Forward Government Learning 2015 – “Future of the LMS in the Public Sector”

On Friday I presented this session at the Forward Government Learning conference, on the topic “The Future of the LMS in the Public Sector”.

It can be difficult to make meaning from slides alone, so here is some of the thinking and context behind these ideas.

Ideas & inspiration

It wasn’t a topic I chose directly (I don’t find LMSs in and of themselves particularly inspiring…and “LMS” and “Public Sector” together in one sentence even less so). However, as I started thinking about what I could possibly say that wouldn’t put people to sleep (especially on a Friday afternoon…), I started seeing some potentially interesting angles.

I wasn’t interested in looking at the capabilities of the LMS as a system from a technical perspective, so much as the drivers for change in how LMSs are viewed and used – and what this means for people. My initial thoughts were influenced by my own observations and experiences in the organisation I work for (Transport for NSW, a large state government agency responsible for the operation of public transport services – rail, buses, roads & maritime). During my (relatively short) time in the public sector, I’ve seen reforms like consolidation of agencies, moves toward shared services, and the increasing prevalence of holistic workplace learning models like 70:20:10 – all of which has an impact what we do in Organisational Development (OD), and the systems that we use (in OD/L&D, primarily the LMS).

Interested in other people’s views, I also put out a call on twitter to (ex)-Government peeps in my PLN (which I’ve Storified here), and collected ideas and examples from others in Transport OD. I am grateful to Con Sotidis and Vanessa North from my PLN who provided their thoughts; and Martin Caldwell and Helen Fullarton at Transport OD who gave me information and examples of portfolios of evidence and competency assessment initiatives they are involved in implementing.

4 key areas

I ended up structuring these ideas into 4 key areas:

  1. Shared services > shared systems – this is essentially a comment on the public sector trend towards consolidation of agencies and centralisation of services (L&D/OD/HR/Payroll/Procurement), and how this is driving the consolidation of systems (like LMSs). I’m interested in how this subsequently impacts people-process-workflow-behaviour…and potentially values – particularly when applied to the L&D/OD space. And additionally, what this might mean if / when this sharing & collaboration happens across different government agencies.
  2. Integrated systems > seamless employee experiences – within organisations (certainly mine) there seems to be a move towards integration of people systems (LMS/HR/Payroll/Performance Management/Devt). (A few government delegates at the conference mentioned the same was happening in their organisations). I’m interested in how this changes (improves) the employee experience – especially experiences like recruitment and induction. Ultimately (once the implementation issues are ironed out…) it should lead to much more seamless employee experiences than is currently the case.
  3. Holistic models and practices for workplace learning > moving beyond the LMS as sole delivery platform – I’m seeing an increasing maturation in thinking and practice in the use of the LMS as a delivery platform – driven  by workplace learning models like 70:20:10 becoming more mainstream. There will always be a place for LMSs in highly regulated industries (like transport, health, finance etc). But most of the interesting stuff – the stuff that actually gets close to supporting people for better on-the-job performance – is happening outside of the LMS (at least perhaps until LMSs catch up and become more flexible and adaptable):
    • There’s a much greater recognition of the limitations of the LMS for supporting the 70 and 20 components (e.g. performance support, coaching, mentoring), and appreciation that often, there is little or no value in tracking these activities in an LMS (particularly if ‘completion’ and ‘score’ is the only data that can be reported on). Subsequently there is increasing use of more dynamic, accessible and flexible platforms like the intranet, sharepoint, portals and mobile apps to support on-the-job, just-in-time workplace learning.
    • Use of portfolios of evidence to collect a broad range of authentic and meaningful artifacts to demonstrate competency in actual task / job performance (vs ‘content completion’ or ‘score’), and also to promote more reflective practice.
    • Greater blending of comms and learning – especially to support broad based organisational change initiatives. In Transport, our internal comms team is actually part of OD. This is leading to a more integrated and aligned messaging, and enabling more ‘campaign’-based approaches to supporting organisational change.
  4. Beyond SCORM and completion tracking > xAPI for more meaningful and integrated data – although xAPI (“tin can”) is still very much in an experimental phase, I don’t think any conversation about the “future of” LMSs can exclude mention of it. Here, I was interested in exploring conceptually how it could be used to ultimately help people to work better and improve performance  – by gathering and using more meaningful data about how people work and learn – and developing tighter feedback loops between the two to inform training interventions (as one potential use for xAPI in the L&D/OD context). *NOTE: a comment from a delegate at the conference mentioned LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) as an alternative to xAPI for achieving similar outcomes. Sounds like something worth looking into.

