Social Learning Theory in the Workplace

Many enterprises are abandoning more traditional learning methods in favor of social learning strategies that utilize online learning, mentorship and social learning. Executives are finding that social learning is an easier and faster way to change undesirable behaviour, build a positive and productive work ethic and enhance employee skills.

While there is still a need for more traditional learning methods and environments, organizations are increasingly seeing value and results after deploying social and informal learning platforms where employees can network and collaborate to solve enterprise issues. While not a new concept, social learning theory is gaining traction quickly and promises to be the way of the future. But what is social learning theory, and how are enterprises applying social learning theory in the workplace?

What is Social Learning Theory?

Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, social cognitive learning theory is a process that takes place when employees interact, observe or receive direct instruction in a social or information context, even in the absence of traditional instruction and reinforcement, or even physical reproduction of the task. The theory is based on social studies of human development, which largely relies on visual, spoken or kinesthetic learning styles to grasp new information, which is then applied to daily tasks at home and at the office.

Bandura based his social learning theory on a common-sense approach to learning, watching how we interact naturally with our peers and society, and adopting the most effective information conveyance methods. His research suggests that 70% of a person’s learning happens through personal experience, 20% through interactions with peers, and  10% in instructor-led classroom environments.

5 Principles of Social Learning Theory

There are 5 principles of social learning generally accepted as part of Bandura’s theory. Let’s explore each principal and how it contributes to the overall theory, and ultimately, the success of employees.

1. Observation

The most important element of social learning theory is observation of others behaviours, and then imitation of them. According to Bandura, observation is just the first step, requiring the rest of the four mediational processes to really sink in and take effect.

2. Attention

Focus is critical to social cognitive learning theory, as we obviously can’t learn without paying attention. The learning must ensure that they are distracted or attempting to multitask, to ensure the quality of learning through observation. The behavior we want the learner to imitate should have their total attention, with no outside factors or distractions.

3. Retention

Humans retain information by internalizing it and filing it away in their subconscious. Many find that they can instantly recall similar situations and even respond automatically, with very little front-brain thought at all. By combining observation and attention, we ensure that the learner has the best chance of retention of information.


4. Reproduction

The next step is reproducing the behavior, skills or knowledge that we observed, focused on, and then retained. The more times you reproduce the behavior, the faster your mental and physical response will be in the next similar situation.

Following these steps is important to social learning theory, but doesn’t provide a 100% guarantee that the person will be able to recreate the behavior. Physical limitations could keep the employee from reproducing the behavior, while the employee has a perfectly wonderful understanding of the process.

5. Motivation

Motivation is the final step, and necessary for humans to do anything at all. Just like animals, humans are often motivated by an outside entity offering a reward or punishment for acting or not acting. Our experience is what often motivates us to act, or remain still.

All the previous steps would be impossible without the will to act, making motivation one of the most important principles of social learning theory. It’s important to ensure that the learner has both positive reinforcement and consequences, to motivate them to observe, learn, retain and reproduce.

For more information on social learning theory, and how it’s applied by professionally trained learning consultants, reach out to SkillSource, learning strategy and social learning gurus.

How is Social Learning Theory Applicable to the Workplace?

Social learning in the workplace might sound like a complex adjustment, especially if you’ve typically relied on traditional, instructor-led training. A few of the recommended strategies proven to successfully introduce and implement social learning theory in the workplace include:


  • FAQs and forums: create a digital platform where employees can collaborate on learning projects or ask questions and get answers from their peers within the organization.
  • Leverage expert knowledge: Make industry experts within your business available to learners by opening up a channel of communication that makes it easy for learners to ask questions and get information. Make this expertise available to anyone with a will to learn and encourage all experts within your organization to participate regularly.
  • Gamification and rewards: Gamifying the learning process and offering rewards for learning and applying material is a proven method of getting buy-in and encouraging people to perform at their highest level. Adding a level of competition to the learning process makes it fun, provides successful learners with confidence, and motivates slower learners to keep working hard.
  • Organization wikis: An inter-organizational wiki is a great place to store knowledge and information for staff and students. It’s critical to update this information as often as possible to keep it fresh and exciting for motivated learners. A forgotten wiki is forgotten knowledge. This also allows students to learn at their own speed and in their own free time, freeing them up to be more productive.
  • Make onboarding faster (and easier): Use the onboarding process to connect new employees to mentors, or encourage them to participate in your social learning program within the workplace. Encourage them to start using your learning platforms from day one, to ensure that new people don’t need to wait to start being productive.
  • Ask questions and get answers: Create an environment conducive to the open exchange of ideas by asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions. Working together to share information and test solutions in real-time is one of the most effective learning methods on record.
  • Get everyone to contribute: While there are different learning styles, everyone should be encouraged to participate in social learning, even passive learners. By mixing your social learning program with peer to peer activities and digital or virtual channels, you can ensure that even shy or passive learners participate without going too far outside their comfort zone.
  • Show off your talent: Create a platform for learners to share their new talents or skills, and interact with senior team members who might like to help take them to the next level. This is a great way of encouraging social learning, but also gives businesses a great pool of talent, ready and motivated to go farther within the organization.  
  • Establish an organizational culture of learning: Focusing on establishing an education-centric company culture is a great way to attract the best, smartest and most inspired talent to your company. Employees that seek you out for your learning and education opportunities are the employees who will be the future of your company someday.
  • Implement a mentorship program to support social learning: Mentors are a great source of information and advice, and the right mentors will model the type of behaviour you want your company to be known for. Putting employees directly in touch with managers and upper level executives via a mentor program will ensure staff always have a place to ask questions, learn and grow, and upper level executives know who is working for them, and how their unique skills are valuable to the business as a whole.
  • Encourage employee communication and connectivity: Build a close team by encouraging employees to communicate and work together to complete projects, learn and develop their skills. Using platforms like Skype, Slack, Basecamp, and social media channels to connect employees is a great way to ensure they not only communicate easily, but enjoy the process of communication.

All learning can be broken down into either implicit learning, where you learn without conscious effort, and explicit learning where you consciously participate in the learning process. Social learning theory ensures that both types of learners are encouraged, supported, and ultimately, successful at their roles. Deploying a social learning strategy in the workplace will ensure employee satisfaction, upward mobility, and even future financial success.