A model of Personal Learning Networks – in progress

I met with my supervisor a couple of weeks ago to get feedback on my research proposal. One of the most helpful suggestions he made was to tease out the factors from the literature that influence the usefulness of a network to achieve the desired outcome (i.e. improvements / innovations in professional practice) – and to develop a model based on this  literature review. My research could then be used to explore / validate this model (and provide some structure to interviews and data analysis). So this is what I’ve been working on. Aside from the benefits this model will bring to structuring the research, the process of thinking in terms of a model has been extremely useful in helping me to consolidate the various (and disparate) strands of literature I’ve reviewed, and my thinking around it. This is my working draft.


My PLN model (click to expand)


As I tease out the strands of research three key components emerge for me as being relevant:

  • Environment – a lot of research focuses on the ‘tools’ / tech that people use to build and develop networks.  Whilst this is certainly interesting – as different tools have different affordances which support varying aspects of PLN relationship development – it’s more than just the discrete tools and tech that influence the development of these  relationships. It’s the entire context in which the tools / tech are embedded and used  – this includes the environmental & situational context (e.g. where is the tool/tech being used – work, home, the beach, etc?), culture (incl. organisational/industry/societal/geographical/national/political etc), and the support available to develop skills in the use of the tools/tech.
  • Personal – these are the personal skills and characteristics that contribute to an individual’s decision and motivation to actively and intentionally build and maintain a PLN. Significantly, this includes both networking ‘skills’, as well as attitude / mindset, and reflective behaviours.
  • People  – this I’ve classified as the ‘network’ characteristics that make up an individual’s PLN, consolidating the body of research on network structure (strong vs weak ties; open/closed networks, network diversity etc). A lot of this research comes from the management / R&D literature and so often focuses on identifying links between these network components and outcomes like innovation and creativity.

Of course, there are interactions and complex links between all three components, which is what I’ve tried to portray in the the model. I see these three components as impacting both the processes of learning and outcomes. The outcome of interest I’m defining primarily as innovation in professional practice – but mindset and behaviour, both of which contribute to the outcome (output?) of ‘innovative practice’ could also be considered outcomes (which could be explored through interviews).

How does this model link in with existing PLN models?

Rajagopal, Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen, & Sloep (2012) have the defined the following model based on their research and review of existing literature:


From 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) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

For me, this model demonstrates the importance of the personal skills, attitude and behaviours required to develop an effective PLN; and the factors which influence intentionality (why and who people choose to connect with). It also touches on the role of tools / tech for supporting the behaviours (‘Activity’) and ‘skill’ components (fig 3). But what’s missing I think is the broader context related to environment (it’s not just tools / tech) and network / people characteristics that may impact on these personal skills, attitude and behaviours. Thus my attempt to incorporate these components into my model.

Serendipitous connections

As I’ve been doing this over the last week or so, I came across a couple of blog posts (from my own PLN) that struck me as being serendipitously related:

  • Personal Learning Networks: Learning in a Connected World by Sahana Chattopadhyay (@sahana2802) which I first encountered on LinkedIn, but also published on her blog (accompanied by an excellent discussion #MSLOC430 related thread). Aside from it being a well written, comprehensive argument on the benefits of building PLNs to support the changing nature of work, what struck me was the emphasis on mindset and attitude – not just tools – as critical in effective social learning and collaboration (reflecting Rajagopal et al’s model above).
  • My Professional Network Review by Michelle Ockers (@MichelleOckers) – this detailed analysis of her PLN blew me away when I saw it. This post for me, represents a perfect example of the attitude, intentional activity (including reflective behaviour) and skills that Rajagopal et al (2012) describe in their model for building, maintaining and activating PLNs.

I’ll continue to tweak and share my evolving thinking on this as it progresses.


Benefits of sharing research-in-progress

I hesitated at first to share my research proposal.  I wondered about the possibility of introducing potential participant bias by making the research methodology transparent. But due to the nature of the research (exploratory, descriptive) I decided this risk was minimal. (It might have been a different matter if I were intending to do blind experimental study though….)

