Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: Literature review

This is a literature review I completed as part of my Masters research. I still to work on refining my research questions and methodology at the end; I’ll be working on this in the new year.


Defining Personal Learning Networks

“(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.”
Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

Interest in the concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) to support personal learning is increasing (Rajagopal et al., 2012). However, there has been relatively little academic research on PLNs; much of the knowledge on PLNs is anecdotal, documented in blog postings or conference presentations (Couros, 2010). Couros (2010) notes that a clear definition of what a PLN is, does not even readily exist.

However, there seems to be consensus that a PLN consists of the people that a person connects with for the specific purpose of supporting, or managing their own learning (Rajagopoal et al., 2012; Tobin, 1998; Couros, 2010; Lalonde, 2011). Definitions vary as to whether connections with resources (as well as people) are included in a PLN (e.g. Rajagopal et al., 2012), and whether reciprocity or mutual learning is required in a PLN relationship (e.g. Digenti 1999, cited by Lalonde, 2011).

But, since the “tools, artefacts, processes, and physical connections that allow learners to control and manage their learning” (Couros, 2010) are typically defined as a person’s Personal Learning Environment (PLE), this paper will consider ‘resources’ as part of a person’s PLE, restricting the definition of PLN to the people that a person connects with to support their learning. And, because the requirement for reciprocity in a PLN relationship is as yet unclear in the literature, this paper will also assume the broadest definition of a PLN, and regard reciprocity as being a potential, but not a required feature of a PLN relationship. That is, a person may connect with someone (e.g. via a social media platform), learn from them, and consider that person part of their PLN, without the other person necessarily doing the same.

Defining ‘innovation’

Innovation is “typically understood as the successful introduction of something new and useful” (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). These may include new methods, practices, techniques, products or services. Radical innovation results in extreme change to existing processes, practices, products etc’ while incremental innovation leads to gradual, or step-by-step improvement (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). Brown & Duguid (1991) conceives of innovation as a “continuum of innovating practices” with daily learning and emergent adaptation of work practices (through informal, spontaneous information gathering, iterative experimentation, observation, and adaptation of canonical work practices) at one end, and the radical innovation of research laboratories at the other.

Obstfeld (2005) states that innovation may be perceived as a “type of conduct” that occurs both within and outside of an organisation, and “emerging from the active combination of people, knowledge and resources” (Kogut & Zander, 1992; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Henderson & Clark, 1990; Dougherty, 1992; Hargadon, 2003, as cited by Obstfeld, 2005). Thus innovation is embedded in the social networks between individuals; new social connections can create novel combinations between people, their ideas and the resources they carry (Obstfeld, 2005).

Hemphala & Magnusson (2012) note that there are inconsistencies in the way innovation is operationalised and measured across empirical studies of innovation (e.g. ‘manager’s performance’: Burt 2004; ‘involvement in innovations’: Obstfeld 2005; ‘patents’: Ahuja 2000; ‘ideas’: Bjork et al., 2010; ‘ease of knowledge transfer’: Reagans & McEvily, 2003). Further, there is often no distinction made between incremental and radical innovation. As a result, the literature documents conflicting findings, particularly regarding the types of social network structures that support innovation (Bjork et al., 2010; Obstfeld, 2005, as cited by Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012). Whether or not an innovation is incremental or radical depends on the organisational context in which it is embedded: an incremental innovation in one setting may be considered radical in another (Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012). Hemphala & Magnusson argues that future empirical studies should measure both incremental and radical innovation to enable better comparisons across studies and organisations.

PLNs and innovation

Of the academic literature that specifically focuses on PLNs, most are on the development and maintenance of PLNs. For example, factors that influence an individuals’ choices on building, maintaining and activating PLN connections (Rajagopal, Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep, 2012); the concepts an individual considers to be valuable in a learning contact, and the networking platforms that people associate with these concepts (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa, 2012); the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of PLNs (Lalonde, 2011); and utilising PLNs to support continuous learning in open access and distance education (Couros, 2010).

Although there has been no specific study on the link between PLNs and innovation in professional practice, the study by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) found that the factors which people considered most valuable to daily learning from their PLN 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 their PLNs in some capacity to support innovation in their practice. Participants in Lalonde’s (2011) phenomenological study of Twitter and PLNs stated that their primary motivations for developing and maintaining a PLN were to gain support from others facing similar workplace challenges, and to draw on others’ knowledge and experience in order to improve their own professional practice. As evidenced by examples documented by Mackey & Evans (2011) and Bell (2011), sharing knowledge and experience in networked learning environments (which share many features of PLNs) can facilitate practitioners to integrate innovations in their own professional practice.

