Category Archives: Informal learning

Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.

References

Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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What is Personal Knowledge Management?

I’ve always banged on about the fact that we all need to be effective learners in the modern world but I never really had one good framework to help contextualise this discussion. There were all the learning in the workplace reports from various consulting companies and research institutes, there is the metacognition literature, systems thinking, complexity…all of it relevant but segmented. I think I may have found something that will help me out of my bind. It’s early days yet since I just stumbled across Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) but I really like it. I came across it on the blog of Harold Jarche from the Internet Time Alliance. I’ve been interested in the informal learning work from Jay Cross for a while now as well as Jane Hart’s social learning work and I came across Harold’s work recently.

PKM is basically a framework that helps us take control of our professional development and make sense of information and experience. It offers a nice way to better incorporate reflection-on-action in to our day-to-day without it feeling like we’re writing a journal that no-one will read and that we lose interest in after a few entries (mia culpa). Harold Jarche defines PKM as:

‘A set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society’

You can read more about Harold’s views on PKM here.  Harold is starting to move away from the term PKM and use Networked Learning more. While I like the idea of networks in learning I think I really like the actual term PKM as a descriptive term that is easy for the non-initiated to get their heads around.

The things that I really like about PKM are:

  • I already do a lot of these practices and feel very clever and smug about that (just being honest)
  • PKM is about personalising experiences and information in a world where we are bombarded with information 24/7. PKM is about sense-making not collating
  • PKM builds reflection into our learning and working thereby helping us to change and adapt more effectively as well as develop critical thinking skills (things very close to my heart)
  • “Knowledge” is an emergent property of the process
  • PKM is about people taking control of theirlearning, something that we do not often consciously do unless you’re a learning geek like me. It’s the development of conscious, regular activities from which can emerge new knowledge and insights

I love finding new things that inspire me and help explain the world.