Besides, the benefits of sharing – even research-in-progress – has outweighed any initial reservations I had. As my friend Toni observed:

Sharing my proposal (and a few other research related writings-in-progress: here and here), has generated lots of really helpful feedback, support and conversations via my own PLN, which has in turn developed my ideas and evolved my thinking. For example:

Support from Nick Leffler, Tania Sheko & Toni Rose Pinero

Commenting on my post, Nick Leffler @technkl shared  his experiences and struggles during his own MA research, and also linked me to his research project (which was the first I’d learnt he’d done a research Masters too). Doing research for the first time is no easy task, and talking to someone who’s been through it before and can empathise with the trials and tribulations can really help.

Tania Sheko (@taniatorikova) shared her experiences (challenges & frustrations) of not having informal learning and professional development from her PLN recognised at the school she works at – helping me realise that schools and organisations are probably more similar than they are different.

And…ever since I met her (through #rhizo14) Toni Rose Pinero (@moocresearch) and I have had ongoing conversations about our respective research Masters projects. Posting my proposal helped reignite the conversation and we’ve been checking in with each other more regularly this year to provide mutual support.

This type of support I see as building the  “structural embeddedness” (who knows what) and “relational embeddedness” (social climate of trust and reciprocity) – two of the three components that Van Den Hooff et al 2010 identified as necessary for a network to make a positive contribution to (workplace) performance.

Feedback and resources from Ryan Tracey

I got some great constructive feedback from Ryan Tracey (@ryantracey) including suggestions for refining the research design and proposal. Ryan also sent me an extremely relevant article “Secret Power Brokers – The ties that bind our workplace” – a study on how several large Australian organisations are using social network maps to identify hitherto  hidden ‘power brokers’: extremely well connected employees who hold a lot of influence within the organisation through their (informal) role as trusted advisors, key opinion makers and change agents. Often these critical people are unknown to management, as their influence resides in the informal employee networks that develop through the flow of work rather than the the formal structures represented on the org chart. It reminded me very much of the study by Whelan et al (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation, which forms a critical base for my own research, and had similar findings to the article Ryan sent me.

Conversations & evolving thinking with Con Sotidis & Helen Blunden

A thought provoking twitter conversation with Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch), following on from a comment on Helen Blunden’s (@ActivateLearn) blog helped developed my thinking on the tension between personal vs organisational values relating to PLNs (a hot topic in #xplrpln). In particular, I was intrigued by this suggestion by Con on developing an ROI model for a PLN:

Whilst I wasn’t entirely convinced of the concept, it definitely got me thinking about how such a thing might or might not work – and why. The twitter conversation got us both thinking.  The next day, Con wrote a LinkedIn post on the value of PLNs, where we continued to exchange thoughts on this – how one determines the ‘value’ of their PLN – who to connect with, who to filter out, how and what we share with our PLNs. Thinking out loud in the comments on Con’s post helped me develop my thinking on this…as did Helen’s blog post on ‘exploring innovations in networked work & learning’ (the open ‘course’ / section of msloc430 that Jeff Merrell is running at the moment).

Part of what I wrote in response to Helen’s post was this:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot more since and think it might come down to alignment in values – between the individual and the organisation. I don’t think an organisation will ever be able to ask an individual to ‘utilise’ their PLN purely for organisational benefit: this will only happen IF the individual wants to. An individual will only ever WANT to build and leverage their PLN to support organisational goals if they are inherently engaged in what they do, and want to improve what they do at work (i.e. if they’re intrinsically motivated). And they will only ever WANT to do this, if their personal values are aligned with the organisation’s.

Through these conversations, I’m coming to the conclusion that the key to an individual leveraging the expertise of their PLN to meet organisational goals will result not from a ‘top down’ implementation / demand from leaders or the organisation that they do so (or even good role modelling of the behaviour from said leaders)…but from an alignment of values between the individual and the organisation. This could be a thread worth exploring further…a thread I may not have realised had it not been for sharing and connecting with my PLN on my research proposal.


Durkin, P (2014, July) Secret Power Brokers: the ties that bind our workplace. AFR BOSS, 28-31

Retrieved from: http://www.optimice.com.au/documents/secretpowerbrokers.pdf

Van Den Hooff, B; Van Weenen, F; Soekijad, M; Huysman, M (2010) The value of online networks of practice: the role of embeddedness and media use. Journal of Information Technology, suppl. Special Issue on Social Networking 25.2 (Jun 2010): 205-215

Whelan, E; Parise, S; de Valk, J; & Aalbers, R (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 53 (1) 37-44

Retrieved from: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/creating-employee-networks-that-deliver-open-innovation