Whilst there wasn’t quite as much discussion as I’d hoped from the session (last up on a Friday afternoon is not exactly the time to get a conversation going…), keen to hear any thoughts and perhaps start (or continue) a conversation here or elsewhere. Get in touch.

Conversation spaces for deep learning

Preface: this is a post I wrote back in March-April 2015 but hadn’t published as I’d wanted to create a more readable version of the diagram (yes. It took THAT long. Mainly because, as is often the case with draft / unpublished posts, I forgot about it then lost the momentum / motivation to go back to it). I’m digging into the blog draft archives and posting them without significant editing to try to develop a ‘WorkOutLoud’ attitude and become more comfortable with publicly sharing work-in-progress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation spaces lately: public and private; online and offline; formal and informal places and spaces, and how each of these might support various ways of knowing and learning.

The seed of this thinking was planted by Kandy Woodfield’s excellent and thought provoking post last year on the ethics of (open) social learning and working out loud. Kandy’s post prompted me to start considering the role, pros/cons, and differences of open, public, professional learning spaces vs closed, private, personal ones – and how our learning across these contexts interact to influence our identity, connections, conversations, mindset and behaviour.

This thinking has been kick-started again as I’ve reflected on recent ongoing private conversations with a friend. This is a person I have only known for about 6 months, who less than 3 months ago I’d have called an acquaintance. The (what feels like) accelerated status from acquaintance to friend has occurred largely through these private conversations, in which we’ve explored complex topics at a personal level, through a variety of mediums: in-person conversations, text messages, email, phone calls. These conversations have been open, honest, challenging and confusing, where I’ve learnt as much about myself as I have about my friend; that have challenged me to think about things that I otherwise wouldn’t have (or wanted to); and inspired and supported me to change the way I approach certain situations.

It’s a personal learning experience that feels something like therapy, counselling, or coaching conversations – but without the formality or power dynamics inherent in these contexts. John Stepper’s WOL circles (based on Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’ circles) – an informal model for peer coaching and support might be an apt comparison. But yet more emergent, organic (serendipitous?) – without the guidelines, explicitly articulated purpose, or group dynamic.

As learning practitioners and educators we often ponder how to achieve deep, personally meaningful learning that inspires and supports ongoing, long term behaviour change. The type of learning that – in an organisational context – translates not only to impacts on business measures, but broad and lasting cultural change. That in an educational context – might lead to a breakthrough transition: from uncooperative/disruptive students with low self esteem to enthusiastic students proud of their achievements with a newfound thirst for learning (This inspiring EdContexts post by Éllen Cintra is a great example). The type of learning that prompts individuals to examine within, reflect deeply, question long held beliefs, and change their behaviour or habits.

My instinct is that all of these learning experiences come about through similar underlying processes. I have been wondering about the characteristics of this type of profound learning: how it emerges, whether it could be achieved in an intentionally designed environment, and the conditions that are needed to facilitate it.

And what I’m thinking might drive this type of learning is conversation. Conversations of: openness. honesty. empathy, shared understanding. shared purpose, trust. Vulnerability. Acceptance. Mutual, ongoing support. Conversations that make you FEEL deeply as well as think deeply. That engender emotional, as well as cognitive connection. It may not be so much about finding a solution to a defined problem, as it is about uncovering, unravelling, & exploring complexity and supporting each other to figure out how and what might work.

Can environments be ‘designed’ to support this type of learning?

‘Design’ in this context is not about developing the right set of ‘learning resources’. It’s not about setting up an ESN (Enterprise Social Network) and hoping for the best – or manufacturing reasons for people to ‘interact’. It’s about creating the right type of ‘conversation space’ for these personally or professionally meaningful conversations (and learning > relationships > behaviour change) to emerge.