Further, the broader body of literature on learning and knowledge networks, networks of practice, employee networks, and networked learning consistently draws links between networks and innovation, innovative practice, or improvements in professional practice (e.g. Phelps, Heidl, & Wadhwa, 2012; Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; Bessant, 2012; Whelan, Parise, de Valk, & Aalbers, 2011; de Laat & Schreurs, 2013; Van Den Hooff, Van Weenen, Soekijad, & Huysman, 2010; Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Mackey & Evans, 2011).

Given the relatively sparse academic literature on PLNs, this paper will draw from the existing literature on networks and innovation to construct a view on how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice. This will then be used to identify relevant research questions to further explore the link between PLNs and innovative practice.

Networks and innovation

A growing body of research links networks and innovation – both within and between organisations (Alter & Hage 1993; Powell et al 1996; Owen-Smith & Powell, 2004 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Phelps et al., 2012). Much of this research focuses on defining the structural characteristics of networks that might encourage innovation (Powell et al., 1996; Tidd, 1997 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; deLaat & Shreuers 2013; Phelps et al, 2012).

The impact of network structure: open vs closed networks

In their review of empirical research on knowledge networks (spanning 40 years and multiple disciplines) Phelps et al (2012) cite studies which have found that networks with structural holes (consisting of weak ‘bridging’ ties connecting diverse groups) result in more diverse information, novel ideas, or creativity (e.g. Burt 2004, Ebadi & Utterback 1984, Morrison 2002; Perry-Smith 2006). The theoretical origins of this research stems from Granovetter’s (1983) “strength of weak ties” theory – which posited that intermittent social interaction with people outside your own close knit social circle (and in particular, with weak ties that ‘bridge’ two otherwise disparate groups) can provide exposure to novel information which can lead to innovation.

However, there is also evidence that network density and network closure – i.e. where many individuals within a network are connected to each other (for example, in close-knit social groups) – plays a role. Network density or network closure has been associated with increases in knowledge transfer amongst contacts, learning (Morgan & Soerensen 1999; Morrison 2002; Reagans & McEvily 2003 – cited by Phelps et al, 2012), and adoption of an innovator’s novel idea (Fleming, Mingo & Chen 2007; Obtsfeld 2005).

Consistent with this, research shows strong interpersonal ties – characterised by frequent communication, long duration, and affective attachment – are more effective than weak ties in promoting knowledge transfer and learning (e.g. Bounty, 2000; Levin & Cross, 2004; Uzzi & Lancaster 2003 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). Strong ties are often associated with increased trust and reciprocity (e.g. Coleman 1998, 1990; cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012), leading to greater expectations of cooperation, awareness of each other’s knowledge and willingness to wear the costs required to “transfer, receive and absorb knowledge” (e.g. Appleyard, 1996; Kachra & White 2008; Quigley, Tesluk, Locke & Bartol 2007 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). There are also established behavioural expectations and norms wtihin a closed network, which make it less risky for people to trust each other (Burt, 2000).

But, too many strong ties can also limit access to diverse information, reduce autonomy, and decrease motivation to search for information outside the group, increasing dependence (Hansen, 1999; Uzzi, 1997 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). An extensive network of strong ties also requires more time to maintain, and cognitive effort to make sense of the increased information being shared (Hansen 1999, cited by Phelps et al 2012).

Based on this and similar research (e.g. Handley, 2006; Hansen, 1999; Roberts, 2006; Uzzi, 1999), Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007 have proposed that a combination of both weak and strong ties are advantageous – just at different stages of the innovation process. More open network structures (diverse, many weak ties) may be best for facilitating idea generation, whilst a smaller, cohesive network of strong ties – including decision makers – are necessary during development and evaluation of the idea, and to adapt it to organisational requirements. Likewise, Reagans, Zuckerman and McEvily 2004 have suggested that an advantageous network combines both openness and density (cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012).

