Boost Onboarding through Social Learning Strategies


Accelerating time to competency, to productivity, to generating value for your organization: that’s the ultimate goal of new employee orientation.

To get a peek inside some of the most effective and recognized corporate onboarding programs, look to Training Magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame list. If you go to the HR or Learning and Development sites of these companies, you’ll find descriptions of multidimensional onboarding programs that include mixes of formal and informal learning, simulations and game-based activities, self-study and self-serve new hire portals, classroom-based and on-the-job training, manager coaching and leadership mentoring.

Many of the onboarding programs use personalized pathways that apply the mix of formal training and informal learning for a 4 to 6 month period. But what if you don’t have the personnel, budget, or time horizon to carry forth such a program?

Still, you need to get quickly to the nuts and bolts of on-the-job performance. For starters, there are three topics a new employee must become conversant in:

  • WHO we are –  Company mission, history, and philosophy
  • WHAT we do –  Business structures, processes, and technologies
  • HOW we do it –  Work practices and procedures

In essence, your employee needs a basic vocabulary and guide to your business.

The next critical step is to get that new hire talking with experienced employees: you’ve got to socialize and normalize the new hire into your team. Academically, it is called “enculturation.”  According to Wikipedia, “if successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values, and rituals of the culture.” Results in competence!

Time to competency is accelerated through social learning strategies. I often use this quote from John Seely Brown:

“The central issue in learning is becoming a better practitioner, not learning about practice.”

His statement so nicely draws together ideas on social and situated learning, and communities of practice into a plain-stated truth.

Your new employees’ performance depends most on their uptake of explicit and implicit norms of business interactions among leadership, management, coworkers, and clients/customers. You can hasten that learning curve.

Here are a few social learning strategies you can incorporate into an onboarding plan:

  • Assign a peer mentor to every new hire. Better yet, allow the new hire to choose his or her own mentor after 2 weeks on the job.
  • Pair new hires with with a top performer(s) for job shadowing.
  • Select a “phone a friend” or “email me” contact for new hires to ask questions. Also use social media like texting and blogging.
  • Organize a social hour for the team to meet and greet new hires. Informal connections can be made here.
  • Broaden your new hires’ cohort group by scheduling lunches with counterparts in other departments.