I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about personal learning networks (PLNs) and their relationship to organizational knowledge sharing and collaboration. Or maybe not so much thinking as observing. Observing the emergence of new PLNs.
PLNs are the result of an individual being a connected and effective digital, networked learner. For me personally, it’s a hand-crafted network. Individuals move in and out of my PLN as my learning needs evolve or new relationships develop. How you manage your PLN has a lot to do with your personal knowledge management habits and tools. Harold Jarche writes about this elegantly. Alison Seaman also bridges personal knowledge management and PLNs in her excellent take on the power of PLNs.
But I’m geeked about watching PLNs emerge. How they start to take shape. I’ve been lucky enough to have found a couple of good observation posts. And I am beginning to believe this is one of the most important things that we, as knowledge-sharing practitioners, need to wrap our heads around. It has implications for us all.
My first good observation post is the course I teach at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change (MSLOC) at Northwestern University. The course focuses on understanding Enterprise 2.0 technology in knowledge sharing and creation. It has always been an experiential course — let’s do E2.0 rather than just talk about it — but in the past year I’ve taught classes using a social technology platform as the learning environment. (MSLOC went off road, licensed a cloud-based, enterprise class social technology solution and is using it for all of our graduate courses. It has all but replaced our use of the university’s academic learning management system. Goodbye old-school threaded discussions. Hello activity streams.)
My second observation post gave me an insider’s look at a couple of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) during the past few months. Most interesting are the cMOOC’s (connectivist MOOC), which are designed with an explicit goal of encouraging network connections and sharing among participants. ETMOOC is a great example.
So: What is it that gets someone started on their journey toward using any of these social technologies to begin developing personal learning networks and knowledge sharing relationships?
My course relies heavily on our closed social platform with some occasional field trips into the wild via Twitter or blogging. The cMOOC’s rely heavily on any available web technology — Twitter, WordPress, Google+, live web video, etc. But let’s strip away the technology for a moment.
Last August, I suggested it was being brave enough to go half-baked. I was reflecting on the tension at the start of each new course session as the students figure out the norms of online participation. I wonder when and how they will move the online dialogue from “I am writing an academic assignment” to sharing thoughts and engaging in discussions in a way that shows some vulnerability. Vulnerability in the sense that students struggling to make sense of course concepts or ideas see the community as a place to work out their thinking.
A couple of students and I landed on the phrase “brave enough to go half-baked” to identify that point when someone crosses the threshold, trusts the community and shares half-baked thinking. When an individual student makes that leap positive things begin to happen. Someone comments on their half-baked thinking. A dialogue begins. Relationships evolve. And we have what might be the first link in a personal learning network.
I observed this same phenomenon in ETMOOC. The only difference is that it was totally out in the open with 2,000 individuals involved rather than 30 in a mostly-closed course. But the emerging PLNs seemed to begin in the same fashion: someone became brave enough to go half baked.
And when it works well people become transformed learners. They begin to behave online in ways that enrich their own personal development as well as the personal development of others. Reciprocity, after all, fuels the network.
Now imagine that this same dynamic existed among all the users of your enterprise social technology platform in your company. Transformed, networked, reciprocating learners. A dream, right? Most real enthusiasts for E2.0 are working hard toward fostering this kind of outcome. “Narrating your work” is a form of “brave enough to go half baked” in my mind. So we are all working on establishing the same foundation to get us to our desired outcomes.
Here is the challenge of half baked, revisited: The spark to light the PLN flame can begin either within the enterprise or out in the wild on the web. And the skills to become good at managing a PLN play equally well inside the enterprise and outside of it. Our PLNs, as well, will include people and resources inside and outside the enterprise.
Are we ready, as social technology enthusiasts, to deal with this mashup of E2.0 and PLNs? For any single individual within our organization, where does their inside-the-enterprise social network end and their PLN begin? Should we even care?
My sense, as an educator attempting to find his own path through this challenge, is that we need to begin focusing our attention on establishing a common understanding of digital literacy and citizenship as one of the next elements of organizational knowledge management. Our contract with the most effective knowledge workers — transformed, networked, reciprocating learners — will only be as good as our ability to abide by the same set of positive norms and practices that foster the emergence of PLNs in the first place.