The limitations of structural research on networks

Much of this research on network structures and innovation describe what networks offer in general terms (deLaat & Schreuers 2013), have assumed networks play a positive role (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005), and don’t necessarily represent the complexity of the relationships and ties between people (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008). Fewer consider the potential constraints on innovation posed by network relationships (Barley, 1990 cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). There is relatively little empirical research describing the processes linking networks to innovation (Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Phelps et al 2012), what people actually do within networks, how they maintain relationships (deLaat & Schreurs 2013), and the social rules and practices they use to negotiate meaning (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008).

Further, Phelps et al 2012 points out that there are very few studies that provide direct evidence that structural holes (or pockets of weak ties) in a network provide timely access to diverse information (Phelps, 2010; Rodan & Galunic 2004 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). The link between network closure (tightly knit strong ties), and increased trust and reciprocity is also inconclusive (Gulati and Sytch, 2008 – cited by Phelps et al 2012).

Similarly, whilst Hemphala & Magnusson 2012 cites empirical evidence that networks are important for innovation at both an individual and organisational level (Bjork & Magnusson 2009; Samarra & Biggiero 2008), they also state there is still very little consensus on the specific interrelationship between network structures and innovation.

This research has been dominated by large, quantitative studies using large samples and statistical analysis (Hardy et al., 2003 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). As such, it tends to ignore potential variations in individuals’ cognitive capabilities and strategic motives, implicitly assuming that individuals in a network are passive vessels that information and knowledge flow through (Phelps et al., 2012). Thus implicit in these studies is a view of knowledge and learning as static, and something that can be transferred from one individual to another. This is a view which disconnects knowledge from practice (Brown & Duguid 1991), in contrast to socially constructed, practice-based views of learning (e.g. Lave 1998, Lave & Wenger 1990, cited by Brown & Duguid, 1991) which view learning as fluid, dynamic; something that is deeply connected to the conditions in which it is learned. In this view, learning is a process of becoming a practitioner of a community (Brown & Duguid 1991).

Existing structural studies needs to be complemented with an examination of longitudinal, process-oriented, case-based qualitative research (Phelps et al, 2012), ethnographic studies, and/or grounded empirical approaches (deLaat & Schreurs, 2013), which describe networked learning behaviour, explore how knowledge networks operate at all levels (between individuals, organisational teams, across organisations), what motivates individuals to share knowledge through these networks, and which ties individuals consider to be most influential in their network, and why.

Qualitative research: what does networked learning & innovation in organisations ‘look’ like?

It spans boundaries

Innovation is more likely to occur “at the interstices” of collaborating groups and organisations (Powell et al 1996; Carlile 2002 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough; Wenger 2000, cited in Murillo, 2011; Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011). Knowledge, too, is increasingly dispersed across across “professions, organisations, and specialised practices” (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005). It is thought that distributed knowledge is brought together at these interstices, with new knowledge being created through “a process of collective sensemaking” (Ring & Van de Ven, 1994; Orlikowski 2002 cited in Swan & Scarbrough 2005), not just ‘transfer’ of existing knowledge (Gulati 1999). The following qualitative studies provide some insight into how the process of boundary-spanning networked innovation might occur.

Scouts + connectors

Whelan, Parise, de Valk & Aalbers (2011), used a combination of Organisational Network Analysis (ONA), interviews, and surveys over a 5 year period with a number of leading companies across a range of industries to understand how opportunities for innovation diffuse throughout interpersonal employee networks. They found that employee networks – both external (spanning organisational boundaries) and internal (spanning organisational teams and workgroups) – are critical for the implementation of innovations in organisations. In particular, they discovered the need for two distinct but complementary “innovation brokers”. “Idea scouts” are well connected outside the organisation, and can introduce innovative ideas into the organisation from their external network. However, Whelan et al (2011) found that these scouts often don’t have the internal connections, political skills, or the internal know-how to identify the key influencers or decision-makers to distribute the idea to in order to get the innovation implemented (e.g. an employee’s organisational title does not often reveal their level of influence in a given situation).Thus, “idea connectors” are also needed to quickly distribute the information or idea to those within the organisation who are best placed to exploit it (not necessarily the scout’s line manager). These “idea connectors” are people who have an extensive internal network inside the organisation, the knowledge on who is doing what, and the social capital and trusted personal connections to quickly coordinate their internal network to mobilise the right people. In addition, idea connectors often also have the capability to see how different concepts might fit together to form a potential innovation. So: they are not only critical in diffusing innovative ideas, they play a key role in selecting appropriate ideas to diffuse.

