Great Social Learning Requires Great Design

Designing for social learning does not mean you simply combine a Twitter #hashtag with a training class and call it a day. There is much more to it than that. If you want to properly design a social learning intervention, you might consider looking into the foundations of communities of practice, a social theory of learning.

Source: Meeusesen & Berends, 2007
A social theory of learning is based on a series of trade-offs between the following elements:

Participation and Reification
Designed and Emergent
Identification and Negotiability
Local and Global

Participation and Reification: In order for learning to occur, there needs to be both conversation and available resources. According to Meeuwesen and Berends (2007) communities of practice (CoPs) involve a continuous interplay between participation and reification, which is called the ‘negotiation of meaning.’ Participation refers to taking part in communication, activities, or events and applies both to individuals and groups. Reification refers to the process of giving form to experience by  producing objects to signify that experience. Reification is about the crystallization and realization of ideas.

So...make sure you are designing the ability for people to both participation on conversations and to access, share, and create resources.

Designed and Emergent: CoPs involve an interaction between design and emergence. Although many do not believe it. CoPs can be designed. Many, including Wenger (1998) believe CoPs are emergent, can cannot necessarily be created, controlled and managed. However. the structural elements and the balances can be designed for, but they can only be realized emergently from the interactions of the community members (Meeuwesen & Berends, 2007). can design a CoP and for that matter, a social learning intervention, but not so tightly that the community cannot take it where it thinks it needs to go. Participants have power to decide where to take the CoP within the context of the domain and practice, and management should not try to control that.

Identification and Negotiability: Participation in CoPs involves the creation of identities for individuals through an interplay between identification and negotiation. Identification is responsible for creating different forms of membership. It allows one to associate oneself with events, groups, and things. Negotiation refers to the degree to which persons are able to reach an agreement on what value a given event, group, or thing has for them (Meeuwesen & Berends, 2007).

Like the trade off between designed and emergent, participants must be able to decide for themselves the level and nature of their membership in the group and also to determine for themselves the value each participate gains for themselves. In the end, participants, not the designer or management, is in control of interactions and what they mean.

Local and Global: CoPs interact with both the local and the global, which means they interact with members of the community (being co-located or geographically dispersed) but also interact with elements outside that community (Meeuwesen & Berends, 2007).

One practical manifestation of this trade-off is a private group on an enterprise social network (ESN). A private group can be created in which participants can discuss issues important to the group only. Participants can also have access to the greater organization ecosystem of individuals, groups, and communities in which and with which they can interact.

Good Social Learning Requires Good Design

All I am saying is that social learning is not a discussion group after a class or following a #hashtag on Twitter or any other permutation of using social media. In fact, none of that is any different that just picking up a book to learn something about a topic, which is a fine enough way to learn something. But if you want to create a learning environment in which people can interact with each other and learning something meaningful that can be put into practice, I suggest you consider using solid design principles that make for successful CoPs.


Meeuwesen, B., & Berends, H. (2007). Creating communities of practices to manage technological knowledge. European Journal of Innovation Management, 10(3), 333. doi: 10.1108/14601060710776743

Wenger, E. (1998).  Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.