Everything’s Coming Up Networks (except learning)

Sloan Management Review has a great interview with Andy McAfee on What Sells CEOs on Social Networking. CEOs excitedly agree with Lew Platt’s old observation about Hewlett-Packard: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.” They understand the power of weak ties in enterprise social networks. They appreciate the incoming generation’s new approach to working without limits. Sure, there are fears of losing control, the fact that hierarchy and social networks are not comfortable bedfellows, and the inevitable paradigm drag. But in the long run, people are eager to express themselves and enterprise collegiality is the path to “knowing what HP knows.”

Yesterday IBM presented a compelling case for social business excellence at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris. Social networks are so patently good for business that managers are routing around IT to put them in place. The social business captures value through capturing tacit information, fostering collaboration & discovery, filtering information flow & finding patterns, and transforming exception processing & making processes resilient.

David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know convinced me that networks have radically changed the notion of what constitutes knowledge. Lots of our previous concepts about knowledge were due to the limitations of paper, not that there’s some absolute truth out there. On the net, facts don’t stay on the page. There are no isolated ideas; there never were; there are only webs of ideas. We can improve those webs through open access, good filters, metadata, linking everything, and opening up institutions.

David describes leadership as an emergent property of an organizational network. Leadership resides more with the group being led than the purported leader. Strong leadership is simply a means for a group to accomplish its objectives.

Yesterday on Dan Pink’s Office Hours, Gary Hamel described the irrelevance of 100 year old models of management and the growing impatience of disgruntled workers, customers, and shareholders. Hamel has said that the future model of management looks a lot like web 2.0.

So networks underpin leadership, business performance, knowledge, and management.

It’s undeniable that the internet is an unprecedented game changer. People and ideas and knowledge and happenings are connected as never before, and there’s no end in sight. The omnipresent network makes us look at processes instead of events: everything has a precedent and an antecedent. Murphy’s Second Law kicks in: You can never do just one thing. Institutions that block connections, be they schools or close-lipped corporations, are increasingly out of step with the times.

But I have a question about this: Why isn’t anyone talking about learning networks?

Neither McAfee nor IBM nor Weinberger nor Hamel talks about networks for learning. This parallels the situation with informal learning and eLearning. Even after people accepted that informal learning is the primary way people learn to do their jobs, few corporate training organizations lifted a finger to do anything about it. eLearning — the boring, one-way, content slapped on pages for self study variety — was a total flop because learning involves more than exposure to information. Two major opportunities to boost performance were squandered. I don’t intend to stand idly by as business thought leaders repeat the same mistake with learning networks.

Networks were made for learning. And in a ever-changing world, learning is a survival skill.

Business people face novel situations every day. Solving problems and making progress require continuous learning. To be successful, a social business’s learning function must break out of the humble training department and spread throughout the organizational infrastructure. Increasingly, learning is the work and the work is learning. Smart organizations will get good at it.

Installing social network software and encouraging people to exploit their connections is only the beginning. The fabric of the social business must incorporate structures and guidance to help people learn. After all, learning underpins continuous improvement and helping to create a culture of continuous improvement is what this is all about.

This is hardly a new idea. I wrote about it in Informal Learning in 2005:

Learning originally meant finding the right path. Paths are connectors; people are nodes. The world is constructed of networks. We’re back where we started.

In networks, connections are the only thing that matters. We network with people; we use networks to gather information and to learn things; we have neural networks in our heads.

Learning is optimizing our connections to the networks that matter to us.

This satisfies both the community concept of learning (social networking) and the knowledge aspect (gaining access to information and fitting it into the patterns in one’s head).

To learn is to adapt to fit with one’s ecosystems. We can look at learning as making and maintaining good connections in a network. Cultivators of learning environments can borrow from network engineers, focusing on such things as:

    • Improving signal-to-noise ratio
    • Installing fat pipes for backbone connections
    • Pruning worthless, unproductive branches
    • Promoting standards for interoperability
    • Balancing the load
    • Seeking continuous improvement

This echoes a white paper, Informal Learning – the other 80%, I wrote nine years ago.

We need to think of learning as optimizing our networks. Learning consists of making good connections.

Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, “to learn” is to optimize the quality of one’s networks.

Learning is optimizing our connections to the networks that matter to us.

A sustainable social business provides the means and motivation for workers to learn what they need: the know-how, know-who, and know-what to get things done and get better at doing them. This takes more than access to social networks, blogs, and wikis. Organizations must provide the scaffolding that focuses on discovery, practice, sharing, and reinforcement. Organizations that lack a clear understanding of their learning architectures are doomed to descend into an aimless world of social noise and meaningless chit-chat. Facebook-itus.

Next week I’ll release a white paper on the Internet Time Alliance site on how to develop an enterprise learning network.