MA research proposal: PLNs and innovation…the story so far…

A couple of weeks ago, as I emerged from the fog of reading a bunch of research papers to seeing how they might fit together to form a new whole…I saw this in my twitter feed:


It was one of those moments of trippy serendipity when you feel like fate’s just crying out to be believed in. Not that I think my MA research is going to be anywhere near as riveting as a Neil Gaiman story, but his sentiments DID reflect almost exactly what I was feeling at that moment.

While I definitely don’t have all the pieces yet, I think I now have some idea where it might be going. So, here is my draft proposal:

[MA research proposal]

Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: an exploratory study

This research proposes to explore the nature of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), and their potential impact on an individual’s innovation in professional practice.

(A) Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs….often by information and communication technologies.

             Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

PLNs’ link to innovation

Recent research by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) on PLNs suggest a link between PLNs and innovation. In their study of the factors that people consider to be valuable to daily learning from their PLN, they found that the concepts scored most highly were: “different perspectives”, “Values”, “passionate”, “inspirational”, “trust”, “innovative”, “expertise”, “disruption”, “reality check”, “do things differently”, “familiarity”. Many of these relate in some way to innovation, suggesting that people utilise PLNs in some capacity to support innovative practice.

Further, research and theory on strong vs weak ties in communities and networks, suggest that PLNs may have the potential to foster both incremental and radical innovation.

Grabher and Ibert (2008, cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) propose that personal networks feature three layers with ties of differing strengths: a communality layer (strong ties), a sociality layer (weak ties) and a connectivity layer (very weak ties). Dal Fiori (2007) hypothesises that strong and weak ties propagate different types of innovation, arguing that communities, with strong ties and high degrees of trust, support the exchange of tacit knowledge (Ghoshal, Korine, & Szulansky, 1994; Hansen, 1999; Szulansky, 1996; Uzzi, 1996 – cited by Dal Fiori 2007) to foster linear, incremental innovation. In contrast, networks consisting mostly of weak ties, are sites for boundary-spanning learning which expose people to different perspectives on the same issue. This composition likely supports more combinatorial, radical and breakthrough innovation. Interestingly Dal Fiori goes on to suggest that broad social adoption and diffusion of each type of innovation still require both networks and communities: incremental innovation requires a network to propagate it; and combinatorial innovation needs a community to become socially rooted practice (Dal Fiori 2007).

How might PLNs facilitate innovation in professional practice?

Professional networking can be used to continuously support professionals’ life–long learning in practice (Johnson, 2008 cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Personal professional networks, as platforms in which conversations and dialogue can occur, support the type of individual (non–formal) learning (Eraut, 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) especially prevalent in practice, where tacit knowledge is built through experience and reflection and shared through social interaction with others (Bolhuis and Simons, 2001; Hearn and White, 2009 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Having the capacity to obtain support and converse with people when needed also enables knowledge creation in organisational settings (Von Krogh, et al., 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012).

Communities of Practice, networks of practice and PLNs

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger et al. 2002: 4, cited in Murillo 2007). They are composed of strong ties and characterised by direct and sustained mutual engagement between members on shared problems, concerns or topics. Learning is viewed as ‘the process of becoming competent practitioners in an informal community’, and knowledge is embedded in shared practices (Murillo 2011).

‘Networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000) comprise people who engage in the same or very similar practice, but don’t necessarily work together and may never even know, know of, or come across others in their network (Brown & Duguid 2000, cited in Murillo 2011).

As PLNs comprise of strong, weak and very weak ties it is conceivable that they may contain both embedded CoPs (that foster collaboration between strong ties within the PLN) and networks of practice (comprising of weak ties across the PLN). Therefore, when postulating how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice, it is useful to draw on the body of research and theory on Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998, 2000) and ‘networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000). And there has been considerable research and theory on CoPs (Wenger 1998, 2000 cited in Murillo 2011) which tie them closely to innovation. For example Murillo (2011) cites studies which present innovation as a defining feature of CoPs (Orr 1990; Brown and Duguid 1991, 2000a; Brown and Grey 1995; Prokesch 1997; Swan et al. 1999; Wenger 2000b; Lesser and Everest 2001; Fontaine and Millen 2004), as well as studies that provide evidence of innovation occurring within CoPs (Anand et al. 2007; Meeuwesen and Berends 2007; Schenkel and Teigland 2008). Networks of practice have also been linked to innovation (e.g. Fleming and Marx 2006, cited in Murillo 2011).

Boundaries as sites of innovation

Innovation in CoPs and networks is thought to occur more often at boundaries: e.g. Wenger (2000, cited in Murillo 2011) describes CoP boundaries as the intersection connecting different CoPs, where radical insights often occur. Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011 point to studies which show that connecting to people in other networks (including outside the organisation) promote innovation and creativity (Kratzer & Letl 2008; Perry-Smith 2006).

PLNs – supporting radical, open innovation in organisational practice?

Connections in an individual’s PLN may be both internal and external to the organisation the individual works in. External connections may be seen as connecting individuals to networks outside the boundary of their organisational practice.

PLNs may also include connections not directly associated with an individual’s professional practice (e.g. friends, relatives, acquaintances). These connections may connect individuals to networks and influences outside their professional practice.

Research on boundaries in CoPs and networks suggest that these connections may potentially act as sources of combinatorial, radical innovation in an individual’s organisational and professional practice.

This research aims to explore these potential links.

MA research questions

Possible research questions:

  • Are an individual’s interactions with connections internal to their organisation characteristically different to interactions with those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • Are an individual’s interactions with people connected with their professional practice characteristically different to interactions with those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on the implementation of innovative practice within their organisation?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice?