External networks + internal CoPs

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006), in their ethnographic study of a radiation oncology unit of an Italian hospital, also found that employees who actively participate in networks of practice (NoPs) outside the organisation play a key role in initiating the diffusion of new, innovative practices in the Communities of Practice (CoPs) they belong to within the organisation. Like Whelan et al (2010), Tagliaventi & Mattarelli found that the most active participants in external networks of practice did not always play the most active role in also diffusing the innovation within the organisation. This was often done via ‘brokers’ who shared day to day activities with those employees who had active external networks, as well as many other staff members. In the work environment that Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) studied, regular contact and co-location with other staff members was critical for exchanging knowledge of new practices. Thus brokers who shared spaces with many other staff members, often played a key role in diffusing innovative practices initially brought in through another employee’s network of practice. They also found that new ways of doing things were more likely to be adopted across the diverse professional groups within their CoP if they shared common values about the role of their organisational unit (e.g. in this case, the common value of patient care was a driver for the adoption of the new practice).

Swan & Scarborough’s (2005) qualitative analysis of three case studies of networked innovation also demonstrated it is critical to coordinate networks at different levels (interpersonal, intra-organisational, and inter-organisational), throughout the innovation process for networked innovation to be successful. In particular, ongoing, coordinated collaboration amongst key groups was key to sustained and purposeful innovation activity.

These studies – particularly Whelan et al’s (2010), and Tagliaventi and Mattarelli’s (2006) – provide support for hypotheses that open, distributed networks of relatively weak ties (such as those characterised by NoPs) facilitate innovation ideation, whereas more closed CoP-style groupings of close-knit ties are needed to implement, adapt and/or diffuse these innovations within the organisation (Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007; Reagans, Zuckerman and McEvily 2004 – cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012).

It’s informal: driven by the individual rather than the organisation

Formal organisational networks are frequently seen as subject to reinforcement by informal, or interpersonal networks (Conway, 1995; Grandori & Soda 1995; Kreiner & Schultz, 1993; Jones et al, 2001 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough, 2005). For example, Swan & Scarbrough (2005), in longitudinal case studies investigating the interplay between networked innovation, power, and politics, found that employees were persuaded to join multidisciplined project teams largely on the basis of existing informal, interpersonal relationships with the project manager. Hemphala & Magnusson (2012) also point to seminal research by Allen & Cohen (1969) which highlighted the importance of informal relationships and information flows between individuals within and across organisations in R&D settings. The importance of informal, interpersonal relationships in the ‘nascent’ stages of innovation has also been indicated in research by Kreiner & Shultz, 1993 and Oliver & Leibeskind, 1998 (cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). Whelan et al (2010) note that the innovation brokers identified in their research emerged informally within their organisations. In fact, many of those identified as idea scouts and connectors were a complete surprise to management – demonstrating that not only are these innovation networks informal, emergent, and driven by individual, not organisationally-mandated action – they are also ‘invisible’ to organisational management.

Conversely, formal, contract-based interorganizational ties are largely ineffective in contributing to organisations’ source external knowledge compared to informal, interpersonal research collaborations that span organisational boundaries (Liebeskind, Oliver, Zucker & Brewer, 1996 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). Bessant’s (2012) longitudinal study of organisationally-convened learning networks highlighted the challenges in motivating members to participate, establish trust, and maintain long term interest, involvement and participation in these types of formally established learning networks. Many were reluctant to share information and knowledge.

This is also seen in educational contexts, where learning communities and connections formed explicitly to meet formal course outcomes often aren’t sustained beyond the end of the course (Downes, 2006). Mackey & Evans (2011) showed that this occurs even where course participants are highly active in the course community. In a case study on how teachers integrated networked learning experiences with their professional practice they described how “Allie”, their most active online participant, explicitly incorporated and experimented with study-inspired innovations within the classroom and community learning centre in which she worked. Despite this, she did not develop sustained connections with other course participants beyond the course. Only two participants did so. These course participants took a number of consecutive courses together and also shared similar backgrounds (suggesting the importance of personal connection in sustaining long term relationships outside of formal settings). Mackey & Evans’ (2011) experience can be contrasted with Couros (2010), whose open access, graduate level, educational technology course was explicitly and intentionally designed to support participants’ development of personal learning networks (as opposed to a community based around the course). As a result, participants did sustain and continue to build on the connections they developed, beyond the course end.

