Social Learning Capability

In the Academic BEtreat that I recently attended online and which I have been blogging about for a few days now (#betreat12) Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, shared their most thinking around the idea of social learning capability. This is ongoing work. Etienne first wrote about it in 2009  – Essays on Social Learning Capability 

My understanding of social learning capability from the discussions in the Academic BEtreat is that the ideas initially arose from a recognition that many communities of practice exist with little question of whether they are increasing the learning capability of the community.

In addition, as the affordances of Web 2.0 increase the possibilities of working across boundaries of communities of practice, the landscapes of practice of communities and across communities has become very complex. There is a need to look at the social learning capability of the whole system – to start thinking systematically.

‘Taking such a systemic view is especially critical at a time when global challenges are placing unprecedented demands on our ability to learn together. Developing social learning capability across sectors may be urgent, but it is still an elusive aspiration. We need a social discipline of learning.

Making sense of social learning capability is the great challenge of learning theory in the 21st century.’ (

Considering the work of communities of practice as a landscape of practice working within and across landscapes of practice brings with it many challenges, since very few people can see the whole landscape. We are always local, always on the hills of the landscape, always in the practice. But it will become increasingly necessary to work across landscapes of practice, as communities of practice cross borders and boundaries to work together.

A complex landscape

One of the biggest challenges is in the tensions that exist between vertical and horizontal accountability in the system. This is an inherent geographical problem since we can only connect with a certain number of people. So accountability is on both dimensions, but the relationship between them is often dysfunctional. The horizontal has to be negotiated with the vertical and recent work by Etienne and Bev suggests that there is a need for transversality i.e. people, process, practices and objects that can increase the visibility of the horizontal into the vertical and vice versa.

Vertical and horizontal accountability

The vertical is not demonised in this thinking. It serves a different function, and as shown in the diagram there is the horizontal in all levels of the vertical. Currency in the vertical is often measures/numbers because these travel easily from one practice to another and it is sometimes necessary to verticalise a discussion because it simplifies things and saves time on negotiation. A dysfunctional community, which is not increasing social learning capability, may need verticalisation. But in the horizontal, numbers and measures can ‘mess things up’ and the cost of verticalising accountability is in innovation.

Critical to transversality will be our ability to act as learning citizens and social artists.

‘Learning capability – or the ability to learn – is a paradoxical aspiration because learning by itself does not guarantee learning capability. Sometimes being successful at learning is precisely what prevents you from learning the next thing. When applied to social systems, learning capability depends on the learning capability of individuals, but in the context of the structure of the system in which they live. Networking, convening new social learning spaces, brokering across boundaries, acting as learning citizens and social artists – these are the kinds of interventions that have the potential to increase social learning capability at a systemic level.’

Social learning spaces….

‘……enable genuine interactions among participants, who can bring to the learning table both their experience of practice and their experience of themselves in that practice.’ (

Learning citizens know how to engage in social learning spaces, know when to disengage from a learning space and move on, know how to work across boundaries and between spaces and know how to convene a community of practice.

Social artists know how to open learning spaces and invite learning citizenship. They are social yet intentional, collaborative yet wilful, idealistic yet pragmatic. (see and Wenger, E. (2009). Social learning capability Four essays on innovation and learning in social systems)

I have written about social artists before – Social Artistry – a new idea? , but I now realise that it makes more sense to think about social artistry in terms of networking rather than teaching.

But social learning capability is about more than just networking. A social theory of learning is about identity, meaning and practice. In this sense it differs from connectivism or networked learning. Learning citizenship, social artistry and increasing social learning capability have an ethical dimension and a different view of the landscape of practice.

(Images from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner)

11 thoughts on “Social Learning Capability

  1. Scott Johnson August 10, 2012 / 4:24 am

    Hi Jenny,
    Thanks for the link to “Essays on Social Learning Capability.” This quote seems really useful for a communication project we are doing at work:

    “Knowledge is not a separate object from the people who produced it or even the process of producing it.”

    There’s been a lot of change and accompanying horror stories at our college and the first thought was to bring in consultants to create a new communication policy. First the consultants were unimpressive, formulaic and too costly; second since the negative stories and rumors were created locally why not engage this creative talent in repairing them? Turning it into a listening and learning process appropriate to the school’s mandate. (And in the process learn something important about the culture and its biases that created the stories in the first place. What truths are hiding within them too).

    Social learning seems pretty useful here. What is learned from being told from outside what needs fixing? Without participation locally what suggestions would take root anyway?

    Another quote found accidentally while reading something from Gallop polling:

    “Feedback for Real”
    >Lieske Robbert, Head of Human Resources for Swissôtel, says some of the highest engagement and customer-satisfaction scores for the entire chain are to be found in the laundry operation in Istanbul, and in the room-service operation at the Swissôtel Cairo. But each laundry operation and room-service crew in the hotel chain has to strive in its own way.

    “Whatever those people in Istanbul room service are doing, I guarantee that it would not be acceptable for room service in New York City to imitate it,” Robbert says. “We like to share successes, but we don’t want people to copy others’ behavior. Because if model behaviors were simply reproduced, it could give the wrong message. We want people to do it [find improvements] themselves, in a way that is natural, instinctual, not to follow a process.”<


  2. jennymackness August 10, 2012 / 6:46 am

    Hi Scott – thanks for these really interesting comments and for sharing your experiences and practice.

    You have reminded me that knowledge creation in relation to social learning theory is something I have not yet written about. It did crop up at the BEtreat in relation to a number of topics and it is covered in Etienne’s 1998 book, but I haven’t thought it through properly yet.

    It’s interesting to think about whether social learning theory can be used as a change management tool – which is how I read what you have written. My experience of the situation you describe, i.e. where significant change in an institution has brought about a breakdown in communication, is that it is more than the communication that has broken down – it is trust. Restoring an ethos of trust can be a very lengthy process. Obviously though, people have to start talking and listening to each other to start this process. Sometimes though it can be difficult to know where to begin.


  3. roy williams August 10, 2012 / 9:33 am

    mmm… social learning spaces, or better still, social artistry, should be added to the factors that need to be taken into account in learning landscapes, see for instance the forthcoming paper in IRRODL on Footprints of Emergence. It adds more than just ‘ethics’, also artistry and ‘elegance’ to one’s participation in a learning landscape. Ailsa ( is an excellent exponent of ‘elegance’.

  4. jennymackness August 12, 2012 / 7:53 am

    Hi Roy – thanks for posting the link to Ailsa’s blog here. I agree that it is ‘an excellent exponent of ‘elegance’.’

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