Here is a ‘back of the envelope’ set of conditions that I’m thinking might be important:

  • Private or semi-private (e.g. a closed group) conversation spaces. High degrees of trust and vulnerability are critical for deep learning. This may be difficult (impossible?) to achieve in an open, public space. Personal conversations, private/direct/text messages, coaching or performance conversations, journals, WOL circles are all examples of private conversation spaces.
  • In-person contact – maybe it’s possible to develop the same level of trust and vulnerability exclusively through online interactions, but I’m still not entirely sure (reflecting on this conversation on Terry Elliot’s blog re the nature of connection). At the least, it might take longer and be more difficult than if there were opportunities for face to face contact. More ‘present’ forms of online interaction like Google Hangouts, Skype or video calls might help bridge the gap.
  • Regular, ongoing contact, ‘check-ins’ – this may be essential for the ‘change’ aspect of this learning – ongoing, mutual support, talking through issues, encouragement to try (and keep trying) different courses of action, following up and reflecting on what seems to work (or not) is a form of social accountability, and helps motivate, kickstart & continue behaviour change.
  • Empathy / shared experiences and/or purpose – empathy can be so important for developing trust. Maybe because when empathy is present there is no judgement. Empathy might come from shared experiences and/or a shared purpose. Or might simply emerge from listening without judgement.

This is something I drafted a couple of months ago, to start mapping out some of this thinking. I always intended to post it as a ‘thinking out loud’ artifact, but wasn’t inspired to write the framing post and backstory for it until my personal conversations with my friend, and the conversation on Terry’s blog got me revisiting this thinking. (Thanks Terry – and thanks to my friend who has been integral to the backstory. I think you might know who you are).

conversation spaces - work in progress

These are the original scribblings and notes that the above diagram evolved from (you can see why I needed to convert it to a more legible format…):


Reflections on wolweek

Well…#wolweek (“working out loud” week) didn’t quite turn out as I’d anticipated, when I optimistically wrote a post last week about intending to participate.

Day 1-2 I was mostly offline, madly finishing a work piece to support a huge organisation-wide ERP project. Not quite sure what happened the rest of the week…but I never managed the flurry of tweets and blog posts of updates on work in progress and half baked thoughts I’d imagined at the week’s beginning. I was reflecting on why this was the case, and I think it comes down to the simple fact that it takes more than just intentions to change behaviour. Although I had the intention to participate, I didn’t actually think about how I’d do it. Starting a #wol habit and participating actively in #wolweek involves actively participating in a community. This starts with consciously and habitually checking the feed, responding to other’s updates as well as sharing your own – and integrating this behaviour into your work day. This is the challenge of any new behaviour change.

As Jeff Merrell pointed out on my previous post, #wol isn’t just about sharing publicly, but sharing and being open with anyone you’re working with. Yes, I was in ongoing communication and shared work in progress with stakeholders in the project (something I am consciously working on getting more comfortable with – and have found that early sharing of incomplete work or initial ideas- can be very helpful). But – were there also moments when sharing what I was working on with the broader network outside of my immediate work group could have helped me? Definitely.

Some of these moments included:

  • trying to figure out how to link internally to a set of html files from a page in an elearning authoring tool. Googling it brought up a number of promising looking links – but they were all to the vendor’s (CLOSED) community. When I tried joining the community to access the forum posts, the activation email didn’t work. I gave up, and eventually called the vendor’s support where I eventually got the information I needed to make it work. It was a frustrating experience that could possibly have been short circuited by directly consulting my network. Did I even think of this at the time? No. (This goes back to not having thought about the sorts of things I’d share during #wolweek, and when).
  • toying with the idea of a structural change to the online comms/awareness piece I was working on. I ended up leaving it in the end but at that point when you’ve looked at something 1000 times and lost all objectivity, getting feedback from someone with no background or prior knowledge can be helpful.
  • researching how to develop & deploy an ipad app (scoping the specs so still have a chance to get help on this)

So…although #wolweek is just about over, and didn’t go quite as I’d intended, I’m hoping my reflections on why, how and what i could have done will help keep #wol front of mind for me, and trigger a response to share what I’m working on and learn from others. And at least I’m getting more comfortable with blurting out quick posts.

I’ve also got a bunch of old drafts that I will publish…likely over the next week (as it’s after midnight now and I don’t have the energy to do anything other than post this one!).

