What the #PLN?


Yesterday, Ady Howes asked me this question, and I told him I need to blog about it as it’s quite a big question.

Your Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a concept I became familiar with a few years back bu virtue of Twitter, later LinkedIn, and mostly through attending events like unconferences. Your PLN are the people you connect with, interact with, talk to, and debate with about any range of topics that’s of interest to you.

The value of the PLN is quite hard to define as it’s intertwined with what I as an individual bring to the table as much as it is about how the people around me can help me. So here’s my examples of how my network has brought value to what I do:

I have had ideas that I’ve not known how to progress or take forward. Talking with others, sharing my thoughts with them, and finding a place for this thinking to happen in a safe way has allowed me to develop my ideas into action. L&D Connect happened because of an idea. #ldinsight was the brainchild of David Goddin and happened because of an idea.

I learn about new technology because of my network, and they help me to understand what it could mean, how it could be used, and what I could do with that technology. As an example, I became aware of a piece of technology called Periscope – a Twitter owned product. It allows you to livestream anything, people can comment live and also provide live feedback on the poignant pieces of the content. I didn’t really understand how to use it, until this week when Tim Scott demonstrated its use at the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition. It immediately helped me understand it’s potential, and I subsequently asked Michelle Parry Slater to Periscope the panel session I was in with Andy Lancaster and Julian Stodd.

When I hear about new ideas and theories, I often need to read more about the ideas and the concepts in order to help me know how to do something useful with them. Things like neuroscience and mindfulness are hot topics right now, and there are just as many people writing and sharing useful content on these topics as there are people writing rubbish on them. My network helps me wean out the good from the useless. If they find it of value, they share it. I trust their opinion and use that to inform how I consume that content.

When I am working on a project, one of the really beneficial things I find I can do is to do what they call ‘working out loud’ and share an update on what I’m working on, and asking for input from people in my network. Often the input is highly valuable as other people’s thinking prompts them to comment and provide insight which I previously wouldn’t have arrived at myself. That kind of sharing is powerful and helps me create better solutions.

I challenge my own thinking because of the people in my network. I became aware a long time ago that I follow a lot of people who I agree with, who think like me, who are good people in my opinion and who provide me with insight I value. In that there is an inherent trap that you only talk to the people who support your way of thinking to the point that it’s hard to know what other opinions may need to be expressed, but don’t have a way of being heard. So I set about to purposefully connect with people who challenge my thinking. Not with abhorrent or abusive people, but with people who think differently to me. It makes sure I don’t stay stagnant, that I have to articulate what my position is on something and that I have to be clear about what I’m suggesting and why I’m suggesting it.

I find humour because of my network. We humans are a clever bunch, witty and full of good humour. I enjoy good humour – not just jokes and banter but also clever thinking and light hearted conversations. It keeps the network vibrant and enjoyable to be around. People have fun with each other, support one another and are happy to have conversations on all manners of topics, and that’s helpful in building relationships.

I don’t ever formally categorise people as being in my PLN or not. They just are. If I’ve connected with you in some way, interacted with you and had a conversation with you, then you’re part of my PLN, just as much as I’m part of yours. We don’t have to agree on everything we share, we don’t have to be in every conversation that is taking place, and we don’t have to be included in every update. The value of the PLN is it simply exists.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is so 1943

*checks today’s date* 28th October 2015.

72 years ago, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper on human motivation and used a hierarchical model to help share his insights at the time. It has since become the go to model for understanding human motivation. Along with Herzberg’s motivational factors theory, it’s become one of the most essential of management theories.

According to the theory, once we satisfy certain needs, we can move our way up the model to higher levels of achievement and satisfaction, ultimately leading to what he called self-actualisation. In defense, he did help us to understand a potential model of human motivation at a time when we were new to the concept and didn’t really have a way of understanding how humans work. But, you know, that was 70 years ago.

Are you seriously telling me that in the last 70 years we haven’t understood human motivation any further than Maslow?

Over the last 20 years, Maslow has persisted as being a management model and model to understand human motivation, more simply for no other reason than people haven’t been bothered to understand more recent and more relevant findings on the topic.

For example, in his book, Drive, Daniel Pink helped us to understand that people need three things to be successful at work – autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three factors don’t seem to fit in with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And actually, trying to make one relevant to the other is the wrong way to think about these things.

