Published On: April 17, 2018By
Social Learning for Associations - What to expect from a modern LMS to support learning for your members?

Social learning.  It is essential for any association learning management system (LMS).  Yet no one can define “social learning” in a nutshell, because there is no universally accepted meaning.  In truth, it should be what your organization needs it to be.

As LMS consultants, we’ve helped many different types of associations define their learning technology requirements.  Almost always, we find association leaders who are unsure about precisely where social functionality should fit into their learning strategies, and which social features are best for their members’ needs.  But they know they need it, and they know when it works!

Increasingly, we see member-based organizations investing in association-wide community platforms like Higher Logic and then later integrating it with an LMS.  This means many associations are wrestling with fundamental questions at the intersection of social and learning:

  • One social system or two?
  • Public social media vs. private association social learning?
  • Social inside the LMS or in an independent, proprietary system?
  • Social at the member, group or content level?
  • Social for some or all learners?

There are no obvious correct answers.  But if you’re among the association professionals who aren’t yet “all in” with social learning, I have good news.  Successful deployment and adoption are likely to be much easier than you might expect.

The technology is getting better and easier to implement and use.  What’s more, learners are familiar with the benefits of social interactions outside of learning flows, so they usually welcome the change.  This makes it possible to develop a compelling business case for simple or highly sophisticated social learning solutions and world-class associations are no longer waiting to invest.

For example, Arleen Thomas, Managing Director of CGMA certification at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) recently launched a high-end learning solution based on extensive research her organization conducted to understand audience interests, business needs and learning preferences.

In a recent podcast interview with me, Arleen explained why social learning will play a more prominent role, going forward:

“When we launched, social networking wasn’t built in.  But it’s part of our 2018 product roadmap because our target audience…wants to be engaged, and they want to control that engagement through social capabilities.”

Social learning means many different things to many different people, so let’s take a step back, define our terms and then we’ll briefly look at the most attractive social learning features.  Finally, we’ll outline several compelling benefits for member-based organizations.

What Is Social Learning for Associations?

Think of the many ways we learn by observing and interacting with others – both in person and through digital experiences.  Informal discussions, knowledge sharing and other types of peer-to-peer and group communication enrich learning for individuals as well as the community, overall.

Associations are ideal for social learning because they’re designed to foster networking and interaction among professionals with common interests.

Well-designed LMS features can extend to online forums the kind of social learning that naturally occurs at conferences and chapter meetings.  At the same time, these social tools can support formal continuing education and certification programs.

Social Learning Features THAT Associations Love

Ideally, social learning capabilities should foster engagement, collaboration, learning reinforcement and career performance support for members throughout their relationship with your organization.

The best learning systems provide social functionality both within the LMS environment and within learning content:

Social Features in the LMS Environment

These features should be available within the system, even when a user is not directly consuming any learning content:

  • Learner profiles, pictures and social media-style activity “walls”
  • Ability to rank and review content (e.g. Amazon-like star ratings, eBay-like comments)
  • Ability to post, share and recommend content to others
  • Content tagging and following functions, for easy content categorization, retrieval and lifelong learning
  • Ability to see popular content by ranking, at-a-glance (e.g. most popular, highly rated or newly released content)
  • Ability to follow content streams, discussions, groups of other learners or topics
  • Learning communities that connect members with similar interests
  • Ability to post learning progress, achievements or awards to personal social media accounts
  • Social sign-on capabilities let unidentified learners use their Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter or other social accounts to gain instant access to free or freemium content access

Social Features in the Content Experience

Look for these features to support the learning process for a particular instructional content item, learning program or certification process:

  • Tools that enable learners and facilitators to interact with one another, with cohorts and with classes
  • Ability to upload learner-generated content or assignments for group or facilitator review
  • Ability to create working groups and break out sessions in virtual meetings
  • Interactive “players” for video and PDFs that allow intra-content discussion, notes, embedded links to resources — at different points in the content
  • Find-the-Expert function – people search and communication via chat, thread and email
  • Leaderboards that encourage friendly competition

The lists above are not exhaustive, and you may find that some systems overlap these capabilities to serve both LMS-level and content-level social needs.  Plus, keep in mind that LMS vendors tend to update social capabilities fairly often, to reflect broader social technology trends.

So when evaluating social learning capabilities for your association, be prepared to test many features that may not be directly comparable across systems.

It’s also worth remembering that mobility is fundamental to any modern learning environment.

In an era where professionals expect to switch seamlessly between laptops, smartphones and other mobile devices, a mobile-friendly LMS is your best bet for social learning success.

Top 3 Benefits of Social Learning for Associations

Over the last four years, we’ve helped dozens of associations choose an LMS with social capabilities.  These are the most common outcomes:

1) Social Learning Engages Members

Although classroom learning is effective, it can also be transactional.  Members enroll in a class, complete it, and then move on.  Participation in social learning channels invites participants to engage with others on a continuous basis before, during and after they complete a course.

When applied effectively, social communications tools such as blogs and wikis can act as subject-matter knowledge repositories.  These reference sites can help existing members refresh their understanding of on a topic, while also serving as a fresh source of trusted insight for new members.

2) Social Learning Drives Member Attraction and Retention

Social behavior adds depth and dimension to any learning process.  Threaded discussion forums are an excellent way for learners to ask questions, share ideas and reinforce concepts presented during a class, conference or online event.

Discussion forums can also help avoid a sense of isolation for members involved in digital learning experiences.  They also provide natural networking opportunities, so participants can expand their professional circles.  These connections ultimately strengthen member loyalty and lifetime value by driving membership renewals.

3) Social Learning Creates a “Virtuous Cycle” of Motivation

During face-to-face interactions, we pick up social and contextual cues.  The same is true for online learning.  Interacting with others and discovering how they succeed is a powerful motivator for social learning participants.

Those who share their know-how, progress and achievements receive reinforcement.  At the same time, their visible success can influence others to engage in learning.


Associations can realize significant benefits by selecting an LMS that incorporates a solid mix of LMS-level and content-level social learning features.  However, every audience is unique, so for a strong fit, we recommend conducting preliminary research to find out which social learning channels and capabilities your members value most and will drive the most measurable value.

Social learning for associations is about understanding how your members interact as an ecosystem and offering learning experiences that support and improve your organization’s existing networking capability, culture and communication practices.

With so many other organizations offering continuing education, social learning can be a key competitive differentiator that keeps your members coming back year after year.

Thanks for reading!


Want to learn more?  Replay this on-demand webinar:

How to Build Successful Learning Experiences: Lessons From Non-Profits and Associations

Every association and non-profit organization is unique. Yet all share common goals – to engage, retain, inform and influence constituents. What exactly does it take to engage learners, support your brand and advance your mission?

Join John Leh, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning as he hosts a panel discussion with experts who have developed successful online education programs based on highly customized learning platforms:

  • Stephen Flatman, VP Examinations, AICPA
  • Seewan Eng, Sr. Director of Technology, New Teacher Center
  • Edward Daciuk, Principal Learning Strategist, ExtensionEngine

You’ll learn:

  • How to build a business case for moving in-person education online
  • What it takes to engage learners in an online environment
  • How to differentiate your organization through online learning
  • When to consider a custom platform that supports high-end learning experiences
  • Lessons learned in achieving internal buy-in, project momentum and organizational alignment.


Need Proven LMS Selection Guidance?

Looking for a learning platform that truly fits your organization’s needs?  We’re here to help!  Submit the form below to schedule a free preliminary consultation at your convenience.

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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