Innovation through network learning


I’ve really appreciated the many posts where Tim Kastelle and I have connected by sharing ideas. Tim says that innovation is the process of idea management, which makes sense to me. Andrew Hargadon expands on this:

In short, innovation is about connecting, not inventing. No idea will make a difference without building around it the networks that will support it as it grows, and the network partners with which it will ultimately flourish. Here Thomas Edison’s real genius can be seen … Shifting the central activity of innovation from ‘having an idea’ to seeing and building the networks shifts the attention from thinking to the actions required to build the network that will realize the idea.

Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about connecting and nurturing ideas. As Steven Johnson says, “Chance favours the connected mind.” This requires a network mindset. It also requires an understanding of the greater environment.

In Innovating in the Great Disruption, Scott Anthony suggests three disciplines necessary to foster innovation in our challenging economic times – placing a premium on progressmastering paradox; and learning to love the low end. He also discusses the importance of learning:

Innovators will need to continue to find creative, cheap ways to bring their ideas forward. Fortunately, they can tap into a plethora of powerful tools to facilitate rapid learning.

Tim Kastelle introduced me to the concept of Aggregate-Filter-Connect for innovation, which I used for personal knowledge management (network learning) and later changed it to Seek-Sense-Share. Innovation is inextricably linked to both networks and learning. That’s why the skills for learning in networks are essential for business today. We need to innovate to stay ahead in a rapidly changing world. The rules are constantly changing. Just as we get used to new business models like Amazon or Google, someone like Alvis Bigis knits together an excellent piece on how American business needs to get social. Discussing, he says; “Never before has a company reached $2 billion in annual revenue in just 2 years time.” Who knows what’s next?

Network Learning

Being an effective network learner is a basic skill for any knowledge worker today, and that’s pretty well anyone who wants to earn more than minimum wage. Network learning is also the foundation of collaboration. We know that collaboration is becoming critical for business, as Deb Lavoy notes:

Our wicked challenges [complex, entangled, multifaceted hairballs] require the diversity and experience of teams, as well as their ability to tap into and integrate new ideas and information. Our solutions will be tried and transient, keeping pace with the challenges they are meant to solve. A team with a bit of sense and technology can consistently outperform one corporate genius or the world’s most powerful computer in working through a wicked(ish) problem.

I now take for granted my network learning processes, using social bookmarking; blogging and tweeting, and these habits make collaboration much easier. However, these habits and practices have taken several years to develop and may not come easily to many workers. One difficult aspect of adopting network learning in an organization is that it’s personal. If not, it doesn’t work. Everybody has to develop their own methods, though there are frameworks and ideas that can help.

Here are some questions that network learning can address:

How do I keep track of all of this information?

How do I make sense of changing conditions and new knowledge?

How can I develop and improve critical thinking skills?

How can we cooperate?

How can I collaborate better?

How can I engage in problem-solving activities at the edge of my expertise?

My own personal learning journey took several years to transition to a network learner and my article on Network Learning: Working Smarter (2010) summarizes what I’ve learned, so far, on the subject.

Innovation & Learning

The connection between innovation and learning is evident. We can’t be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work. It sounds easy, but it’s a major cultural change. Why? Because it questions our basic, Taylorist, assumptions about work; assumptions like:

A JOB can be described as a series of competencies that can be “filled” by the best qualified person.

Somebody in a classroom, separate from the work environment, can “teach” you about a job requirement.

The higher you are on the “org chart”, the more you know.

Need I list more?

7 Responses to “Innovation through network learning”

  1. Brent MacKinnon

    Thanks for putting this summary on network learning (with links) together Harold. I am totally with you on your points. I’m trying to convince our local college to introduce social media/digital literacy in the workplace for their community, social service and youth worker programs. I will use the network learning in future discussions – if I have any future discussions. So far all I get are “it’s nice but not really important enough”.


    • Harold Jarche

      Here’s the short pitch: If you don’t organize as a network and you don’t have learning embedded with the work, then your organization won’t be able to deal with the next major change thrust upon it.