For example, neuroscience helps us to understand how the brain responds to certain stimuli and how we respond to interactions with others. The neurochemicals produced will either support the development of further relationships, or reinforce connections in the brain to act in certain ways. This is a massively untapped area of knowledge, and what we know is that there are better ways to interact with others which are amenable to cultivating better relationships based on how the brain responds.

For example, behavioural economics helps us to know that people are not rational beings and are often influenced to act in certain ways. For example, in assessment centres, if managers are given the candidate information on a hard board, they are more likely to judge the candidates positively than if given on a soft board – it’s not right, and it doesn’t have any basis for judgement, but it’s an influence. Or that you’re more likely to have higher number of people becoming donors when they are automatically opted in – opting out is a purposeful act and requires specific action to do it so most people don’t bother.

For example, in improving your wellbeing, we know that it’s important to reflect on the good things that are happening in your life on a regular basis. By doing this regularly and consistently you build a better appreciation of what’s doing right in your life and identify actions you can continue to do which are supportive of your wellbeing.

Often, as with most things in life, it’s what we do with the insights we have, as opposed to making things fit into our view of the world, and if it doesn’t fit then it can’t be right.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs served a purpose back in the 1940s. It pains me that in the year 2015 we’re still talking about this model like it’s relevant. It’s like talking about cassette tapes and their effective use in distributing musical content to the masses. In a day and age when digital means and technology have made that form of music production redundant, why would we ever go back to it? Similarly, in a day and age when we undertsand far more about human motivation than we ever have done, why would we refer back to a model which was developed 70 years ago? We talk plenty about the need to update our ways of working, and creating modern organisations. Part of that also means updating what we know, and how we apply that new knowledge to the new worlds we’re seeking to create.

Treating adults like adults in the workplace

There’s a growing narrative at conferences, on blogs, in tweets and in LinkedIn posts about the need to modernise organisations and enable adults to behave like adults. Primarily, and mostly, this has happened because technology is allowing for these practises to become more commonplace because there are numerous ways in which you might hear variations on these messages. What kind of things are people talking about?

Agile ways of working

The agile way of working is a specific mindset and approach to developing a product. It involves short bursts of intense work (often 3-4 weeks of development activity), at the end of which you have a prototype. You test/review/break it and learn fast before you move on to the next ‘sprint’ and create the iteration of the product. The aim is that you create a product that works/is marketable/meets client needs in a fairly short period of time.

It’s an adult approach to working, because you’re relying on people to be their best. You’re not managing their workload, it’s a collective effort to get something produced, and it often means that if you have the skills, you’re the right person for the job. It works on the premise that failure happens, that iterations are important, and that you learn as you work. There’s little in the way of command and control, and respect amongst team members is paramount.

Facilitation techniques like Open Space

Open Space is a specific facilitation technique where you encourage people to create the agenda they want to focus on, seek for people to lead discussions that they feel they can, give permission for people to be part of the conversation they want to participate in, and allow for people people to develop their own insights based on the conversations they’re taking part in.

It’s an adult way of facilitating conversations because you’re saying to people – you’re the ones with the knowledge, insights and experience to make this a rich and valuable conversation. No one is directing you to listen to something, no one is instructing you to behave in a certain way. The decision of participation is yours, how you contribute is your choice, and what you learn from it is yours to know.

Abandoning concepts like annual leave

Not completely abandoning annual leave, but allowing for people to take the leave they want, when they want, for how long they want. Often as part of a benefits package for recruitment and retention purposes, we say to people (and you get 25 days leave plus bank holidays). Which is fine and dandy except people in the modern age have all sorts of things going on and they either will use every day available, or hardly any of it.

What’s more useful is to say to people, you’re responsible for the leave you take. How long, when and impact on colleagues is discussion for you to have with your team and colleagues, because that’s what adults do. As your employer, if we notice you haven’t had a break from work in a considerable amount of time, we’ll check in to make sure your wellbeing isn’t affected, but otherwise that decision is yours. You won’t be restricted on which holidays you choose to take because of days available or not.

Using social media for work purposes

The speed of information available to everyone is amazing in the modern age. No longer do we have to wait for publications or trade press or news bulletins or newspapers to hear the news. Now we can access anything we want to know on any topic in a plethora of ways. And yet there are organisations who want to control how you access that information. Since when did access to information become a security threat?

