left the training excited about putting the new learnings into practice.

Then reality sets in on the first day we’re back: we soon realize that those techniques work best when others working with us understand and use them. We may even attempt to share our new learnings, but not everybody is willing to change their old work habits. We even try using a few techniques by ourselves to demonstrate the benefits. However, everybody is busy doing what they are used to doing to pay attention to “our new” approach.

It becomes even more challenging once we realize we’re not as efficient with the new methods as we were with the old, traditional approach.

The social context disproportionately impacts our ability to fully introduce an idea or new practice or use our expertise. Social norms, values, and expectations govern our interaction with others. At work, it means our close colleagues, the colleagues of our colleagues, and the overall values and expectations practiced daily by people.

Therefore, traditional habits, social norms, values, and expectations can be a barrier to bringing a new work method to a team. Moreover, colleagues will only adopt the new approach if there is a minimal risk of being seen as “different” from those around them.

The Secret Sauce of Social Collaborative Learning

Because Social Collaborative Learning provides a social context of exploration, it’s a powerful approach to learning and growth. The learning and exploration happen together with other members in your shared social context. Together, the group is trying to figure out how to apply a new concept, solve a problem, or improve a process. The approach minimizes the risk of being singled out as the “odd person” in the group.

Moreover, because there is a shared social context, the learning is happening close enough to the flow of work to experiment immediately, increasing motivation to participate and the ability to reproduce the new behavior and increasing its retention.

The learning curve is accelerated because there is less resistance and more collaboration between colleagues to implement the concepts. Learning happens when we make mistakes in real-life conditions. A safe social context is critical to those experimentations.

A Case Study for Social Learning of Effective Collaborative Behaviors

Creating a Social Collaborative Learning Environment

Together with a team of volunteers in a top pharmaceutical company, we created an 8-week Social Collaborative Learning program to improve Effective Collaboration among key people in our Network of 13’000 employees in 89 countries. Our main objectives were:

  1. to learn and apply behaviors that will enhance collaboration and
  2. to develop connections and bonds among the key people in our Collaborative Network.

The two hundred participants of the program were nominated as key collaborators by their peers in an Organizational Network Analysis. Their position in the Network of trust indicated their relevance and the potential to be references to many other colleagues. (see image Generic Network Schematics).

Central connectors have strong ties to a close cluster of collaborators; boundary spanners are bridges between one or more collaborative clusters; or catalysts, individuals at the center of the energy-building network who inspire and bring new ideas to working groups.

Schematics of a generic network representation.  Dots represent people; lines represent bonds of trust between people. Some people have multiple bonds of trust between them, forming tight clusters. Some people are the center of these clusters. Therefore, they’re central connectors. Other people build bridges between the different clusters. They’re named boundary spanners. Image from the Author.
Generic Network Schematics.
Each dot represents a person, each connecting line a bond of trust.
Image from the author.

The participants were from various hierarchy levels, countries, cultural backgrounds, and balanced gender diversity.

The program’s content was designed to surface effective collaborative behaviors practiced among many, although not all, learners. For instance, key behaviors adopted by a few participants were “Align Expertise to Context” and “Streamline Collaboration.” On the other hand, many participants were skillful in “Pursuing Mutal Wins” and “Prioritizing Trust.”

Participants would then coach and guide each other on applying those behaviors in the workflow, using their own experience and “intuition.”

We benefited from pre-designed content developed by the Connected Commons, composed of short videos, case studies, practical exercises, and text stubs explaining the behaviors and their application. However, participants were encouraged to create and share their own content, advice, and tips for each effective collaborative practice.

We facilitated the whole experience with a virtual collaborative learning space where participants could exchange ideas, and new content, ask questions, and share insights.

To complement the experience, participants could schedule their small group exchange or join two more comprehensive group discussion sessions.

The Adoption of Effective Behaviors

To validate the adoption of Effective Collaborative Behavior, we designed an experiment to evaluate visible improvement in participants’ collaborative efforts against a control group.

Sixty-three randomly selected participants from the program were invited to join a “crowd-sourcing exercise” with 330 other key collaborators identified in the Organizational Network Analysis who had not participated in the SCL program. In total, 393 participants took part in the Collaborative Experiment.

In this experiment, all individuals were invited to exchange questions and answers on a specific business challenge. Each individual could ask two questions to anyone in the experiment. Whoever provided an answer was allowed to ask additional questions to someone else. Participants could select whom to interact with based on their names and work country. No other attribute, such as education, hierarchy, or previous experience, was readily available.

The participants’ interactions and contributions were monitored anonymously by the experiment observers. The observers could see two attributes about the participants: a) whether participants had successfully completed the Social Collaborative Learning Program and b) the participants’ country of work.

After five days of interaction, the analysis revealed that participants of the program were in the top quartile of three metrics of effectiveness and engagement compared to the control group:

Bar graph showing the massive difference in Key Behavior Indicators from the participants compared to the control groups. Image from the Author.
Comparison of the Key Behavior Indicators measured as a result of the Social Collaborative Learning program. Image from the Author.

a) Addressing Knowledge Gaps: 65% of the program members were actively connected with more participants to address gaps in knowledge, a critical effective collaborative capability introduced in the program. The result contrasts with the 25% interaction of the control group.

b) Build Connectivity: The program participants were 48% more active than the control group (15%). Therefore the result demonstrates the adoption of another effective collaborative capability, “Building Enterprise Connectivity.”

c) Engagement and Contribution: 60% of the program members interacted actively with other members, compared to 12% of the control group.

The results gave us strong indications of the positive adoption of Effective Collaborative Practices among the program participants.

We have evidence that an additional key benefit of Social Collaborative Learning is the improved bonds and relationships among participants. Going through a meaningful experience together strengthens or creates high-quality social bonds between participants, which have long-lasting effects on individuals and businesses.

