Why Build Personal Learning Networks

Why Build Personal Learning Networks
Summary: In this era of constant flux and uber connectivity, one way we can remain relevant as individuals and as organizations is to make continuous learning a part of our DNA. An effective way to achieve this is taking onus of our personal development by building Personal Learning Networks (PLNs).

Why Personal Learning Networks Are Important

An organization’s ability to learn at the pace of change is its key to survival in today’s world of constant churn. We all know that the changes wrought by the five forces –forces of technology, globalization, demography and longevity, restructuring of society, and depleting energy resources– are rapidly rendering a world that is complex, interwoven, and deeply connected where the paradigms of how we navigate are undergoing irreversible changes. The dictum of Chaos Theory as described by the Butterfly Effect is finally coming true. A flutter of a butterfly’s wing can literally and metaphorically cause a typhoon halfway round the world. In the context of this ecosystem, organizations are floundering unable to keep pace with the flux hitting them on all fronts. Those that are not merely surviving but thriving are doing so because they have learned to make continuous “learning” and adaptability a part of their organization’s DNA. This article will focus on how to facilitate learning at individual and organizational level by building Personal Learning Networks.

There have been paradigm shifts in what defines an organization in the 21st Century. It is no longer just a brick and mortar building where employees file in at 9:00 am and out at 5:00 pm and are deemed to do work in between. A vast majority of organizations today are globally scattered, spanning continents and time zones. Employees may or may not come into a specific location to do their work. Work is thus becoming location agnostic – more so under the combined forces of Social, Mobile, and Cloud, and of course ubiquitous connectivity. Employers are promoting anytime, anywhere work policy as a means to attract talent. Employees are no longer necessarily on the roll, full time employees. They include contractors, freelancers, interns, vendors, partners, and more. All of this is further complicated by the nature of work today. The ordinary, the mundane, and the routine tasks are being automated or soon will be.

This leaves the creative, innovative, and complex challenges that require human interventions. What this further implies is that individuals must be able to make sense, problem solve, and come together to unravel these complex challenges, which typically require a multitude of diverse skills and domain knowledge. This makes collaboration paramount for the survival of any organization and for individuals to stay relevant in today’s world.

Building Personal Learning Networks

Thus, in its own interest, an organization must facilitate and create the conditions for people to collaborate, learn from each other, and build a network within and without to remain on the cutting edge of their practices and domains. Given that teams are often distributed, employees work onsite or from home and road warriors are always “on the road”. In short, the concept of teams working shoulder to shoulder every day, literally and metaphorically standing by each other, talking over problems and challenges at their desks, is slowly being replaced by virtual teams who interact via social tools and platforms, use Webex for meetings, and update each other via enterprise social networks and WhatsApp. This is why the skill of being able to build one’s Personal Learning Network is essential. It’s time for everyone to take charge of their own professional development. One of the ways to keep on top of our game, and remain on the cutting edge of relevant skills and knowledge, is to be a part of communities of practices and to focus on building and maintaining our Personal Learning Networks with a deliberate intention to learn, share, and collaborate.

A Personal Learning Network can be seen as one's gateway to continuous learning, exchange of thoughts and ideas, validation of one's thoughts and insights on challenges encountered, and an involvement in the process of continuous inquiry and exploration on topics that matter. In today's context rising complexity and diminishing shelf-life of knowledge, it is not possible for an organization to provide training for every conceivable skill that may be required. Moreover, since a large part of the skills and knowledge required to handle tasks and problems today are emergent, the possibility of training gets ruled out. Training is essentially past focused preparing workers for known skills and bridging known knowledge gaps to meet known and defined goals. What happens when the knowns become unknowns? What happens when speed and innovation are the keys to success?

In this context, let's take a look at one of the principal models of building Personal Learning Networks through Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) as propounded by Harold Jarche. I have included the diagram here for reference:

Harold Jarche's Model of PKM

An analysis of the diagram above reveals that there are primarily 5 steps in the entire Personal Learning Network building process: Explore, Collect, Review, Re-create, Share. I would also like to emphasize that a Personal Learning Network is intricately linked to one's personal knowledge management (PKM) capabilities. The former wouldn't make sense without the latter.

With complexity, chaos, and fluidity taking over and becoming the norm, we can expect codified knowledge stocks to have very short shelf-lives. A constant state of flux is giving rise to ambiguity, complexity, uncertainties, and volatility – the characteristics of a VUCA world. We have moved from an age of best practices to emerging practices and no one can be intelligent on their own any more. In this kind of a scenario, learning and sense-making happen through reflection, dialogue, and communities.

Characteristics Of Personal Learning Networks

One of the hallmarks of an effective Personal Learning Network is its diversity. Diverse here denotes cognitive diversity – arising from different world-views, cultural perspectives, varied educational background, and possessing different problem-solving frameworks and heuristics. A Personal Learning Network of diverse individuals not only helps to hold up widely different viewpoints on the same challenge, but also broadens and deepens one's learning. Diversity of thoughts and ideas are the best precursors to innovative and creative solutions and complex problem solving. In the absence of cognitive diversity, a Personal Learning Network can quickly degenerate into group think and homophily.

Another characteristic of Personal Learning Networks is their combination of strong ties and weak ties. Exchanging of deep and tacit knowledge, i.e., knowledge which is not codified and where learning happens through the process of dialogue and reciprocity, typically works with strong ties based on deep trust. Weak ties bring in the much needed variety of beliefs and opinions. To be able to build and leverage our Personal Learning Networks in the most effective manner, we also need a new set of skills.

What Are The Skills Needed To Build Personal Learning Networks?

Building one's Personal Learning Network in the online world requires skills like networking, participating in communities of practices, working out loud and collaborating, and curation and aggregation to process the information. While developing the skills do take some effort and persistence, the benefits are tremendous. Tools and platforms act as facilitators and knowing how to use them is important. But it is our attitude that makes interacting with our Personal Learning Networks fruitful and satisfying. It requires engagement, reflection, and effort. It is also a state of mind. People with a growth mindset and a curious disposition are likely to invest time and effort in building and maintaining a Personal Learning Network, because they believe that there is always an opportunity to learn more, to improve, and explore. A Personal Learning Network is a location and time agnostic community for exchange of learnings and ideas in a safe environment. It is accessible all the time. We can post a question on Twitter or any other social networking platform, and be assured of a response.

Final Thoughts

In this collaborative economy, sharing is a much valued trait and one of the pillars of building a Personal Learning Network. One cannot hope to receive without giving first. Networks have a profound impact on how we learn as defined by the principles of Connectivism. Establishing credibility with one's network is essential. Credibility arises out of constancy in:

  • Sharing useful content. 
  • Interacting respectfully. 
  • Valuing and expressing gratitude for help received. 
  • Reaching out and helping others pro-actively. 
  • Not being afraid to be vulnerable.
    It's absolutely OK to say "I don't know! Can someone help me with this?".

In a Personal Learning Network, everyone is a contributor, learner, as well as a teacher. By connecting meaningfully and authentically, we can build a broad and deep support system of colleagues, mentors, and coaches. A Personal Learning Network is a two-way street, and collaboration and cooperation drive its spirit.