It’s personal

It is likely that the relative success of informal, individually driven networks in facilitating sustainable innovation is due to the fact that these networks are self directed by individuals who are motivated by a deep personal interest in developing, maintaining and sustaining them.

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) observed that self directed participation in networks of practice plays a key role in staff’s continuous training and updating to keep abreast of innovation in their field. This participation appears to be driven by a passion and dedication to their profession. For example, one nurse describes having a “circle of friends” with whom she shares her interests in medicine, reading books and journals about her profession at home, and how she “loves surfing the net, especially the Board of Nurses’ website”. She adds that others in her unit do the same. This manifestation of passionate, personally driven, self directed professional development echoes the educators described in Lalonde’s (2011) phenomenological study of Twitter in relation to personal learning networks – with one participant even referring to PLNs as “passionate learning networks”.

Additionally, Whelan et al (2010) describe idea scouts as having both the technical expertise and personal interest (my italics) to scout for ideas regularly and effectively; whilst idea connectors have a wide internal network of trusted personal connections (my italics) they can rapidly call on when needed.

Multiple modes of interaction

Whelan et al (2011) found that effective idea scouts generally had a high level of comfort and skill in navigating and utilising web 2.0 technologies (social bookmarking/tagging, social media platforms, blogs, wikis), which they employed to find and follow subject matter experts and practitioners experimenting with new ideas and technologies. Whilst idea scouts also utilised face-to-face channels such as conversations around the communal coffee machine, client meetings, product demos, and conferences, they were about 3 times more likely to learn of relevant emerging technology developments or industry trends through web based channels.

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) also describe practitioners sharing practices and knowledge through their NoPs via a range of avenues (e.g. conferences, journals, mailing lists, email etc); and participants in Lalonde’s (2011) study connected with their PLN through face to face meetings, blogs, email, social bookmarking, Google docs, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, and other social networking communities. Face to face interaction, particularly in combination with online interaction, was also described by participants as strengthening PLN connections, helping to enhance feelings of connectedness with their PLNs.

Impacts of face to face vs online communication

Consistent with this are the results of a survey study by Van Den Hooff et al (2010) which found that members of NoPs perceived the network as making a valuable contribution to their workplace performance (e.g. efficiency and quality of work) only when they are able to integrate the knowledge exchanged in the network in their daily work (“embeddedness in practice”), feel like they have a good understanding of ‘who knows what’ (“structural embeddedness”), and there is a positive social climate of trust and reciprocity in the network (“relational embeddedness”).

Further, although members engaged in face to face communications less frequently than online, face to face communication was strongly associated with facilitating the social components of helping members gain an understanding of ‘who knows what’ (structural embeddedness), and fostering trust and reciprocity (relational embeddedness) – i.e. supporting the connections between members. Relatively more frequent online communication was perceived as largely providing the knowledge and information relevant to members’ work practices – i.e. the content needed to improve their work practices. This aligns generally with the view that online communication supports task-related information; whereas face to face communication primarily serves relational goals (Kayany et al 1996; Walther 1997; Munzer & Holmer, 2009 – cited by Van Den Hooff, 2010). It is also consistent with Tagliaventi and Mattarelli’s (2006) argument that information technologies, whilst providing timely access to thorough information, may be relatively ‘poor’ in conveying knowledge regarding social ‘know how’ and ‘know who’ compared to face to face contact (Roberts, 2000; Johannassen et al, 2001 – cited by Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006).

This suggests that regularity of online contact or ‘information / knowledge flow’ between network members isn’t the only factor determining the strength of tie (as studies looking only at the structural characteristics of networks might imply). Rather, face to face contact may play a powerful mediating role in determining tie strength between network members.

It is interesting to look at Lalonde’s (2011) PLN study in light of this. In the in-depth interviews he conducted with 7 participants, most indicate that their social connectedness and degree of trust in a PLN contact is determined by the quality and regularity of conversation they have – online or face to face. For these participants, regular online conversation with PLN contacts can and have resulted in the development of real relationships and genuine friendships, and sustained participation over time (in any medium) is generally regarded by participants as key to developing trust in PLN connections. That said, there is consensus that face to face contact is a powerful way to deepen and strengthen these online relationships. It is important to note that all of the participants in Lalonde’s study had high levels of experience and comfort with social networking platforms and online communication tools. Thus an individual’s level of experience and comfort with online communication technologies is likely an important factor in determining the ease with which they are able to develop and maintain distributed networks of strong, trusting connections who may provide both relevant information and social support to facilitate improvements or innovations in their professional practice.

