Another look at learning

Last night, preparing my keynote for the upcoming knowledge management conference in Graz pushed me to refine my recent thoughts about the process of learning.

Networks are everywhere.

Our era could well be called The Age of Networks. Humanity is awakening to the realization that everything's connected. If something's not a node, it's a connection. Each of us is enmeshed in social, communications, information, and neural networks.

People are networks, too.

Furthermore, our bodies and brains are networks. Scientists are still conceptualizing the human protocol stack but they affirm that our personal neural intranets share a common topology with those of chimps and other aniamals. Maybe recognizing that people are more similar than different from, say, squirrels, will rid us of the silly notion that mind and body operate separately. Learning is a whole body experience.


For the most part, we are unaware of the firewall that filters the connections between our personal neural nets and the teeming mass of networks on the other side. Many people have failed to change the default settings their personal firewalls came with, even though the factory-installed settings haven't been upgraded since 1 million B.C. Without changing our mental macro libraries, we continually snap into flee or fight mode. Being alert to minute movements is a survival skill on the savannah but not in the executive office.

A new definition of Learning

The point of learning is to prosper within our chosen communities. Learning enables us to enjoy relationships and knowledge. Learning involves exploring new ground, making discoveries, and clearing paths that let us go deeper. To learn is to optimize one's networks.

Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word "network," learning is making good connections.

A fresh set of instructions

Designers of learning environments can borrow tools and techniqes from network engineers. They would focus on such things as:
  • Improving signal/noise ratio
  • Installing fat pipes for backbone connections
  • Pruning worthless & dead material
  • Promoting standards for interoperability

I don't propose that this is the way to define learning. Rather, it is one of many descriptions. I'll see how it plays with an academic audience in Austria next week. If any of this resonates for you, please leave a comment.


Thinking Today as if Tomorrow Mattered: The Rise of a Sustainable Consciousness, by John Adams

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

The Wealth of Knowledge, by Tom Stewart

The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid

Cultivating Communities of Practice, by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder

Mindfulness, Ellen Langer

Simulation in the Enterprise: New Workflow-based eLearning Products Embedded in Enterprise Applications, by Sam Adkins

Posted by Jay Cross at June 29, 2003 09:00 AM | TrackBack


Making connections with people or content is indeed a key part of learning. The other ingredient is identity being willing to expose your assumptions, changing mental models, engaging in dialog, creative abrasion and asking questions that count.

This plays out in networking too. It is not all about hitting the nodes that matter and finding fat pipes, but more around engagning, reciprocity and relationships - building trust, sustaining social capital that allows knowledge to flow through those pipes and via those connections.

Posted by: Denham at June 29, 2003 10:58 AM


I think you've uncovered some interesting connections! As Homo Sapiens I think our brains are in a very long Beta period where failures and firewalls of beliefs, experiences, fears and other glitches are being worked upon. I made a similar presentation several years back called "Connecting the Brain to the Backbone". It focused on the ways that corporate 'bodies' need to hook learning into Human Resource database networks and create a corporate neural network that includes courses as objects and much more - smart people, best practices, FAQ's, experienced people, subject matter experts etc. Since the "unk-unk" is always lurking in the background - the unknown unknown (what you don't know you do not know) - the neural network would include a self-assessment that would help show the gaps in your network, the missing connections. From there you would be directed to interventions that would help make that connection. The system would be a smart system in that it adapts to your personal learning style and maintains a record or areas of interest, etc..

My wife is a psychologist and we have had many discussions on ego and the Bhuddist state of egolessness ... if one strives and reaches the point where you have no ego then 'you' are sudddenly plugged into the biggest network of all - cosmic consciousness and connection to all creation past-present-future.

I was recently finishing a chapter for Marcia and I was writing about the invention of speech. It was one of the early attempts of the brain to find a programming language that could be shared with a network of other brains. I wrote "One of the reasons we invented words was to share." So the Big Takeaway from your presentation is not that we are a network connected into a variety of other networks but that we have a problem learning and growing - you showed it as ego - that needs to be reckoned with before any real learning takes place.

Ironically enough, it's also probably why we bother to learn anything beyond what elps us survive physically - to boost our sense of self, to impress others, to achieve a dream, to be the one to get an "A" or a "raise" or "promotion". So while ego may be the firewall, it may also be the driver behind learning. It may be the reason we bother to make 'better neural-social-connections'. So it may be a good or bad thing depending on the way in which it is employed.

Just random thoughts fired off from a synaptic reaction to your posting. Nice to be part of your network.

Posted by: David Grebow at June 29, 2003 11:11 AM


Security might be another comparision in the same vein.

I would venture to suggest that learning in secure, non-threatening environments is more collaborative and adds value to the social unit (Company, institute, peer group etc.)while learning in threatening or insecure environments is more of an independent experience and is related to survival and competitiveness of the individual.

If we compare this with computer networks, we may say that secure computer networks promote collaboration and sharing of information to greater degree simply because their users feel safe participating in and leveraging them. As a user of a proven secure network I would feel comfortable placing critical information on it and leveraging it to collaborate within my social unit. (of course since a computer network is made up of people, there is a social context that this discussion completely ignores!)

Administrators of secure networks perhaps spend more time building valuable network applications that promote their use.

Insecure computer networks by their nature might be perceived as a hostile environment for users to participate in. As a user of an insecure network I would be less likely to share information on the network. Rather I would treat it as a personal and perhaps ubiquitously availa ble file store for non-critical information. Effectively reducing it to a network of one!

Administrators of insecure networks may also find themselves spending a larger share of their time addressing boundry issues rather than focussing on building collaborative apps. (Again social issues are being ignored. Also usage patterns often govern how administrators spend their time)

I think this is a fun concept to present to a KM group.