  2. Oriol Miralbell

    Harold, Great post. I’m doing my research on informal learnning in virtual communities of professionals (case study tourism profesisonals)using online social media. Here are my answers to your questions:
    How do I keep track of all of this information?
    Casuistic and random activity of network members fosters casual innovation. Connective learning practices by Siemens and Downes are open and flexible to foster this casuality
    How do I make sense of changing conditions and new knowledge?
    Social intelligence exists and lets knowledge leaders identify critical knowledge
    How can I develop and improve critical thinking skills?
    Practice spreads new culture of sharing knowledge. Need to discriminate critical knowledge fosters critical thinking skills
    How can we cooperate?
    Cooperation is human characteristic. Social networks build their own cooperation rules.
    How can I collaborate better?
    Improving collaboration is also consequence of practicing and of essential values: trust, confidence, cohesion, sense making, and openness
    How can I engage in problem-solving activities at the edge of my expertise? Just, sharing it with others and letting them feel part of your project.
    This are mu insights. Hope you find any sense iin it.

  3. David Koehn

    The term “network learning” is interesting to me.

    Why don’t people connect inside their current organization with people formerly in their role?

    In the learning they are undertaking?

    With people who went to the same school they did?

    With those who want to achieve the same career goals?

    From a unified profile made visible as the hub of interaction in social learning, the workplace opens up because now instead of people seeing their world as a job role with colleagues and a manager, they see their workplace as a world of connections to people who share their experiences.

    For example:
    • If I am a new hire, then I may want to connect to recent new hires.
    • If am taking on a new role, I can access people across the organization who currently or previously held my role.
    • Through “alumni” of different types, I can pursue the learning that was most effective for those before me and I can discover learning experiences that interest me most.

    Great post. Has anyone connected the behavior of High Performers to Network Learning behavior?

    What we see is that high performers have figured who to ask and what to ask to accelerate their success.

    Enabling this is what I think is so exciting about the Social Learning framework

  4. Harold Jarche

    “a unified profile made visible as the hub of interaction” Oh brave new social world!

    I agree that enabling connections is part of the social enterprise framework but it does not require a unified platform or a single point of access, as that creates a single point of failure as well as a lack of flexibility for DIY or hacking as learning.

  5. Geoffrey Morton-Haworth

    In IT Jargon, it is called “peer-to-peer communication” when those at the edges of a network talk directly to each other

    Peer-to-peer communication is the process which allows computers to trade information between one another. In a peer-to-peer network each computer has equal status and control, is both a “client” and a “server”. Each computer has the same capabilities and either can start to communicate to the other.

    Thus independent intelligent devices make their own decisions without the need or delay of using an intermediate, central or “master” controller. Eliminating the master (a single point of failure) improves the system’s reliability and reduces its cost. But this lateral communication still requires some kind of hierarchy to work efficiently.

    In theory peer-to-peer networks need no structure at all, but such networks are rare. In an unstructured network each request for information must spread through the network by asking as many peers as possible if they have the data. Popular information is likely to be available in many places but the search for data held by few is unlikely to succeed. There is no relationship between a peer and the information it manages, and there is no guarantee that bombarding the network with queries will work. It merely floods the network with traffic and makes it inefficient.

    A structured peer-to-peer network overcomes such limitations by making each peer responsible for certain information and maintaining a table of contents. The network uses this table to keep track of who is responsible for what. When someone wants information, the network looks up who is responsible for that data and directs the search to them. Inquiries are far more likely to succeed.

    If it seems odd that hierarchy should aid non-hierarchical communication, consider the Internet’s own Domain Name Service (DNS). This is a basic tool of the Internet, though to a user it is invisible. This is how it works. The Internet needs a code–the Internet Protocol (IP)–to tell it where a message comes from and where to send it. The code takes the form of numbers, like The DNS computers give these codes, called IP addresses, other names that are easier to remember. For example, the IP address is named Each DNS “server” then transmits this information to all the other DNS servers around the world. Everyone who uses the Internet depends on the DNS hierarchy.

    In an intriguing article, called “Improving Capabilities Through Industry Peer Networks” in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Sgourev and Zuckerman highlight the way that managers at smaller regional companies in the United States are using networks of non-competing peers to stay abreast of industry trends and to counter myopic business practices and inertia. They identify five key practices: membership of multiple groups of noncompeting peers, selective admission, face-to-face group meetings, detailed discussion of management issues, and sharing of financial data.

    Thus the same concepts of peer-to-peer communication, that have helped experts in information technology to manage the rapidly-changing relationships in distributed computer networks, can help us manage person-to-person communication in the complex relationships of business and the community.


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