What is Social Learning Theory and Why Should You Care?

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is an employee-centered teaching and training framework that helps companies develop more highly trained, engaged, and productive employees. Social learning theory is a methodology that emphasizes informal and collaborative learning, encourages employees to leverage their social and peer networks, and is flexible and accommodating to different learning styles. One of the driving principles behind social learning theory is the idea that we learn best not in isolation but together – in informal, social environments, even when we are not in the same room together. Psychologist Albert Bandura, who is credited by many as the father of social learning theory, understood that learning occurs in a social context through observation and emulation of the people we like and respect – our peer networks. We are social animals, after all.

What are the Different Components of Social Learning?

Show, don’t tell! One of the foundational ideas of social learning is that people learn through observation and imitation – it’s all about tactical demonstrations.

Training leaders and peers act as social models, according to the social learning definition. Teachers and trainers incorporate social learning by modeling desired behaviors and emotional skills; they demonstrate and practice them more than they preach about them.

Observation leads to imitation. A new, recently onboarded employee looks for cues and insights into the workplace culture. How do their peers act at the staff meeting? When something goes wrong, is there recrimination and blame or a more productive discussion about how to fix the problem? The idea is to use demonstration, role-playing, and a feedback loop – giving employees the space and opportunity to observe, experience, and imitate the desired skill.

Employees may observe how their coworkers are treated by management. Is their hard work noticed and rewarded? If they see that positive behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, then they will emulate that behavior. Conversely, what type of behaviors are frowned upon and punished? What not to do and where “not to go” is also learned informally through observation, so employees can avoid future “punishment.” In a social-emotional learning environment, employees might also observe fear and anxiety, and seek ways to better manage it.

Practically, in a workplace proactively implementing social learning theory, this might mean using video tutorials tied to the development of specific skills and abilities, as well as social networks and social media influencers.

Why Does Social Learning Matter?

Social learning matters because it is effective, and because it is changing how training is both regarded and conducted. It marks a shift towards a more collaborative, informal, and flexible way of approaching training in general – and, specifically, employee development. A vital methodology for both trainers and teachers, it provides a research-based framework for effectively training employees with diverse learning styles, backgrounds, attention spans, and skillsets.

Social learning matters because it provides employees with multiple ways to access, learn, and apply training content. It can deepen employees’ comprehension of training course content and also accelerate the adoption of a desired skill or behavior. Social learning is more than a training framework; it is an avenue for engaging, empowering, and motivating your employees to become stewards of their own training adventure.

Social learning is also important because it has proven to be a particularly effective training framework for reaching millennials and members of the even younger Generation Z, who place great importance on flexibility, convenience, and collaboration. These groups, who are soon to make up the majority of the workforce, also tend to trust their social networks and peers as much – if not more than – traditional experts.

Goals of Social Learning

Social learning is not a fad – it is a research-based framework that is used by innovative companies to facilitate peer-based knowledge sharing and collaborative learning opportunities. This results in trainings that can engage, entertain, and empower a diverse group of employees.

There is an obvious relationship between the achievement of training goals and the achievement of the company’s financial goals. The foundation of every company is its people. When a company’s employees are highly trained and motivated, their day-in and day-out commitment to the company intensifies and their productivity grows.

Best Practices 

To be clear, the takeaway is not that trainers should throw away the top-down, teacher-centered training model. When very specific and focused information needs to be communicated to employees, the traditional model might be more appropriate.

Rather, the takeaway for trainers is this: Don’t shy away from experimenting with social learning basics that can improve your employee competence, happiness, and longevity. Integrating strategies like collaborative problem solving and peer-to-peer networks into your training mix can have a significant impact on your training efficacy. Over time, the human resources department and its trainers have the opportunity to help shape a new L&D culture based on informal social learning and powered by a software-based learning management system (LMS).

Social Learning Theory Infographic

How LMS Could Help with Social Learning

While social learning can occur organically through informal interaction among peers, software technology enables many social learning processes to be replicated online.

Many companies that seek to incorporate social learning into their training mix are discovering the benefits of using an LMS or learning management system. This extraordinarily robust learning and development portal offers numerous user-friendly tools to help consolidate and automate training programs. The best LMS will come equipped with several social learning tools, including social networks; peer learning and sharing opportunities like forums and discussion groups; virtual classrooms; and video tutorials.

You may recall that a key part of social learning definition includes the use of rewards and incentives. Likewise, the LMS has gamification features built into it which are designed to motivate employees to master the material – while having fun along the way.

And in this age of COVID-19 with the rise of the remote worker, human resources departments are increasingly concerned about losing the social glue that keeps their teams and employees operating as a cohesive group. What happens when members of your team no longer feel that they belong or are part of a larger community of employees? Their morale takes a hit and over time they become alienated and disconnected – and eventually may leave your organization.

This is a key reason we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of companies investing in an LMS. Even if employees are not physically working together, companies want them to build bridges for a cohesive team culture and workflow. In this new world, the ability to not just to work together – but to learn from each other – has never been more important. When you train employees to take independent responsibility for their own training journey and empower them with the best tools and technology and plenty of support, they have a way of rising to the occasion.


The social learning definition speaks to the importance of being not just social but connected and collaborative. Social learning theory reminds us that, even as we spend more time in our homes physically isolating – and becoming less connected to the community and each other – we are social animals. We have a need for connectedness and are in fact very dependent on each other. It’s part of being a human being.

Book a demo today to see how the World Manager LMS makes it easy to incorporate social learning into your training mix.

Disclaimer: This information is meant to provide general guidelines and should be used as a reference. It may not take into account all relevant local, state or federal laws and is not a legal document. Neither the author nor World Manager will assume any legal liability that may arise from the use of this information.

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