Developing a work out loud ‘attitude’

I’ve been conscious that I haven’t posted anything here for several months. Part of this has been a result of me consciously spending less time online in general, to focus on being more ‘present’ at home, to reprioritise a few things and to give genuine attention and time to important relationships in my life.

That said, not publishing anything isn’t the same as not writing – I have numerous ‘draft’ posts in various stages of ‘completeness’ which I haven’t published. I’ve often wondered why this is so…and I think part of it is fear of publishing something which seems ‘incomplete’ or not entirely thought through.

But, as Jeff Merrell so eloquently expressed in a (relatively) recent post ‘Working out loud week lesson: ignore the network’, publishing ‘work out loud’ reflections and ‘half baked thoughts’ has value in itself – for yourself (to articulate and capture your thinking). And more than likely, has value for others – even if you don’t get an immediate or explicit response from anyone telling you so. The value of making something public is that you provide the opportunity for someone, sometime to benefit from it – possibly at some point after you wrote it.

And in fact, this exact thing happened to me around the time I read Jeff’s post: Norman Jackson, who publishes an online magazine on learning, personal development & education, stumbled upon the ‘work in progress’ post I’d written 3 months earlier on the PLN model I was working on as part of my Masters research – and asked if he might publish it as part of an issue on PLNs he was doing for the magazine. It was one of those purely serendipitous moments…but one that was only possible because I’d posted those thoughts publicly, instead of just working on it privately.

Doing this consistently and regularly – and integrating it into part of ‘what you do’ is the challenge. Another post which recently changed the way I viewed ‘working out loud’ was Nigel Young’s ‘When working out loud isn’t really WOL’. The most important point, for me, in his post was the notion that ‘working out loud’ is an attitude – it’s simply about sharing, exploring ideas & seeking feedback openly and in public. This doesn’t necessarily just mean blogging or on social media, it can also be in asking questions and sharing ideas in meetings, on the whiteboard – or in any medium.

So, when I saw Helen Blunden’s post on Third Place inviting the group to join her in ‘work out loud’ week (June 15-21 2015) I thought it might be a good opportunity to start consciously practising and developing this ‘work out loud’ attitude.

And although (as Nigel says) blogging isn’t necessarily the ONLY medium for working out loud, it’s probably one of the more visible options. And there’s nothing like a bit of social accountability and collective action to kickstart a new attitude (or habit). I might even post some of those ‘unfinished’ drafts.

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)

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:

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:


How does a learning professional’s PLN support innovations in their professional practice?

MA research proposal

This is my current proposal for research I’m doing as part of the Master of Learning Sciences and Technology. I’ve been quite fascinated by Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) for a while now, and as a learning practitioner, I’m interested in how we leverage our PLN relationships to support improvements or innovations in our professional practice. This is what my proposed research aims to explore. This proposal will be refined, and possibly change in some parts…so it’s always good to be able to look back and see how it evolves.


Increasing competition, globalisation, and rapid pace of change are putting organisations and individuals under pressure to continuously innovate (improve processes, products, practices) (Whelan, 2007, Baker-Doyle 2008). Knowledge is often recognised as an organisation’s greatest asset (Whelan, 2007); and in this “knowledge economy” the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across contexts is vital to survive and thrive (Castells, 2000, cited by Baker-Doyle, 2008). Quantitative research using Social Network Analysis (SNA) has shown that knowledge flows for organisational innovation happen through informal social networks both within and outside the organisation (Cross et al, 2002; 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).

Whilst this research has defined some of the structural characteristics of networks that support innovative practice (e.g. Burt 2004, Ebadi & Utterback 1984, Morrison 2002; Perry-Smith 2006; Morgan & Soerensen 1999 – cited byPhelps et al, 2012; Fleming, Mingo & Chen 2007; Obtsfeld 2005), less is known about the processes that link these 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).

Using qualitative case study research, this project aims to provide a rich description of how personal learning networks may support workplace learning and improvements in professional practice for Learning & Development (L&D) professionals working in an organisational context. In the modern, knowledge-based organisation, L&D professionals will be expected to help build employees’ “network performance” capabilities (Martin & Handcock, 2014). To do this, L&D professionals first need to understand how to build these skills themselves, to improve their own professional practice. This research will help them do this.

