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.

PLN_diagram

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:

PLN_Model_Rajagopal_etal_2012

From Rajagopal K., Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

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

Serendipitous connections

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

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

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

 

Benefits of sharing research-in-progress

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

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

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

Support from Nick Leffler, Tania Sheko & Toni Rose Pinero

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

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

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

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

Feedback and resources from Ryan Tracey

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

Conversations & evolving thinking with Con Sotidis & Helen Blunden

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

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

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

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

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

Refs

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Introduction

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 http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD 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).

Methodology

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.

MACaseStudyDesign

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.

Analysis

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.

Timetable

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

Dissemination

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.

References

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Bell, R. L., Maeng, J. L. and Binns, I. C. (2013), Learning in context: Technology integration in a teacher preparation program informed by situated learning theory. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 50: 348–379.

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Bonderup Dohn, N (2014) A practice-grounded approach to ‘engagement’ and ‘motivation’ in networked learning. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning 2014, Edited by: Bayne S, Jones C, de Laat M, Ryberg T & Sinclair C.

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 http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Burt, R.S (2000) Structural Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital. Preprint for a chapter in Social Capital: Theory and Research. Edited by Nan Lin, Karen S. Cook, and R. S. Burt. Aldine de Gruyter, 2001. Retrieved from http://snap.stanford.edu/class/cs224w-readings/burt00capital.pdf

Dasgupta, M and Gupta, R.K (2009) Innovation in Organizations: A Review of the Role of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management. Global Business Review, 10:2, 203–224

de Laat, M and Schreurs, B (2013) Visualising informal professional development networks: building a case for learning analytics in the workplace. American Behavioral Scientist 57 (10) 1421 – 1428

De Laat, M; Lally, V; Lipponen, L Simons, RJ (2006) Analysing student engagement with learning and tutoring activities in networked learning communities: A multi-method approach. International Journal of Web Based Communities 2 (4), 394-412

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Hemphala, J and Magnusson, M (2012) Networks for Innovation – But What Networks and What Innovation? Creativity and Innovation Management Vol 21 (1) November 2013 http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/902/

Hotho, J. J., Becker-Ritterspach, F. and Saka-Helmhout, A. (2012), Enriching Absorptive Capacity through Social Interaction. British Journal of Management, 23: 383–401

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Lallemand, C. (2012). Dear Diary: Using Diaries to Study User Experience. User Experience Magazine, 11(3). Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/dear-diary-using-diaries-to-study-user-experience/

LaLonde C (2011) The Twitter experience: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of Personal Learning Networks. Retrieved from http://thesis.clintlalonde.net/

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. 3http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/873/1682 retrieved 10th November 2013

Martin, J & Handcock, T (2014) New Roles Emerge for Learning and Development. TD Magazine http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2014/10/Webex-New-Roles-Emerge-for-Learning-and-Development

Neuman, W.L. (2003) Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Fifth edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Rajagopal K., Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

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: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

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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

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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 9.3 (Mar 2006): 291-319.

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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

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

Blog Secret Santa…unwrapped

This year, I participated in Blog Secret Santa: “Just like regular Secret Santa, but for blogs”. If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘secret santa’ concept, it’s a group activity which involves anonymously giving a gift and receiving one back. And so it was with Blog Secret Santa: after registering and choosing a group to join (I chose the ‘Learning & Development’ group), I received an email in the first week of December with the name of the person I was to write a gift post for. We all had up until midnight Christmas Eve (GMT) to write our post; then on Christmas Day, received an email containing our gift post, from an anonymous blogger, to publish on our own blogs.

Here is the one I received. I haven’t figured out who wrote it yet…and I don’t think I’ll go digging. Not knowing somehow adds to the mystery and magic of Blog Secret Santa (that said – I was a tad too obvious with my post and the person I gave to figured out I wrote it! I’ll have to leave fewer clues next year…)

*****

Now What? I Found A Better Way Out

It’s Friday night. I’ve met my partner at her work. We walk across the road to the car park.
I’m handed the keys. I open the door for her. I get in the driver’s seat. I start the car.
To my left are two exit signs. I choose the one closest to me. I start to drive out the exit.
At the end of an exit is a parking attendant. He summons all his authority in his right hand and deposits it on me with a stop signal. I stop.
He says, “Don’t you know you’re using the wrong exit?” I think to argue, turn the car around and reenter the car park.
I choose the exit sign furthest from me. And leave the car park.
My partner just shakes her head at me and says, “We don’t do things like that around here.”
We laughed but it was serious.

What has this to do with learning and development you ask?

