A growing number of people and organizations in various sectors are focusing on communities (of practice) and networks, as a key to improving their performance. What are these forms for knowing and learning, and what are the ramifications for human resources management and development in organizations? What sparks their formation and creates engagement for members? How are communities related to globalization and an increasingly networked world? This article offers some pointers through the personal tales from two people who participate in communities for their own learning. They report their experiences and give their ideas as to how organizations could give space to this new way of learning.
In an essay for a Dutch magazine, entitled “From workplace courses to global conversations”, Nancy White and Josien Kapma outline 6 trends that are concurrent with a shift from formal institutional learning to informal peer to peer learning.
Nancy White and Josien Kapma:
1. From Training and classes, to communities and personal learning
Our organizational members and employees can no longer be sufficiently served by formalized internal training. The personal background and learning styles of employees are diverse, as are their job-contexts. This determines what and how people learn. More critically, much of what needs to be learned is ever-changing. It is moving faster than we can create structured learning opportunities. While traditional training methods are still useful for repeatable and repetitive tasks (i.e. learning a new software program, manufacturing, safety procedures) many training needs are about evolving practices such as marketing using social media, cross-organizational collaboration or responding to emerging markets. Informal and voluntary learning becomes a key strategy to move faster than we can accommodate with formally constructed training initiatives.
2. From Expert led to peer driven social learning
Two forces are driving the trend towards peer learning. One is technology.There is a new generation of Internet based tools (often called ‘web.2.0’ or ‘social networking’) which allow an individual to build a unique online presence and profile including what they know; and, they facilitate connections between individual users, allowing each user to build a personal network around a knowledge area. People can find, trace and track others who share the same interest, even if it is very specific, creating a group of knowledgeable peers, and learn with them. They don’t have to wait for the expert.
Second, the millenial generation has far less interest in authority or being “taught.” They learn with and from each others. As HR managers prepare for the future, training efforts must respond to this culture shift. Instead of connecting employees with a small defined set of experts, you help them tap into networks of expertise.
3. From formal associations to communities and loose networks
People flock together without the need for a mediating organisation. Instead of formal “expert” associations, loose “peer” networks are emerging. The resulting groups can be highly effective learning opportunities. We are used to team collaboration, communities and networks can add extra ‘layers’ to collaboration. (An interesting paper about collaboration in teams, communities and networks is here (in English): http://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers.php?wpid=15 ) Millions of people are gaining experience with these “new ways of learning”, but mostly in the hobby spheres, like sharing music or tips on travel. A great potential for more job-related, productive uses is waiting to be exploited.
4. From behind the firewall to beyond the firewall
The dramatic drop of costs of ICT (server space, memory, user hardware, bandwidth etc), combined with improved access and usability have transformed information scarcity to information overload. Control over sources of information or channels of communication is no longer the privilege of few. Before, the boss signed letters and the PR department made sure all corporate communications were checked for quality. Now organizations have to deal with the fact that they can no longer keep track of, let alone control all the communications flowing out of the organization. Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much, as what others say or write about the organization is at least as, if not more, important than formal company messages. In this new reality, not secrecy and walls, but transparency, openness, and compatibility with others, are determinants for success. This counts for learning and talent management as well. As people flow in and out of jobs and organizations; they form their personal networks and portfolio (which often span multiple organizations) along the way. The professional and personal, formal and informal increasingly get intertwined. Recognizing the role of these other communities and networks is a prerequisite for organizational vigor. Ignore them, and your talent will either be limited, or gone.
5. Addressing broader motivations
People’s motivations to contribute go beyond a paycheck or a demand from the boss. Identity and relevance of the job, feeling they are making a useful contribution as well as working on personal development and social capital, are important. You can’t control people; instead you can empower them. Personal motivation is also a prerequisite for innovation — one organization alone and classic knowledge transfer in itself are no longer sufficient for sustainable innovation in an ever more complex and interdependent world. Innovation requires connections and stimulation beyond the people in our organizations. So tapping into the motivations of employees to participate in the larger world is something else to consider.
6. From the Big Mouth to the Big Ear
With the advent of Web 2.0 the model for communication has been turned upside down. The “former audience” is now just as much a broadcaster as any large organization. The incredible abundance of information and communication has two effects. First, it created an attention scarcity and media fragmentation. Compared to before, our messages need to be very relevant or audiences filter them out. So instead of talking louder to unfocused audiences, now organizations need to engage in meaningful dialogue with relevant partners. Second, it created an immense pool of searchable communications among others. This buzzing universe of linked sites and blogs is an incredibly rich source of organizational information and learning… if we know how to listen. Organizations need to listen to conversations about them, niches or needs they can fill, feedback and suggestions for improving what they do. It is about tagging and remixing and mapping the network of relationships, looking for where to respond, and where to catalyze action. It is a little bit like listening to the universe.
These tasks can’t be done by an individual. They require the diverse “ears” of communities, the wider net of networks, seeking to make connections between people that advance our organization’s learning and goals. If all your employees are part of the Big Ear, you are ahead.”