This study

This study aims to explore the potential impact of an individual’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) on their innovation in professional practice.

It will view innovation largely from a ‘practice lens’ (Feldman & Orlikowski, 2010). Practice defines how people act and interact in their daily activities within a social setting (Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006). Simiilarly to the way Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) utilised ‘practice as the unit for understanding knowledge in organisations”, this study will view an individuals’ professional practice as the unit for understanding innovation in organisations.

As outlined in this literature review, existing research indicates a link between networks (networks of practice, employee networks, networked learning, knowledge networks) and innovation. The nature of this link is still unclear, and there remain many areas that warrant further investigation.

It is posited that much of the research on networks and innovation is likely to apply to PLNs, as conceptually, PLNs share many similarities with ‘Networks of Practice’ (NoPs). The key difference is that PLNs, based on an individual’s personal learning interests and motives, aren’t necessarily defined by work-based practice or a specific domain of knowledge as NoPs are. PLNs are also distinct from social networks as they are specifically focused on learning (Lalonde, 2011).

Thus one of the particularly interesting things to explore in this research is what influence (if any) these personal connections might have on an individual’s professional practice, since – as distinct from NoPs – these connections span an individual’s professional practice. This study also aims to leverage and extend on networks research in the context of PLNs and will explore questions such as:

  • Who do individuals define as being part of their PLN? (e.g. Do people consider work colleagues and internal work groups, friends, acquaintances etc as part of their PLN?)
  • Is the nature of an individual’s PLN connection with people internal to their organisation characteristically different to those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. perceived closeness/strength of tie, tone of conversation, regularity and modes of interaction, types of information shared, degree of social connectedness)
  • Is the nature of an individual’s PLN connection with people associated with their professional practice characteristically different to those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. perceived closeness/strength of tie, tone of conversation, regularity and modes of interaction, types of information shared, degree of social connectedness)
  • Descriptions / examples of improvements or changes made by the individual in their daily work practices or role (incremental innovation). Descriptions / examples of big new and useful changes that the individual has initiated in their work, workplace or role that have entirely changed the way they and others work (for the better) (radical innovation)? Having the individual define incremental and radical innovation within the context of their organisational context and practice (cf. Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012).
  • Explore whether the individual’s PLN played a role in influencing or motivating them to improve or innovate their professional practice? In what ways? Examples?
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on their innovative practice?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice? Do connections internal to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovation in an individual’s professional practice?
  • How important are social media and social platforms in helping people to find relevant and novel ideas from their PLN which they can use to help improve their professional practice? What social media and platforms are most commonly used? What is the nature of these connections – are they largely internal or external to the organisation? Are they reciprocal relationships? Regularity of interaction, and nature of interaction (e.g. informal / casual or more serious?) Percieved strength of tie, and what influences these perceptions on tie strength? Has the relationship evolved over time? In what way/s? What impacts / influences the evolution of the relationship? What factors influence the individual’s decision on adopting or trying to adopt the innovation in their organisation?
  • What other online channels are used? What face to face channels are used? What is the percieved effectiveness between online and face to face channels and ways of connecting to your PLN? What are the differences and similarities in the various channels used by an individual to connect to their PLN? If individuals have the opportunity to either connect online or face to face with a member of their PLN, what factors influence which mode they choose to use?
  • Do individuals who utilise their PLNs extensively to source new and innovative ideas to support improvements in their professional practice display the characteristics of “idea scouts” identified by Whelan et al (2010)?
  • Do individuals who successfully implement innovations within their organisation do so with support of internal connections who might be characterised as “idea connectors” as defined by Whelan et al (2010)? Does the same pattern of idea scouts pairing up with connectors also apply with both incremental and radical innovations?


In line with the exploratory nature of this research, and the call for more process-oriented, case-based qualitative networks research (Phelps et al, 2012), this study will use a number of semi-structured interviews (5-7?) to explore the questions outlined above. Similarly to Lalonde’s (2011) MA thesis, this study will likely take a phenomenological approach to understand the ‘lived experiences’ of participants involved (Laverty, 2003 cited by Lalonde, 2011), aiming for rich and complex descriptions of these experiences (Finlay, 2008 cited by Lalonde, 2011).

