I recently toured Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and an architectural marvel, in Charlottesville, VA. Jefferson defines the term "Renaissance man" - the author of the Declaration of Independence, an inventor, an architect, a botanist, a rare wine collector, a writer and a business owner (i.e., his plantation) to name a few occupations. Oh yes, he also served as the United States’ third President, an accomplishment that he did not even list on his tombstone.
BraveNewTalent’s founder Lucian Tarnowski has observed that we are moving through the Age of Digital Enlightenment. I concur. I enjoy speculating on how the original thinkers of the Enlightenment-Voltaire, Diderot-would have used social media. A Voltaire blog with a comments section and a Diderot Wikipedia immediately come to mind.
But it’s their US legatees, the “Founding Fathers,” whom I believe would have embraced social media and social learning with gusto. I envision Benjamin Franklin tweeting his “Poor Richard” maxims, Thomas Jefferson obsessively pinning images to multiple Pinterest boards of his interests (e.g., plants! architecture! wine bottles!), John Adams LinkingIn with powerful individuals everywhere and George Washington posting “selfie” portraits on Instagram. As for social learning, historical narratives are filled with their lively exchange of ideas in the Continental Congresses with each other, in the taverns with Philadelphians and in the trading of letters with European thought leaders.
These gentlemen thirsted to learn about and share knowledge on multiple topics (e.g., botany, architecture, chess, real estate). Their many channels of learning can be viewed as a forerunner to a trend in social learning today: the Personal Learning Environments (PLEs).
As Doug Harward of The Training Industry notes, “for the very first time learners have the ability to take control of his or her own learning experience” in the corporate environment. Personal Learning Environments map the multiple channels, networks and platforms of how individuals are “controlling” their learning experiences in both professional and personal arenas. My favorite map of an individual’s on and offline PLE was drawn by Janson Hews, a graduate student at the University of Technology in Sydney (see below). This map reflects the multiple sources of social learning which many individuals graze each day.
Corporations have looked at these PLEs and realized that they must adapt their training and learning strategies in this radically changing environment. In addition, they desire the metrics that are easily obtainable from many of these platforms and channels. Which professional topics are their employees searching? Whom are they following on Twitter? Which TED topics have they viewed?
Many companies are now in the planning or early stages of deployment of personalized learning and social learning portals, which reflects the learner’s PLE. Personalized learning portals have been around for a long time; most companies have been serving up a blend of formal courses and materials customized for the learner’s role and needs for a while. Today’s more sophisticated social learning portals can deliver materials to the learner’s preferred platform (e.g., iPad) and content through a favorite channel (e.g., YouTube).
In addition, they serve as knowledge sharing repositories and centers for the type of social learning that occurs both online and offline in their employees’ lives. TomTom, a UK GPS company, had several unsuccessful forays in controlled online social learning. However, they finally got it right with a social learning portal initiative in the late 00s. They mapped the main portal and its customized versions (primarily along role and functional lines) to their employees’ behaviors. Their mantra “keep it simple” was reflected in their decision to use only 4 web parts: “Tips and Tricks” focused on knowledge sharing (e.g., documents, links, resource materials), training blogs (disseminating information from the training team), discussions and suggestions for improvement of the portal. It was a success. Knowledge-sharing occurred not just in individual offices but among 5 teams in 4 time zones in 5 countries on 4 continents! While not every touchpoint in an individual’s PLE was included in the portal, enough were there to have many employees turn to it first for information.
So what is missing in the comprehensive diagram above and in most current learning portals? Social learning communities for professionals that allow them to engage around topics of interest, at times privately within their company’s talent ecosystem, and at times publically with professionals and topic experts in the world at-large. And communities where companies can push learning content of interest and engage with professionals in a space free of the noise of primarily personal social media channels (e.g., Facebook, Pinterest).
BraveNewTalent’s social learning platform, which offers both public and private communities, reflects the way that we actually gain knowledge about professional topics in our own PLE. We all toggle between sharing knowledge with our co-workers (face-to-face or virtually) and with those outside of work. Last week, I found myself learning about the underlying philosophy on our choices for recent product features from our product team one day and the next attending a vigorous discussion session on digital strategies at Harvard Business School. The Founding Fathers moved seamlessly in their PLEs between such open public events as Town Halls to private sessions of the Second Continental Congress.
We all have our own PLE maps whether we have drawn them or not. An interesting exercise for you might be to build your own and then see where you are sharing knowledge on professional topics of interest. Are these channels/platforms “noise free” or are non-professional topics on them as well? Are they both private and public, or one or the other? Do they allow you to maximize your professional social learning potential? Finally, if you are a history buff with some time, you might draw the map of the PLE of a Founding Father and compare yours to Jefferson’s!