Brown J.S and Duguid P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.
Organization Science 1991 2(1): 40-57

Dal Fiore, F (2007) Communities Versus Networks The Implications on Innovation and Social Change. American Behavioral Scientist, March 2007; vol. 50, 7: pp. 857-866.

Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organisation studies literature. Information Research vol 16 (1)

Rajagopal K.,  Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2)

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat M, McConnell D,Ryberg T & Sloep

Rory L.L. Sie, Marlies Bitter–Rijpkema and Peter B. Sloep (2011) What’s in it for me? Recommendation of peers in networked innovation.  Journal of Universal Computer Science, volume 17, number 12, pp. 1.659–1.672.


What’s next

I have a whole lot more research to review to refine this proposal. As there doesn’t seem to be that much research specifically on PLNs, I plan to draw on research on networked learning, networks of practice, CoPs, PLEs, & connectivist learning. Also need to review innovation research in the management literature.

The definition of a PLN is very broad and may potentially be difficult to operationalise. I’ll need to specifically define ‘innovation’ / ‘innovative practice’ and operationalise that too.  Looking to draw on Feldman, M. S., and W. J. Orlikowski. “Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory.” to define from perspective of microdynamics of everyday practice.

Currently participating in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar, aiming to get more insights and connect with people on the concept of PLNs and how they are used in organisations.

7 thoughts on “MA research proposal: PLNs and innovation…the story so far…

  1. Tristan Evans says:

    This is great! Your research – should your proposal be accepted – would surely answer a number of questions I’ve been pondering over the last few weeks since joining Exploring PLNs. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing.


  2. Jeff Merrell says:

    Tanya – I am very excited about this proposal! I hope this gets molded into something that you can pursue in your Master’s work. My work (teaching and thinking) has always included Brown & Duguid, Wenger et al and the work around CoPs and networks of practice. And to me, your initial characterization of how PLNs fit into the picture is spot on. There is also something (in my mind) about the center-of-energy in thinking about how PLNs, CoPs and networks of practice relate. With PLNs – the individual appears (to me) to have more empowering agency. At least in concept. With a CoP – the community and area of practice seems to set the social structure and power. Networks of practice similarly. But PLNs? That’s all about me. IMHO.

    This is also a great list of the (limited) research on PLNs. Definitely sharing this with #xplrpln (and bookmarking it for my own reference!). Great stuff.

  3. Danny Ortegon says:

    Hi Tanya –

    Agree with Tristan and Jeff. Very nice work! Especially the comparison and breakdown of CoP and NoP. Something to consider might be the dynamic or transitory nature of PLN connections. Social Media and technology make it relatively easy to connect wide array of people and through many different media. By nature these connections can be tenuous, but they can be nurtured and strengthened, however sometimes they may remain somewhat tenuous or temporary. That’s okay and seems to be the nature of some PLN interactions. However, I do feel that for many folks venturing into PLNs for the first time it is difficult to work through this potentially “temporary state” of a PLN connection and it may cause some reluctance or even an avoidance in making connections. With time folks should adapt and work to connect, but it seems that initial levels of resistance may remain.

  4. tanyalau says:

    Hi Tristan, Jeff and Danny,
    Thank you all so much for your comments and feedback – really appreciate it!
    These are pretty big questions at this stage, and I’ll likely need to break them down to something that’s achieveable within the scope of masters research. That’s the bit I think I will struggle with! So many interesting questions, so little time (and resources!). But still – I think you’ve gotta start with the big picture view. If I can even scratch the surface a little, I’ll be happy
    : ).
    Jeff – really appreciate your thoughts on CoPs, networks of practice and PLNs. This is something I’m just starting to explore so will definitely have to pick your brains at some point! I was similarly excited when I first read the overview of #xplrpln, as it covered a lot of what I am interested in exploring further and I knew instantly it would have direct relevance to this masters research.
    A light bulb totally went off for me when I read the Brown & Duguid paper – it is fascinating and packed with so many seminal ideas that tie together learning, work and innovation. Likewise Wenger.
    I do agree that one of the defining differences between PLNs and CoPs is the emphasis on the individual (PLNs) vs group (CoPs) – and that I think essentially comes from the fact that ‘networks’ are characteristically different in structure to ‘communities’ (connected nodes vs defined social group). There does seem to be some research on power structures within CoPs that would be interesting to look at. And while interactions within PLNs may not be subject to the group dynamics and power relations that may be seen in CoPs, I think what CAN influence interactions and connections within PLNs is individual reputation – which is something that individuals curate themselves within PLNs. But the influence of individual reputation is also a feature within CoPs though – one of the really interesting things that Wenger (I think) and Brown & Duguid talk about is how individual reputation and identity is constructed in a CoP through storytelling and narration of experiences (e.g. people telling stories about how they resolved particular problems at work etc…). And I think this happens similarly in PLNs, perhaps in slightly different ways (but, perhaps not…?!). So, another interesting question might be to look at how reputation and identity is constructed in PLNs, and how this compares with CoPs; and how reputation influences interactions and connections.
    Danny – yes, I think the temporary or transient nature of some connections within PLNs is one of the most interesting things about PLNs – and certainly something that is a key difference to CoPs. And in many respects, it is the weak or very weak ties within a PLN that is the most interesting, and – from what I can tell so far – least researched / explored areas (since I think interactions between strong ties in a PLN probably operate similarly to a CoP or network of practice to an extent).
    Anyway…REALLY looking forward to exploring some of these ideas with you all as we progress through #xplrpln!!

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