Literature review

Innovation is “typically understood as the successful introduction of something new and useful” (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). Radical innovation results in extreme change to existing processes, practices, products while Incremental innovation leads to gradual, or step by step improvement (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). In an organisational context, this may be understood as daily learning and emergent adaptation of work practices, through informal, spontaneous information gathering, iterative experimentation, and observation (Brown & Duguid, 1991). It is a “type of conduct” embedded in the social networks of individuals (Obtsfeld, 2005).

Literature on learning and knowledge networks 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). Social networks research has shown that an extended network is crucial for personal and professional development (Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013), including the implementation of innovations and improved practices (Baker-Doyle, 2008; Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013). Informal, interpersonal relationships that employees build with others both inside and outside the organisations are key (Whelan et al 2011; Tagliaventi and Mattarelli, 2006). Weak ties, with acquaintances (often outside the organisation) help bring in new ideas that inspire and challenge existing practice; strong ties with people within the organisation who you are close to, and have a shared practice with, help individuals to interpret, adapt and implement new ideas into the local context (Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013; Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007;  Hemphala & Magnusson 2012). In particular, co-location / shared physical space, combined with common values seem to be critical for supporting exchange of knowledge about new practices, and adoption and diffusion of new practices amongst practitioners (Tagliaventi and Mattarelli, 2006; Baker-Doyle, 2008; Hotho, Becker-Ritterspach, and Saka-Helmhout 2013).

The development of shared professional practice amongst practitioners is grounded in socio-cultural theories such as situated learning theory, which views engagement in activities and with others as participation in social practices (Greeno & Gresalfi, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Packer & Goicoechea, 2000; Wenger, 1998 – cited by Bonderup Dohn, 2014). Engagement is intrinsically related to belonging; and participation is a negotiation of one’s status and identity within the community (Bonderup Dohn, 2014). Learning and knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs, and is usually embedded in social interactions with others (Bell, Maeng, and Binns, 2013).

One particular type of informal relationship is a Personal Learning Network (PLN). A PLN is “the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs” (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa, 2012). An individual’s PLN may contain a broad range of connections, including weak and strong ties, within and outside the boundary of their professional practice. Whilst there has been relatively little academic research on PLNs, there is increasing anecdotal interest in PLNs amongst learning and education practitioners documented in blog postings or conference presentations (Couros, 2010), and industry publications – e.g. a search on the Association for Talent Development’s ‘TD’ magazine yielded 495 results.

Studies suggest that practitioners are motivated to develop PLNs to support innovations in their professional practice, by including ‘innovative’ people in their PLN (Rajagopal et al 2012).Practitioners connect with these people to draw on their knowledge and experience in order to improve their own professional practice, or to get support from others facing similar workplace challenges (Lalonde, 2011).

Effective use of PLNs as learning resources depends on the networking skills of individuals – – the ability to engage in conversations, communicate ideas and opinions, and to continuously build, maintain and activate relationships (Rajagopal et al 2012). PLN relationships are often developed and sustained via Information and communication or social networking technologies (Rajagopal et al 2012, Lalonde 2010).Whelan et al (2011) found that employees who brought innovative ideas into their organisation via their external networks (“idea scouts”) had a high level of comfort and skill in navigating and utilising web 2.0 technologies (social bookmarking/tagging, social media platforms, blogs, wikis), were  about 3 times more likely to learn of new developments and trends this way compared to face-to-face channels.

Much of the research on networks and innovation describe what networks offer in general terms (deLaat & Schreuers 2013), assume networks play a positive role (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005), and don’t always represent the complexity of the relationships and ties between people (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008). More longitudinal, process-oriented, case-based qualitative research (Phelps et al, 2012), ethnographic studies, and/or grounded empirical approaches (de Laat & Schreurs, 2013), describing networked learning behaviour is needed, the processes linking networks to innovative practice (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).


Research strategy

Although there are many anecdotal and industry articles stating the benefits of developing and sustaining a Personal Learning Network (PLN) for learning professionals to improve and support their professional practice, there is an absence of academic research for this target population. This study seeks to explore and describe how relationships in a learning professional’s PLN might support them in their professional practice. The primary research question is:

In what ways do relationships in a learning professional’s Personal Learning Network support them to introduce improvements or innovations in their professional practice?