Posted by: Mohit Bhargava at June 29, 2003 11:47 AM

Almost worse than the default settings that are millions of years old are the cultural, political, ethnic and religious settings we were given in our early lives. They, of course, reflect the biases of prior generations and, in my experience, no longer fit in a globalized world. They limit us from more than learning. Rather, they limit us as people interacting as humans with other people. Our networks must go way beyond the filters that sift out important other people -- or have us judge them by trivial attributes.

Thanks, Jay.


Posted by: Gloria Gery at June 29, 2003 12:05 PM

Almost worse than the default settings that are millions of years old are the cultural, political, ethnic and religious settings we were given in our early lives. They, of course, reflect the biases of prior generations and, in my experience, no longer fit in a globalized world. They limit us from more than learning. Rather, they limit us as people interacting as humans with other people. Our networks must go way beyond the filters that sift out important other people -- or have us judge them by trivial attributes.

Thanks, Jay.


Posted by: Gloria Gery at June 29, 2003 12:05 PM


I like this snapshot of your's on learning - it's creative and generative for further discussion. And you present it so clearly!

As I see it, a lot of learning comes from experience, and a lot of experience shapes and is shaped by one's personal network.

I can't wait to hear your report from the KM talk!


Posted by: Brian DeLacey at June 29, 2003 12:56 PM


Great work here. I very much like your insight into learning, the human mind/body and the importance of networking as the key to learning. Thanks, --bill

Posted by: Bill Daul at June 30, 2003 12:05 AM

Great metaphor Jay, to optimise the network. However, learning is a paradox. The by-products of when we learn are the things to optimise. At the routine level we gather habits that can degrade the system in the long-term; like a habit of attaching home videos to every email. At a higher level of "learning to learn" we develop habits of mind. These are evidenced by all the adjectives that describe a person's character. Some habits of mind can be decidedly nasty, like viruses in a network. There is a higher order of learning where all the habits break down and what occurs is a profound redefinition of Self. But that would correspond to a paradigm shift in network technology.

Wish us all good luck with our Learning.

Posted by: Paul Jacobson at June 30, 2003 01:43 AM


Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts

(recommended to me by Ted Kahn -- was an excellent read on the importance of networks. Ted Kahn also wrote a piece for the EOE ( sometime ago call "Know-Who" which was a nice piece on what is know is what our network knows.)

Posted by: Jim Spohrer at June 30, 2003 07:41 AM

I realised after reading this that the act of learning can be viewed as the act of building or reinforcing a relationship with oneself, as much as the network of people in a learning environment.

Different people learn best in different situations. That may be dependant on the way in which the learning relates to "nodes" in thier "neural" (read as knowledge) network.

Looking forward to hearing what happened at the KM talk.


Posted by: Sangeeta Murthi at July 1, 2003 06:33 AM

I think you bring up an interesting topic of discussion and more importantly you are talking about the importance of Social Value Networks and ones learning.
Verna Allee's newest book - The Future of Knowledge - takes a deep look at how one increases prosperity through value networks. I found it very helpful in helping me manage both my KM department and our Learning services group.

I would enjoy hearing more of your thoughts on this and look forward to hearing post conference blogs.

Posted by: Michael Kenney at July 1, 2003 08:28 AM


I went back and re-read the article I wrote several years ago about my own learning journey: It is a bit retro and I look better now - but the point is that we need to connect personally with the learning journey.

For a network model it would be instructive to re-read Ross Ashby's cybernetics work

I still owe you fancy dinner.


Posted by: Hal Richman at July 3, 2003 06:13 PM

I like the metaphor a lot Jay, though have my doubt about those intellectual Austrians jumping on board, it is fairly Californian. I do feel the need however to defend that filtering software. No question it may be outdated engineering, but there is lots of spam out there and a good firewall/filter is still a critical tool to the knowledge transfer process.

Posted by: Trace Urdan at July 7, 2003 02:05 PM

Hi Jay:

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) may provide a new dimension on learning, knowledge sharing/management, networking and intellectual capital. Is there a link between high performance learners, workers, knowledge sharers, and their EQ? Should we better understand our EQ organizational capabilities? Can we improve our EQ to facilitate knowledge transer? Perhaps worthwhile investigating.

Here are some references to share:

The Art of Global Thinking: Integrating Organizational Philosophies of East and West
by Donald Cyr ISBN:1557532443
Purdue University Press 2002 (259 pages)
Learn how insight into various cultural viewpoints can lead to better ways of doing business.
Promoting Emotional Intelligence in Organizations: Make Training in Emotional Intelligence Effective
by Cary Cherniss and Mitchel Adler ISBN:1562861379
ASTD 2000 (186 pages)
Develop emotionally intelligent leaders and organization members with this book's tips.

The Emotional Intelligence Activity Book: 50 Activities for Developing EQ at Work
by Adele B. Lynn ISBN:0814471234
AMACOM 2002 (278 pages)
This activity book presents trainers with 50 innovative EI exercises to be used for either individuals or groups

Good Reading,

Brenda Benedet

Posted by: Brenda Benedet at July 8, 2003 10:50 AM

I think you've optimised my learning very effectively with this, thanks Jay.

I particularly like the idea of a synthesis of internal and external networks, including the presentation's synthesis of verbal and visual inputs.

Some ALT-tags for those who can't see the pictures clearly would be a useful addition, but all the same, it would rate as one of the best conceptual descriptions of learning I've seen.

Posted by: Mary Hall at July 22, 2003 08:48 PM

Yes true, old as world :)

Posted by: Big Naturals at July 9, 2004 04:54 PM

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