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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Those who post, learn the most


Last week, I was at Learning Live – the annual conference of the Learning and Performance Institute . It was a very interesting experience and the sessions that I attended certainly gave me food for thought.

There was one experience which was unexpectedly thought provoking and gave me lots to ponder on.  This may surprise some, but it was during my own  session that I made  the most insightful discoveries.  My session was called ‘Liking Aint Learning – are social networks making us stupid?’  The main message was that as social networks proliferate in our lives outside of work, they are still relatively under-used as a work tool and specifically as a tool for learning.  While many have a Facebook account, a twitter feed and are active on YouTube and LinkedIn, few people utilise these social platforms for work-based learning. 

Maybe you have an internal social network established in your company or specific for your department?  Again, while there may be some information sharing and it may be one of the internal communications tools in use by your organisation, there seems to be little evidence of these tools being used as a mainstay of the learning journeys we are each embarked on. One frequently cited experience of in-house social networks and collaboration platforms is what is known as ‘the empty forum syndrome’.  You know, that discussion forum in which a few souls have extolled the potential of the space created but which has had no comments, posts or traffic for several weeks if not years.  These are spaces haunted by broken dreams and the smell of despair and every organisation owns one.

In their research in 2014 and 2015, the excellent Towards Maturity surveyed 5700 members of staff and found that 6%of new starters use Twitter for learning. For line managers that figure drops to only 3%. The most popular social media space for learning is YouTube.  However, while people declare their use of the video sharing site for learning, fewer people say they use YouTube for work. I assume, therefore, that a good proportion of that learning is focused on hobbies or other non-work interests. 

But my issues with how social networks do not necessarily add to learning are more than just a "See, I told you no one would use them" luddite rant.  In fact, I am personally active on a number of social networks and I find that they aid my own learning considerably.  However, I also find that some people I interact with online tend to be very trusting, to say the least.  Links are re-tweeted, posts are shared and liked.  Often this is useful and enlightening information.  On a disturbing number of occasions, however, I am afforded access to information which is at best ill thought out and sometimes down-right dangerous. Even these posts result in learning.  On one level I learn who is authoritative and a trust-worthy source and who is not as well informed.  On another level, my desire to put people right means I go to my trusted sources and fire off corrective comments which means I refresh and reinforce what I know and believe.

There are other issues about the uses of social networks which would seem less than optimum. Iyad Rahwan studied how people performed in a range of social networks and found that those best connected were able to use their networks to perform well in a series of analytical reasoning tasks.  However, he also found that their underlying ability to perform similar tasks in the future were less impressive.  In fact, over time they got worse. (You can read a useful summary of the research here.)  Rahwan called this the ‘unreflective copying bias’ and concluded: “increased connectivity may eventually make us stupid by making us smarter first.”  (see here)

When I presented this information and my interpretation of it, I was met with scepticism by some in the Learning Live audience.  They explained that they had different experiences – experiences in which twitter or other collaborative environments had been of immense and unrivalled value in helping them learn new things and get the answers they required.  Some had observed the learning of others, all had been learners themselves.

I puzzled on this.  Why the disconnect?  Why is my experience not universal?

Two things struck me.  When looking at what those individuals who had had positive experiences told me I was struck by the sense of direction and focus with which those who had learned from others via their social networks had approached these interactions. I formulated an idea which can best be described as ‘purposeful participation.’ They had gone into the session with a belief that they would find something out.  Many had a specific issue they wished to discuss in their network and a threat free online space in which people felt able to disagree without being abused or trolled. They had the freedom to explore their current understanding and expose any areas of weakness or confusion. They were acting with agency in an environment which empowered them to do so.

The other thing which struck me was that there was no common definition of learning.  For me, learning has always been about doing things differently and doing different things.  It centres around owning our knowledge and often includes a skills or behavioural component.  The learning definition I use is ’acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences’. 

In the conversations in my session, it felt like knowing things equated to learning.  What’s more, the idea of learning included ‘looking up information to be used for a fixed period and then discarded’. 

Now I think the ‘find, use and forget’ model is essential in an age when we can’t remember everything required to do our jobs, but it is inefficient when applied universally. Somethings we just need to know – our memories cannot be delegated to the cloud or our social streams. Looking stuff up isn’t – in my terms – learning. Or certainly no more than consulting a weather forecast means I have learned about whether to put on a raincoat.

In L&D we need to coalesce around a vocabulary we can all agree on.  If we can’t then we may be unable to access the learning and experience of our colleagues. We also run the risk of confusing those who are less immersed in our world of developmental journeys.

The one area where I think everyone was in agreement during the session was the power of reflection.  Purposeful participation in a social network requires us to reflect.  If we are to expect help from others, it is inconceivable that we have not gone through the process of reflecting on our own experiences.

Our networks should also expect that we are sufficiently open minded to receive new insights and to consider them in a reflective and thoughtful manner.  In his opening address at Learning LIve, psychologist and sports coach Jamil Qureshi talked about how our belief systems can hinder an acceptance of new ideas and circumstances.  He urged us to become ‘rogue monkeys’ after the primate research undertaken by GR Stephenson in 1967 in which monkeys quickly learned about danger and behaved as if that danger was still present even when it had been removed. Apparently one rogue monkey broke the ‘rules’ that the rest of the troop lived by and gained access to the bananas the others had avoided. (Summary here)

I have thought again about social networks since the session at Learning Live.  I have reflected on my own, possibly limiting, beliefs. I want to be that rogue monkey. I have reflected on the experience and the generous comments of those in attendance.  

Most of all, though I have also reflected through the activity of writing this blog.  Because above all, one of my own experiences of social networks has been confirmed. Those who post, learn the most.

If you agree, please comment.  If you don’t, DEFINITELY comment – you’ll learn a lot.

Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement. His new book: Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture is published by Kogan Page and expolores many of these ideas in more detail.

Robin will be Chairing the World of Learning Conference at the NEC, Birmingham on 29th and 30th September, 2015.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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