It illustrates a potential problem with learning and development in organisations.
What if you educate yourself and find a better way of getting out of the car park?
While learning and development in organisations still remains under the control of the organisation, course content and context can be tailored to satisfy organisational objectives. An example of this is the induction course which sets out the required expectations of employees. Another example is the information technology courses required to enable the introduction of new software. The philosophy behind these courses is pedagogical, imparting the knowledge, skills and attributes to enable learners to carry out certain functions or roles.

Even the introduction of more innovative training methods can create resistance. An example was that of an organisation who was introducing training using more facilitative methods. The intention of the training was to change attitudes of people who worked very closely with others who were dependent upon them. That training used role plays. Once the participants knew that, they resisted the training. However, as the organisation ultimately controls the training and it would be linked to their roles, the resistance would have been overcome.

But it is the advent of more online courses, that loosens the control the organisation has learning and development. By enabling learners themselves to control their own learning, that is, to be self-directed adult learners can create potential organisational problems.

The first is that they will enrol themselves in courses not related to their roles or outside their prescribed training plan. While an employee may learn a new skill, for example, customer service that he or she can apply in their job, there remains the potential for learning to be directly applied in the workplace. There is of course the potential that the employee may learn a new skill outside of his or her job and utilise that elsewhere, whether still within the organisation or perhaps outside it, in a new role perhaps.

The second is that the collaborative learning may enable self-directed adult learners to solve existing organisational problems. Again if the problem is minor, most organisations will embrace it depended upon its culture. But if collaborative adult learning finds a better way out of the car park and meets the attendant, what then?

Writing inspiration

Although I’ve been neglecting this blog of late, I felt compelled to write after having just read two inspiring posts by two people I very much admire: Lessons from my first experience of hosting a #PKMChat by Bruno Winck, and Writing to Connect: Knowing the “Other” Outside Time & Space by Maha Bali  (guest posting for #DigiWriMo). And, as it is #WOLweek (International Working Out Loud week), it seems the perfect time to practice active reflection.

Thinking about these two posts, and what inspires me about them – it’s the passion and ambition that both Bruno and Maha inject into seemingly everything they do: they’re both amazing connectors who participate in a wide range of diverse online communities and activities, always taking on new and ever-ambitious challenges, people who reflect and think  deeply about what they do. They think, and act, big.

This became especially apparent to me when I participated in the first #PKMChat last Thursday morning (6am, Sydney time), a twitter chat that  Bruno has started and is running on his own. Picking up on @CBarrows’ suggestion of writing down 1 take away:

There were some great tips and insights contributed. But for me, the single biggest #PKMChat takeaway was not so much what was said, but this: how one person can build a diverse community around them – and pull this community in to give an hour of their time to actively participate in an online conversation with a bunch of other (mostly?) random people. While I certainly knew some people in the chat, there were probably more I didn’t know (or didn’t know well). My primary motivation for participating had been to support Bruno in his endeavour to start up a new chat. I suspect this personal connection was a key motivator for others participating too. Bruno’s been a staunch supporter and regular participant in our monthly #OzLearn chat – and one of  our first international participants. Active participants are the lifeblood of any chat (without them, there is no chat!). Thus, a good twitter chat (or MOOC, or any participatory, community activity) is often a direct reflection of the hosts’ networking and community building skills. I know Bruno participates actively in a number of other diverse chats, MOOCs and online communities – and the diversity of participants in that first #PKMChat was undoubtedly the outcome of Bruno’s contribution and participation in these communities. What this shows I think, is the power of active and regular participation in promoting connection with others in online communities.

Connecting with others online – and more: developing close friendships, knowing and loving online, through writing – is the theme of Maha’s post Writing to Connect: Knowing the “Other” Outside Time & Space.  This was one of the best posts I’ve read for a while. It’s hard to describe exactly what I love about it or why.  The depth and breadth of online writing experiences she describes. The clear, infectious passion for writing and connecting with others she exudes, love that emanates from the screen. The deeply intriguing questions that emerge:

I can “know” some people online, through their writing, better than people I know face-to-face in some ways…

Is it because online, text forces you to make some parts of your thinking more explicit? Is it the distortion of time/space that occurs online, that allows one to have a continuous conversation over days or weeks, during the wee hours of the morning, while in the car or at work or in bed, when our defenses are down?

The drawing out of insights through experience and reflection (which of course, lead to more questions – always the sign of a good post):

This intimacy or closeness online, this knowing and loving, is all contingent upon the amount of mutual sharing and the extent to which people make themselves vulnerable. Every close relationship I’ve built with someone online has had strong elements of private conversation, via direct message, email, hangout, etc, beyond the public. Is it possible that we sometimes trust people online faster because we think we have less to lose? Is this naive, dangerous, or beautiful?

It’s all this of course, and more: it’s the seed of inspiration that it plants, the desire to reflect and to write back. To respond, Connect.