Learning through social networks

Last year I put down some working definitions in the field of performance and learning:

My own working definitions of these terms [these are not robust, dictionary definitions, but just my own way of putting each term], which I often discuss here and with clients are:

Performance – something measurable and observable to achieve an agreed-upon objective.

Performance Support – tools and processes that support the worker in the desired performance, including, but not limited to, job aids.

Training – an external intervention, designed only to address a lack of skills and/or knowledge.

Education – a process with its main aims of socialization, a search for truth and/or the realisation of individual potential.

Learning – an individual activity, though often within a social context, of making sense of our experiences.

I’d like to add in Peter Senge’s important clarifications on terms we often use:

Knowledge: the capacity for effective action. “Know how” is the  only aspect of knowledge that really matters in life.

Practitioner: someone who is accountable for producing results.

I had said that learning remains an individual activity, with all of the variables of the human experience and much less clearly defined or controlled than education or training. I also recommended that organizations should get out of the learning business and focus on performance. Organizations can direct performance but they should only support learning. Individuals should be directing their own learning.

Senge’s presentation last week gave me cause to reflect on this. He said that individual learning in organizations is irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Therefore, social networks are the conduit for effective organizational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organization (my conclusion).

To reduce these thoughts to their essence, I would say:

Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks. The rest is just window dressing.

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed[Charles Darwin]

5 Responses to “Learning through social networks”

  1. lachim

    I think that lots of companies focus on things you mention, they are really good at things they’re doing for example : Content Value did great job to populate and supporting learning through social networks. Last time they published their demo courses for free on the webside. I think it was great work….you can check this here: http://contentvalue.pl/demo.html

  2. Ellen

    Harold — Doesn’t one have to have the “learning” part down before the “performance” can take place? Doesn’t the “learning” have to be completed — at some level — before useful collaboration can occur?

    Every time I read about the value of social networking in training/education for learners, I wonder how anyone can guarantee that’s what’s shared in a social network is the best information/guidance/training/etc.

    For example, I could post a question on LinkedIn and get all kinds of responses, but a fair number of them (maybe all) will be from parties with a vested interest in getting my attention — vendors selling products or services, for example. Certainly their input is going to be biased to their agenda.

    You write, “Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks. The rest is just window dressing.”

    Internal (white label) social networks will block, to some degree, the white noise of sales-speak, but who’s to say someone who’s highly engaged in the company’s learning network is someone who has his/her own agenda in play? What’s in place to prevent misinformation?

    Doesn’t the most effective learning via social networks occur when the participants share the same basic level of knowledge/training/skills? Otherwise, won’t there be a lot of repetition of fundamentals?

    Shouldn’t certain basics and fundamentals be covered via other elearning delivery modes (stand-alone tutorials, for example) to keep the social networks from getting bogged down?

    Seems to me some “window dressing” is necessary, as long as the workforce consists of individuals with different levels of knowledge and skills.

    What do you think, Harold?

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks very much for your comment, Ellen. First, I would say that learning through social networks does not mean just setting up some social networking software platform. Social networks are many and various, and are not necessarily technology-mediated. My main point is that learning spreads best through social networks, so let’s understand and support their use. I’ve yet to see my social networks get bogged down with too much information. Social networks are a key way that I deal with information abundance as I can connect to the right person who can make sense of an issue for me.

      Each complex problem requires different base skills. Critical thinking would be a base skill for most complex problems, but I haven’t seen a workplace training program that actually helps people develop these skills. Furthermore, if work is evaluated correctly, we don’t have to be concerned with how people learn, but whether they can do the job. Employees aren’t told how to eat, so what gives anyone the right to tell them how to learn?

      I think that the training & education professions have for too long focused on the easy stuff – content dissemination. That’s the window dressing. The tough stuff is designing work systems that facilitate social learning, are transparent and provide multiple feedback loops.


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