Participants are likely to be recruited from the researcher’s own PLN, and will aim to recruit participants from a variety of professional practices, as opposed to recruiting primarily from one professional practice as Lalonde’s (2011) study did. Whilst recruiting from one professional practice enables a degree of generalisability to be made within that cohort, it could be argued this effectively makes the phenomena under study a ‘network of practice’.

Note: I will be scoping out the methodology of this study in more detail next semester in the context of EDPK5003 Developing a Research Project.


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Mackey, J & Evans, T (2011) Interconnecting Networks of Practice for Professional Learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning Vol 23, no. 3 retrieved 10th November 2013

Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organization studies literature. Information Research vol. 16 no. 1, Retrieved from:

Obstfeld, D (2005) Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly

Phelps, C; Heidl, R and Wadhwa, A (2012) Knowledge Networks: A Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Management, July 2012; vol. 38, 4: pp. 1115 – 1166

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 Retrieved from:

Ryberg, T & Larsen, M.C (2008) Networked identities: understanding relationships between strong and weak ties in networked environments. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24, 103–115

Sie, R.L.; Bitter–Rijpkema, M.; and Sloep, P. B (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.

Swan, J & Scarbrough, H (2005) The politics of networked innovation. Human Relations; Vol 58 (7), 913-943.

Tagliaventi, M.R; Mattarelli, E (2006). The role of networks of practice, value sharing, and operational proximity in knowledge flows between professional groups. Human Relations 59.3 (Mar 2006): 291-319.

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

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.

Road to research

A couple of days ago, I re-enrolled into the Master of Learning Sciences and Technology program I first started back in 2009. And afterwards, I started freaking out. Just a little. Reasons being:

  1. It’s been 3 years since I was last enrolled in this program. Whilst it was undoubtedly a valuable and intellectually stimulating experience, I also recall a lot of stressing out about uni work on the weekends and in the evenings after work.
  2. A helluva lot has happened in these intervening 3 years. Not least of which is that I now have a kid who I adore spending my weekends and evenings with.
  3. Somehow, I let Prof Michael J Jacobson talk me into staying in the research stream. And research stream = 12,000 word dissertation. And yes. That’s a big part of why I’m freaking out.

I’m not even quite sure how this happened. I went into enrolment resolved to change from Research to the Professional stream. Although I’d previously harboured ambitions to do research in a past life, the thought of undertaking a PhD now makes me slightly ill. But instead of saying that out loud to the Prof., I found myself looking interested when he said the amount of work involved in the dissertation would be about the same as the Professional stream project  (really?!), and empathising when he told me how disappointed one of his former (Professional stream) students was when told he couldn’t easily gain entry to a PhD because he hadn’t done any previous research (wouldn’t have happened if he’d done the Research stream..). Then, all of a sudden I was talking research topics.

Here are some of the ideas we discussed:

  • Productive failure – this refers to a finding by Manu Kapur: students given complex, ill defined problems without any prior instruction, whilst not able to correctly solve the problem, later demonstrated better understanding of the concept than students receiving direct instruction (worked example, practice, feedback).  They attribute this to the fact that students in the ‘productive failure’ condition generated a lot more ideas about the problem when trying to solve it, thus gaining a greater understanding of its structure and ability to apply their knowledge to other problem contexts. Whilst this is a very interesting learning phenomenon with big implications for learning design, I’m actually interested in exploring how it might relate to innovation. There’s commonly a link made between organisational innovation and failure (or experience gained from failure) – and I think Kapur’s research goes some way to explain why. I’ve always thought that if I were to do research, I’d want to apply it in a context I know. So the idea of taking an idea that has previously been researched within a school context, and exploring if and how it generalises to an organisational environment could be interesting.
  • Technology facilitated collaborative learning – this is an area I’ve always been interested in, and there’s a lot of scope for a lot of interesting work here. It’s just a matter of narrowing it down.
  • Design of learning environments for the future – this is the title of a book that Prof Jacobson and Dr Peter Reimann edited which incorporates lots of interesting topics (incl. using visual representations in learning, virtual worlds, collaborative teams, personal learning communities…)

So I don’t know…but I might just be starting to get over my freak out and getting a little bit excited about this research gig after all.