Being adults at work means having the responsibility to know how to use social media for work purposes. How to create connections via Twitter and seek out like minded professionals on what they’re saying about the profession. How to search YouTube for the learning you need to support the job you’re doing. How to become familiar with the internet as an information archive as well as watching cat videos.

Inviting people to be in a project team

Change fails in organisations because it’s often mandated what needs to happen, by when, by whom, and in what way. It means processes are created, systems are devised, bureaucracy becomes necessary and all at the expense of actually getting things done.

Change is successful when you lay out: this is what we need to achieve, here are some considerations, who can help and who wants to be apart of the project?

Adults step up and complete work successfully when they’re invested in the work they do. If they’re mandated to do things, they’ll do the minimum required. When they’re part of something because it’s important to them, they’ll do everything they can to make it a success. When people collaborate and achieve things together is when organisations are great places to work.

These are just some examples of how adults are treated like adults in the workplace. We can do this better now than ever before. I’m sharing these examples because I don’t think we can talk about these things enough. There are still far too many organisations who are holding on to old ways of working, and insisting on command and control approaches to the workplace. They’ll continue to persist, but what we’re finding, in abundance, is that the new ways of working are the ones disrupting the old ways of working.

Conformity and being courageous

Years ago, I watched the film A Time to Kill, a 1996 film about racism in America. A young black girl is beaten and raped by two white boys, the father becomes enraged and kills them. The defence lawyer has the task to defend him and proving to the jury that he should not be jailed for this crime. His summation at the end has stayed with me ever since:

Fast forward to 2015 in England, and I read an account of a white man acting aggressively towards a black woman on a public train during normal hours, and was only stopped when he tried to physically harm her. Siana Bangura responded to the man in kind, and was being encouraged by fellow passengers to calm down and pull back. According to her account – and I have no reason to disbelieve this – the fellow passengers weren’t attempting to stop the white man from his behaviour, but attempting to control hers in the situation.

I’ve been lucky in that I personally have faced very little overt racism. I’ve certainly never been overtly attacked or been a direct recipient of discriminatory or racist behaviour. It may have happened, and if it has it’s most likely been covert. It has, however, happened to my loved ones, and see and feel the impact of such comments and behaviour towards them.

Conformity is one of the hardest things to understand. Why would people on a train witnessing verbal abuse to a fellow passenger not stand up to the aggressor and prefer to not cause trouble. Is it a British stiff upper lip thing? Is it an attitude of white right? Is it a case of ‘she probably deserved it’? Is it a case of ‘I’m glad he’s saying it, cos I never would’? Is it a case of the media poorly highlighting everyday examples of racism and sexism and not portraying enough positive examples of inclusion and integration? Is it a warped consideration of not disrupting the journey?

I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was on that train. I don’t know why more people don’t stand up to aggressors. I don’t know why people don’t challenge abhorrent comments when they hear them.

It’s easy to conform. There’s a socially accepted way of doing things, and to stand against them is hard. Our personal moments of courage are often those when we’ve stood against the accepted way of doing things and challenged them. Often, that challenge is often met with criticism and intolerance. Why didn’t Siana just leave the train? Why didn’t she just stop shouting back? Why did she have to accuse of her fellow passengers of being complicit? All the wrong questions to be asking in review and in analysis.

The behaviour of the aggressor was only challenged when he tried to physically hurt Siana. Everything else before was accepted and unchallenged by the group.


Eventually people stepped in to stop him. Eventually.

Conformity exists in abundance. It gets reinforced when we see behaviour which goes against the norm. The aggressor was clearly in the wrong, but no-one was willing to challenge him openly.

People will criticise Siana for her behaviour. They will say that how she responded was not how a civil person should react.

So, how exactly, does a civil person react in the face of such aggression?

Short of being the Dalai Lama, very few of us would act ‘well’ in such circumstances.

How many will criticise the aggressor and his behaviour? How many will criticise the fellow passengers’ inaction until a line had been crossed? Who was at fault here?

Imagine travelling on a train on your way to do some work. You have plans of how to complete your work well. Someone comes and sits next to you and starts being verbally abusive towards you without provocation. They become more angry towards you and start to shout at you and tell you that you’re worthless and that your people have no right to be here. Imagine that you’re sitting among a crowd of people and they’re all looking, listening and not acting. You feel attacked, you feel victimised and you feel that you’re in the wrong for even being on the train.

