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The role of social networks in learning

11.18.2013
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A major draw of enterprise social networks is that they foster, encourage and facilitate the kind of tacit knowledge exchange that tends to occur when we talk and help one another.

New research has explored the validity of this claim, and a wider exploration of the role social networks play in our learning capabilities.  The study, conducted by the University of British Columbia, revealed that the size of ones social network plays a big part in how much we learn.

It found that when our social network is larger, we open up the possibility of learning from many more people, most of whom are not officially tasked with teaching us anything.  What’s more, the study revealed that the larger the population size, and the more that population are connected, the better equipped it will be to develop sophisticated technologies and cultural knowledge.

“This is the first study to demonstrate in a laboratory setting what archeologists and evolutionary theorists have long suggested: that there is an important link between a society’s sociality and the sophistication of its technology,” says Muthukrishna, who co-authored the research with UBC Prof. Joseph Henrich.

The study saw participants attempting to learn various skills, including digital photo editing, before passing these skills on to the next group of participants. The groups with greater access to experts accumulated significantly more skill than those with less access to teachers. Within ten “hops” each member of the group with multiple mentors had stronger skills than the group limited to a single mentor.

Having a diverse group of people to tap for advice and expertise also ensured that the skills learned were retained for longer than in groups with fewer such mentors.  This ensured that cultural knowledge was more successfully passed down through generations.

Of course, such insights are possibly not all that surprising to those who work in the field of social learning, but sometimes having research confirm what we intuitively believe can be rather welcome.

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