Improved Bonds and Connections

The Network between the participants of the SCL was small in 2020, with the majority (65) having no relationship with any other participant before the start of the program. Moreover, the Network had two weak points:

  1. The connections were geographically based. It means that the relationships in 2020 were due to individuals’ proximity in the same country. Therefore their clusters had no access to insights, experience, or new practices adopted in other countries;
  2. The Network was fragile. Eight individuals were the single bridge across the few existing clusters. The whole Network would be fragmented if they were to leave the company.
A Network Schematics of the relationship between the participants of the program before its start. Each dot represents a person, each line represents a bond of trust. Image from the Author.
Network Visual of Key People’s Trusted Bonds.
Each dot represents a participant in the Social Collaborative Learning program. Each line represents a reported bond of trust between individuals on October 2020, before the program’s start.
Image from the Author.
A Network Schematics representing a fragmented network as the result of a simulation on removing eight people only working in Country I. Each dot represents a person, each line represents a bond of trust. Image from the Author.
Network Simulation of Fragility on Key People’s Trusted Bonds. Simulation removing eight bridge points from a single working location (Country I). Image from the Author.

After 1.5 years of the first cohort in the Social Collaborative Learning program, we set to measure the long-lasting impact of the new connections developed among the participants compared to the original Organizational Network Analysis.

We managed to transform the Network and improve its quality. Most participants (95%) developed new, strong, lasting bonds with each other. Moreover, the two weaknesses from 2020 were reverted:

  1. The connections were geographically diverse. It means that now many teams have strong relationships with other key collaborators in other countries. The broad relationships improve the exchange of ideas, insights, and expertise across markets by ten times compared to the diagnostic in 2020.
A Network Schematics of the relationship between the participants of the after it has been completed, in Oct-2022. It shows a very cohesive network. Each dot represents a person, each line represents a bond of trust. Image from the Author.
Network Visual of Key People’s Trusted Bonds.
Each dot represents a participant in the Social Collaborative Learning program. Each line represents a reported bond of trust developed between individuals since the program’s start.
Image from the Author.

2. The Network was resilient. There were more and wider bridges across the Network; therefore, even if individuals central to the Network were to leave, the Network would remain coherent. There are enough alternative connections for exchanging ideas, insights, and intelligence across critical people in different markets.

A Network Schematics of the relationship between the participants of the program in Oct-2022. It shows a Resilient test on removing 12 people from Country I. The Network remains cohesive and stable. Each dot represents a person, each line represents a bond of trust. Image from the Author.
Network Simulation of Resilience on Key People’s Trusted Bonds. Simulation removing twelve bridge points from a single working location (Country I). Image from the Author.

Remember that each program member is a central hub of relationships inside their collaborative clusters or a boundary spanner between multiple clusters. Therefore, creating wide bridges between the central hubs and boundary spanners has an exponentially positive effect on disseminating knowledge, expertise, and insights across different collaboration clusters.

Relationships, the fuel for engagement and knowledge sharing

Despite all corporate efforts in capturing explicit knowledge created at work, trusted bonds between employees are yet the most reliable channel to access tacit knowledge. In the Workplace Culture Report of 2022 from Kahoot, 58% of the employees surveyed said they were not proactively sharing valuable knowledge that could benefit others.

Developing those bonding connections reduces the friction on access to valuable knowledge. For every trusted bond forged between central connectors or boundary spanners, there is an increase in efficiency of 15%-25% on access to expertise across the organization.

It’s safe to assume that the benefits of these bonds continue expanding 2 to 3 degrees away because central connectors and boundary spanners are at the center of collaborative clusters and connected to large groups.

Network Schematics shows the degrees of impact of each participant in the program in their collaboration clusters. Image from the Author.
Schematics of the range of impact from participants of the Social Collaborative Learning program (dots in red). Image from Author.

In our analysis, Social Collaborative Learning provided a Return on Investment of 7x its original outlay when we look at the increased efficiency in access to expertise and improved efficacy in collaboration.

External and Independent Validation of the Social Collaborative Learning program

To get a second opinion and external validation about the program, we submitted it to the Brandon Hall Group Award.

The Brandon Hall Group HCM Excellence Awards recognizes the next practices in Human Capital Management that set a high bar for everyone. Award winners demonstrate the vision, agility, and innovation needed to excel in the uncharted hybrid work environment.

Entries were evaluated by a panel of veteran, independent senior industry experts, Brandon Hall Group analysts, and executives based upon these criteria: fit the need, program design, functionality, innovation, and overall measurable benefits.

We were very proud to have received the highest award of excellence, the Golden Award for 2022.

Brandon Hall Group Gold Award of Excellence shield for the category Best Use of Social Collaborative Learning.
Gold Award of Excellence for Best Use of Social Collaborative Learning.


Social Collaborative Learning, when well thought through and adequately architected, is a powerful approach to developing relationships and bonds among individuals and teams. It’s also effective in creating the proper social context to apply, replicate and retain new knowledge across the organization. SCL is even more critical if the new knowledge or practice requires new habits or behaviors adoption.

The investment in infrastructure can be minimal; the important is to create a social context for collaborative learning. Consider incorporating elements of Social Collaborative Learning in your next training program.

This article first appeared on Hermerson's personal Medium. Read that and more here.

Hemerson Paes
Hemerson Paes
Senior Global Network Catalyst at Roche. Igniting a network of 140 countries to transform into a truly adaptable organization to deliver better outcomes to more patients faster!
See author page
Join us on our next experience
calendar icon
All experiences
Get front row access to the latest scoop and new upcoming experiences, bundled into a monthly newsletter
You may opt-out any time. 
Read the .
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
calendar icon
June 27, 2023
Team Engagement