Now imagine you’re white.

It’s all about the learning mix

Yesterday, Simon Jones wrote a piece where he wanted to defend classroom based learning. In it he writes 

And here’s the news – learners actually like “old fashioned” classroom based training. They value the time away from their daily role to concentrate on a topic; they normally have intelligent questions about the subject matter and can see how they can apply it to work situations; and they like the fact that they get to meet colleagues (or in certain instances people from other businesses) and can get to know them in a non-pressured work situation.

It’s a valid point of view, and raises the very challenge of what learning looks and feels like in the modern age.

With models like 70:20:10 becoming more popular amongst professionals, it’s quite likely that what hasn’t been articulated well enough is that models like this aren’t advocating that face to face training shouldn’t be a learning solution. What models like this are advocating is that in providing a learning solution, there are a good many ways in which a learner can access and receive that learning, and as experts in learning, we need to understand what these alternatives are, how to make them happen, and how to support the business we’re working with to keep those solutions.

There was an article from Think With Google I read yesterday which shares insights into what people search for on YouTube. It’s a fascinating read as it shows that at home people are watching videos on topics like making food to DIY to braiding hair. They’re receiving knowledge at their point of need. It’s not too much of a hop skip and a jump to take those insights and realise that workplace learning needs to head in the same direction. Workers don’t want to wait for a training course to learn how to do something, when they can easily search for it and gain insights immediately.

What this means for face to face learning sessions is that there’s more pressure on making them valuable events for people to spend their time at. Yes, learners are there to learn from experts, but they’re also there to learn as adults. That means designing sessions which allow for debate, discussion and insights from peers as well as from the experts. It also means allowing for learners to access content in their time, not just at designated times.

Do people still enjoy attending a live training session? Of course they do. As a species, we are social beings. We can’t not enjoy being in the company of others (regardless of comfort levels), and we will always seek to engage and interact with content of interest.

Live training sessions fail to be useful when people attend training that is not relevant to them, not helpful to them, and little effort has been made to understand what their actual performance need is.

Recently, the guys at Looop wrote a white paper on the Empowered Learner, which I highly recommend reading as it clearly states how learners are now better able to use technology to support their learning at the point of need, and how organisations can adapt their learning offer so it’s more responsive. I’m going to be writing more about this white paper in another post.

Simon is right, 

…properly designed, my observational evidence with a number of diverse businesses is that it is still an effective way to deliver training, and should still be an important part of the learning and development “mix”.

Face to face delivery of learning isn’t going anywhere, and it doesn’t need to. It has its role and people are very used to receiving learning in this way. Technology, though, is providing better ways for people to access learning, and that “learning mix” has to include face to face, digital and social methods of delivering learning solutions.

A word on happiness

There is something about the “pursuit of happiness” which has penetrated into the human psyche and set it out as a worthy goal and ideal for us to pursue. The pursuit of something normally means that once we have achieved something, we will have attained it. It further follows that if we attain it, it then belongs to us as a permanent fixture and cannot be lost. So, if we pursue happiness, that must mean once we complete certain goals, it will be ours – and quite rightly to. And if we don’t attain it, then the goals must have been wrong, or they couldn’t have been the right goals, or we didn’t know what we really wanted to make us happy.

Oh how this all takes us away from the reality of being happy.

I’ve written before how happiness is a very transitory experience. We humans are a complex species, fully capable of experiencing a range of emotions in a short period of time. We don’t always understand why we experience conflicting emotions, but it can and does happen. Happiness comes and goes just as easily as it does to feel angry or to feel disgust, depending on what we experience.

What I think we need to talk about more is how to appreciate the experiences we have. Happiness is less about having moments of happiness, and more about how we perceive the moments we have. It’s very possible for two people to experience the same thing and yet have a very different perspective on what happened. It is not our duty to rectify anyone’s thinking on what they experience, because that is the wrong way to think about things. What’s mores useful is to help people understand how to appreciate what they experience. We can’t force happiness on anyone anymore or less than we can force love onto someone.

There is also something for me in how we express appreciation and gratitude with others. If I can articulate why something made me feel happy, and share that with someone, that’s a pretty special thing to do. We want someone else to share that feeling we’re experiencing. It helps others to know what brings us joy and makes us feel happy. As with most things with interpersonal communication, it’s how we articulate things that help others either know what we are thinking and feeling, or not.

