Technology can bring us together, but cultural differences can drive us apart: as organisations increasingly make use of global social learning spaces, these challenges can come to the fore. So
what stance should we take towards difference in these online areas?
Whose rules apply as we drive forwards to a place where geographical barriers no longer keep us apart?
What path should we tread?
As we travel around the world, we find different attitudes towards gender equality, towards sexual preference, towards freedom of speech and human rights. This presents us with an interesting challenge: on the one hand, we want to come together to learn, but on the other, we are separated by fairly fundamental differences. Some of these issues are deeply personal, some are the subject of conflict and violence - these are the foundations upon which we build our moral and ethical standpoints, they are part of our very fabric. So what stance do we take?
Is the point of social learning to create a new, third space, with its own culture and norms, or is the point to help us explore these differences and come to a consensus? Or is it better to just ignore them and focus on the matter at hand?
I characterise these positions as either campaigning or pragmatic. The campaigning view is where we seek to explore difference and actively try to work towards agreement, or to influence others towards our point of view. It's a lively position to take and needs careful moderation to avoid moving into conflict. The pragmatic view relies on the Coca-Cola effect. For all of the diplomacy, conflict and posturing, the thing that ended the cold war was probably the desire of people the world over to drink Coca-Cola. Under the pragmatic approach, we focus on similarity and discover that, after all, having dialogue in some areas helps us to gradually expand our relationship and maybe just agree to differ in others. Or maybe, over time, see a new consensus emerge.
The flip side is that we may view this as moral cowardice: do I want to engage with a culture that stones women for infidelity? Or would I rather hide away and pretend it doesn't happen? Learning changes us but it requires disclosure, trust, and understanding. Are the barriers just too great to overcome in some of these spaces? Is it really possible to have a global learning culture?
I often describe social learning as the layers that surround the formal: it's semi formal, a place to play with and expand ideas. In social learning spaces the truth is developed by the group, meaning that we have to work together. We don't have to agree on everything, but we do have to have the discussion and document our narrative.
Another fascinating dimension to this is to consider how our attitude towards collectivism versus individualism shapes our approach and strategy. Whilst our western culture can champion the view that the role of the individual has primacy, other cultures focus on collectivism, where the aim is towards consensus and the primacy of the group. Dialogue between these two positions can be challenging, but this is the reality we face in global social learning spaces.
So here we are, in a world that gets ever smaller. As technology brings us together, enhances our ability to communicate, to share ideas and to learn together, the focus becomes how we behave in these spaces. Where are we brave, where do we co-operate, where are the challenges, how do we deal with conflict and, most of all, how do we come together? This is bound to be a bumpy ride, but it's better to consider our standpoint before we find ourselves out of our depth or lost in the high grass. It's a great opportunity.
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Julian Stodd is Director of eLearning for Marton House (a UK subsidiary of GP Strategies Ltd), specialising in the creation of dynamic and effective learning experiences. He created his Learning Blog in 2011 as a place to explore new ideas in learning. The blog is updated daily and has been well-received by a wide audience of learning and development professionals. He has also recently established Julian Stodd's Learning Forum on Linkedin and hosts regular webinars and podcasts around the subjects of electronic, mobile and social learning.Website: www.julianstodd.wordpress.com