Secondary research questions include:

  • How do strong/weak connections external to the learning professional’s organisation support this?
  • How do strong/weak connections internal to the learning professional’s organisation support this?
  • What role does the learning professionals’ skill, experience and comfort with social media technologies play in facilitating this?

A retrospective case study research strategy will be employed to enable an in-depth exploration, helping to contribute to theory (Neuman, 2003), of “how and why” (Fridlund, 1997) a learning professional’s PLN might contribute to improvements in their professional practice.

Operationalisation of key concepts

The learning professional’s “Personal Learning Network” will be operationalised as people they interact with for the purposes relating to work or their professional practice.

“Improvements in professional practice” will be operationalised using the dimensions of “absorptive capacity” used by Hotho et al (2012) in their comparative case study of two subsidiaries. “Absorptive capacity” is defined as “the ability and motivation to recognise, assimilate and apply new knowledge” (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Minbaeva et al., 2003 – cited by Hotho et al 2012), and is frequently highlighted as a key determinate of knowledge transfer, innovativeness and profitability of organisations (Hotho et al, 2012). Adapting Hotho et al’s (2012) operationalisations, this study will look for evidence of:

  • Acquisition of ideas or information relating to professional practice from members of their Personal Learning Network
  • Transformation in thinking about their professional practice resulting from an interaction with their Personal Learning Network
  • Application of this knowledge through the adoption of new practices or changes to existing practice.

Figure 1. depicts the design for the case studies. Sampling, data collection, ethics and analysis will be described in more detail in the following sections.


Figure 1: case study design

Participants / Sample

Participants will be Learning & Development professionals working within an organisational context. They will be working within an organisation’s ‘Learning & Development’ (L&D) or ‘Organisational Development’ (OD) unit, typically in roles such as instructional designer, Learning & Development Consultant, L&D / OD Business Partner, trainer / facilitator, training manager or other learning specialist.

This research will adopt the non-probability sampling strategy used by LaLonde (2011), in his exploratory study on the role of Twitter in developing and maintaining connections in educators’ Personal Learning Networks (PLNs).

Sampling method

Non-probability, purposive sampling will be used to select relevant participants. Criterion that potential participants need to meet for this study:

  • Currently working as a learning professional in an organisational context
  • Actively engaged in self-directed learning goals related to their professional practice
  • Contactable
  • Committed to participating in a week long activity diarising their learning activity and follow-up interview/s

Participants may be selected from membership lists of professional networking groups for learning practitioners, or possibly from the L&D or OD department of a single organisation using the sampling criteria defined above. So that different perspectives can be considered, and cross-case comparisons made, learning professionals employed in different roles (e.g. instructional designer, training manager, eLearning developer, trainer / facilitator) and with different levels of usage / confidence in social networking technologies will be selected for each case study.

Sampling size

As with most qualitative research, data collection and analysis will occur progressively with no predefined sample size (Neuman, 2003). Rather, sampling and data collection will continue until ‘saturation point’ or no further new information is forthcoming (Tuckett, 2004; LaLonde, 2011). LaLonde (2011), studying a similar topic, found 7 participants to be sufficient. Since this study will go into more depth with each case, it is anticipated that 2 or 3 cases will likely be covered.

Strengths and weaknesses

Purposive sampling enables participants from different learning practitioner roles to be selected for the purposes of cross-case comparison. Whilst purposive sampling is appropriate for this type of exploratory research (Neuman, 2003), the sample will not represent the ‘typical’ learning professional, and the research cannot claim generalisability. It is also likely to suffer from non-response and self-selection bias – diarising learning activity for a week plus a participation in an interview requires substantial commitment, so it is likely those who participate will already be professionally engaged. There is also likely cultural bias in the sampling frame, towards English-speaking Australians highly literate with social networking technologies.