In our desire to be happy, we need to understand that goals are important, giving to others is important and expressing gratitude is important. In doing these things, we learn that we can experience happiness when we learn how to appreciate what’s happening at different moments. Sometimes this may be things at work, or on your walk to the shops, or in talking with a friend, or spending valued time with loved ones, or in watching a film, or in reading a book. Whatever it might be, it’s about appreciating that those things are happening at all and how we can find joy in them.

The practise of adult based learning

As L&D practitioners, there is probably a reasonable assumption that we understand what it means to design learning solutions which are suited for adults. After all, we’re working in organisations full of adults (mostly), and our role is to help them develop required skills or learn knowledge which will help them be more effective at work.

The typical approach to going through learning tends to be the method we all know and are familiar with. Turn up to a session, be told what the objectives are, be taken through content, be given a model to work with, do some activities and complete some actions. Hey presto, you’ve learned said skill/knowledge and you’re now going to be more effective.

My problem with this, and actually the problem for the profession, is that this approach assumes much on the part of the L&Der, and takes little account of the adults you’re working with. For certain topics, such as health and safety or learning any range of technical skills, this approach can work because there will tend to be high applicability to the day to day functioning. For most other topics, though, this pedagogical approach just isn’t appropriate for adults.

Consider this, when you have needed to attend a course or a programme, what was useful about the learning you received? Some part of it would have been about the content, but the most part of your learning would have probably come from the discussions had about the content, your experience of the content and your insights you derived from the content. Was that driven by the facilitator, by yourself, or through discussion with others in on the course? Quite likely a mix of that, but most course aren’t designed to facilitate adult learning, they’re designed to facilitate classroom based learning.

Consider also e-learning that has been poorly designed and is simply about click next with screen after screen of text and forced choice questioning. Aside from the UX and Instructional Design of the e-learning, what most likely hasn’t been considered is how do adults learn using a digital tool like this? The best design of e-learning I’ve seen for adults is when the content is engaging, you can develop insights from it, and you’re presented with a range of content including pictures, audio, video, case studies and text (obviously not altogether).

Andragogy, the practise of adult based learning, is a concept I was introduced to a while ago by Conor Moss (the legendary academic practitioner from Sheffield). It assumes at its core that adults are capable of self-directed learning and that given the right environment, they can enter into their own learning, at their pace, with a desire to learn and know what to do next. For any of you who have attended unconferences, you will be familiar with this style of approach. In the formal learning context, I think we can do more of this, and less of the pedagogical approach.

Putting this into practise means doing things like:

  • Asking a group to carry out an activity with a clear brief. Once they’re done, explain the purpose of what the activity was for, and ask the group to discuss their insights as they completed it. Once they’ve discussed it, to share with others in the room about their experience of the activity and what they learned.
  • Posing a question to the group, letting them discuss it and allowing them to direct the conversation as they see fit.
  • With clear guidance on how to use digital tools, asking them to research a topic or read an online article on a topic and then openly discussing and sharing their insights with one another.
  • Carrying out reflective practise in relation to their experience of the topic at hand. When have they had to apply this topic before? What did they do? How did they feel? What was their experience of it? What did they learn? What did they feel challenged by? Reflective practise is a highly useful tool to be able to encourage adults to think about their own experience, derive their own insights and learn something about the topic they may not have considered before.

When I’ve applied an andragogical approach to learning design and facilitation, I have faced some challenges I hadn’t expected.

People still need clear guidance on what you want them to achieve. They can’t just be left to their own devices with a topic. That’s mostly because they’re in unfamiliar territory. But, they have enough wherewithal to complete an activity, so just be clear on why they’re doing something, and what you’re asking them to do, and they’ll be off.

People still need a set time and place to be, in order to complete their learning. Ask them to self select and self motivate, and they’ll get caught up in the day to day operations. Give them a clear date and time to be somewhere to do something, and they’ll make it happen.

You have to help them develop their applicability of the content. They’re quite happy having great discussions, but not all are good at understanding how to apply the content.

I find this approach to learning design and facilitation to be far more challenging as a facilitator and practitioner as it means I need to do more than just know content, deliver content and evaluate content. It means I’m actively working with the content and the adults I’m with to create a rich learning environment. I don’t always get it right, and I don’t always provide the right clarity or guidance I should, and it’s been a really valuable learning journey in understanding how to deliver adult based learning.