Back in the 1950s and 60s, when you needed to make a photocopy at work or place a long-distance call to your counterpart in another city, you couldn’t walk up to the photocopy machine or telephone and do it yourself. A “trained” operator had to do it for you. Today, if there is a particular workplace challenge to overcome, you no longer have to wait for training. By leveraging your personal learning network to get the information you need, you can become instantly productive.
What is a Personal Learning Network (PLN)?
The idea behind a Personal Learning Network has its roots in a learning theory, called the Theory of Connectivism, advanced by George Siemens back in 2005. Siemens, who is an ardent supporter of the role that technology can play is learning, believes that “scheduled” formal education isn’t a panacea for learning in the workplace.
According to Siemens’ Theory of Connectivism, continuous learning in the workplace can most effectively happen when employees personally reach out, beyond the formal classroom setting, and create informal structures within their environment to support their ongoing learning needs.
A great way to understand what a personal learning network is all about would be to deconstruct the term and understand what each of the components means:
· Personal: Unlike schools and colleges, where students can “hang out” after class and bond with each other, corporate learning does not afford such opportunities. It is up to each individual to, therefore, forge personal ties to colleagues and co-workers, and subsequently leverage those connections once a formal course or learning event has concluded.
· Learning: The personal relationships forged above can then be leveraged for ongoing social learning in the workplace. This usually happens, not as formal, scheduled interactions, but usually in the form of off-premises social interactions, informal exchanges, including the sharing of knowledge, information, and expertise within smaller groups of friends and colleagues.
· Network: What starts off as a small group of personal contacts can evolve into a broad personal learning network of peers and colleagues. It then extends beyond the “personal” circle of contacts that was established initially. Far greater learning opportunities are created through such extended networks.
By virtue of this definition, PLNs are an extension to a professional’s personal learning environment (PLE). So, at a very basic level, a group of employees meeting for a “Lunch and Learn” event would ideally meet the personal learning network definition discussed here.
Why is developing a PLN important?
Unlike a few decades ago, today’s corporate world is extremely fluid and dynamic. While in the old days’ employers would host formal learning events every year or so, today’s competitive environment demands continuous learning in the workplace.
Barriers to workplace learning
Unfortunately, organizations aren’t equipped to deliver such a learning experience because:
· It is costly: Continually exposing the workforce can get expensive. While most organizations do schedule formal learning events periodically, the cost is often a barrier to ongoing learning in the workplace.
· It is time-consuming to plan: Corporate learning is always “scheduled”. In rare cases, an unscheduled event might occur, but usually, if it’s not on the Learning Plan, it won’t happen! The development of knowledge, however, is never “scheduled” – it evolves daily! So, if professionals are to keep abreast of ongoing developments in their field, they need to learn about such occurrences as they happen – not at the next scheduled learning event.
· It is disruptive: Each time formal learning sessions, or other corporate social events, are hosted, they disrupt the regular working session. Though executives understand the importance of these events, they try to keep them to the minimum due to their disruptive nature. If employees are to reap the benefits from socializing and meeting often, a non-disruptive alternative has to be found.
Enter the personal learning network!
In today’s fast-changing workplace, employees can no longer rely only on their employer to formally train and equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the workplace. As the workplace is looked upon as a partnership – between employer and employees – it also behooves employees to foster opportunities for informal learning in the workplace.
Opportunities from PLNs
While PLNs aren’t (ideally) supposed to replace formal corporate training initiatives, they reduce the organizations’ over-dependence solely on such formal programs. Because of the three constraints to continuous learning in the workplace discussed above (Cost, Timing, Disruption), PLNs have become the most viable alternative to formal corporate learning.
· They allow you to pursue learning opportunities at a time and place of your choice.
· They enable you to join learning networks of your choice, instead of being grouped into classrooms of your employers choosing.
· Because they act as a “meeting of peers”, social learning in the workplace helps employees learn without the fear of being judged, ranked, rated or scrutinized – and this eases the learning curve significantly.
By fostering the flow of knowledge, information, and experience more freely amongst network members, PLNs offer you a great opportunity for continuous informal learning in the workplace.
Personal Learning Network examples
Earlier in this article, we touched upon “Lunch and Learn” events as a good example of PLNs. Such informal corporate social events are a good way for employees within an organization to leverage their work contacts to further learning.
If you work for a larger organization, with a geographically dispersed presence, you may have greater opportunities to leverage PLNs to further your personal learning. Examples of this kind of a PLN might include forging bonds with colleagues and peers from other branches, satellite offices and affiliate companies during annual corporate team building events.
Then, once your colleagues have returned back to their respective bases, you could continually plug-into that network to learn about what’s happening in other areas of the company. Obviously, as a network member, you will end up sharing the best practices that you are privy to.
Your PNL does not necessarily need to be restricted to individuals from within your organization. You could join a PLN of like-minded individuals outside your company too. Such personal learning network examples might include groups of professionals (from various organizations) meeting at a Toast Master’s event to learn about public communication from each other.
The most exciting opportunity for developing and leveraging a personal learning network is offered through social media. If you have accounts on any of the leading social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram, you’ll likely find a plethora of groups that you can join to support your personalized needs for continuous learning in the workplace.
The advantage of virtual PLNs is that they often allow for anonymous interactions. Therefore, while you might hesitate to raise a particularly contentious learning point at an in-person PLN, such as contacts cultivated during corporate team building events or company-sponsored training sessions, members of virtual PLNs can more easily raise such items, and learn from the broader community’s experiences.
Making a Personal Learning Network work
The key to successful social learning in the workplace is to build a network of personal contacts that can help you in your lifelong learning journey. The key to creating a successful personal learning network, however, is to align yourself with the right individuals and groups.
Just as you would conduct appropriate diligence before applying for a position within an organization, diligence is also required to make PLNs a success. You should carefully weigh the advantages of either inviting other individuals to join your PLN, or accepting an invitation from others to help further your quest for social learning in the workplace.
To make a PLN work, you must surround yourself with like-minded groups and individuals who share your ideals for collective learning. This is true whether you use in-person PLNs, or tap into a virtual learning network. Your personal learning network can be a powerful learning tool, but only if you are aware of how best to leverage it to further your own learning needs.