Data collection

Three types of qualitative data collection methods will be used:

  1. Survey – A short survey will capture demographic information from participants, such as gender, age range, ethnicity, education level, role / job title, location, organisation in which they work, and level of usage and confidence with social networking technologies. This will enable cross-case comparison. This survey should take no longer than 5 minutes to complete and may be done online via Survey Monkey.
  2. Diary log – participants will complete a structured diary for 1 week logging specific details of any instance where they interacted with someone in their Personal Learning Network (PLN) for purposes relating to their professional practice. People are often unconscious of their own learning processes in the workplace (Eraut 2004; Ellström 2011 cited by Rausch, 2013), including the contacts they connect with for learning (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa 2012). Diary methods collect self-report data closer to real time. This helps to overcome the bias of retrospective questionnaires or interviews commonly used in workplace learning research (Rausch, 2013) and social network analysis (Baker-Doyle, 2008; Feld & Carter, 2002), and captures data in a natural context, without the direct intrusion of the researcher.   Aside from providing upfront guidance and instruction on the process of data collection, and check-ins to encourage consistent diarising, the researcher will be a ‘non-participant’ in the data collection.

Data will be collected by participants on interactions with their Personal Learning Network through the structured diary log. Each time they interact with a member of their PLN for purposes related to their professional practice they will record the following details:

  • Who they interacted with
  • How they interacted (e.g. the specific tool/technology used, face to face, phone etc)
  • The purpose of the interaction
  • Whether the connection was internal or external to the participant’s workplace

The diary may be modelled on Colbert’s (2000) ‘Rendevous Diary’ described by Lallemand (2012), a simple, and similar event-contingent diary suitable for this study. It may be created as an interactive Word or PDF form which participants may complete electronically or print.

  1. Semi-structured interview – follow up interview with participants via phone or Skype will be conducted (and recorded) about a week after the completion of the diary log. Interviews will be approximately 60 minutes. The purpose of these interviews is to clarify diary entries and further probe the nature of PLN relationships and interactions relating to improvements in their professional practice identified in the diary.

Questions in the SNA survey tool from Baker-Doyle’s (2008) case study of teacher networks will be used to identify relevant details about the nature and history of the learning professional’s relationship with key contacts. This will include: degree of closeness, frequency of interaction, and types of discussions typically conducted about their professional practice, regularity of these conversations, degree of influence the contact has had in inspiring changes to professional learning philosophy and practice, degree to which they share or offer advice to each contact.

Any diary interactions relating to improvements in professional practice will be probed to identify what changes were made as a result of the PLN interaction, and any challenges faced by the learning professional in implementing the changes.

An additional follow up interview may be employed to capture data on the evolution of changes made to professional practice (e.g. whether they were implemented and/or sustained).

The research site for the diary activity will occur in-situ – where-ever participants interact with their PLN. This may be at their workplace, home, or any other number of locations. The follow up interview will likely be via ‘Skype’ or telephone.

Ethical issues

This research will be conducted only with the informed consent of participants, and in compliance with National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Approval will be obtained from the University of Sydney HREC body.

The small sample sizes increase the likelihood that participants may be identifiable. To mitigate this, pseudonyms will be used and the organisations participants work for will not be named.


Manifest content analysis of diary log data will be conducted to identify any PLN interactions that may relate to improving the participant’s professional practice.

Participant validation of this analysis will be done through the follow up interview with participants. This participant verification of a researcher’s account is good practice (Eraut 2000), and contributes to reliability of data (Hotho et al. 2012). Following transcription of the interviews, manifest and latent coding of the transcripts will be conducted to identify themes relating to key concepts.

Responses on diary log and interviews will be cross checked, providing “checks and balances” for each data type (Baker-Doyle, 2008).

Cases will be compared for common themes or differences, narratives will be constructed for each case to create rich descriptions, with the aim of developing a grounded theory on the PLN interactions and relationships that contribute to improvements in professional practice.


It is anticipated that collecting, transcribing and analysing data, and the writing of the final report will take about 9-12 months.

December 2014 – January 2015 Literature review
January, 2015 Seek ethics approval
February – March 2015 Case 1 data collection, transcription, analysis
April – May, 2015 Case 2 data collection, transcription, analysis
June – July, 2015 Case 3 data collection, transcription, analysis
August – October, 2015 Writing up findings


The results of the study will be disseminated to the participants. A thesis will be written up and offered for presentation at relevant conferences and/or submitted to journals such as Australian Vocational Education Review.


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