How did “social” get the black hat?

“Social” as Learning, Improving and Celebrating

Some time ago, I sent out invitations to join an asynchronous five-day conversation about “Do it Yourself” (DIY) learning and how to support it.  The event was in the CPsquare community:  one of my online “homes.”  Like all CPsquare activities, this event emerged from intersecting member interests; not from a strategic plan and instructional design process.  I wrote about this event as an example of social learning in the following blog post.

Based on past experience, people will probably participate from many parts of North America, and other continents as well.  No one is being paid or getting credit or a certificate of completion.  Many DIY learners find such things a bit foreign.  Why do people participate?  The bottom line in a community of practice is to learn and get better at something you do, such as supporting others’ learning.

Most of the invitations I sent out were to faculty and students in the Learning and Technology programs at Royal Roads University, where I am the program head.  The responses I’ve received to date have included terms such as “excited” and “privileged.”  These are people with a passion for learning.

The Lived Experience of Social Learning

Communities of practice often serve up unexpected surprises.  A dozen years ago, I never would have thought I could become close friends and colleagues with people I had not met face-to-face.  My evolution with these skills and perspective shifts came slowly but solidly.  I have seen many examples where CPsquare members (choosing just one community) have become friends, co-presenters at conferences, co-authors, sources of support and help, and business partners.  Perhaps students or faculty members from Royal Roads will find themselves at a European conference next year, presenting with someone they meet in the CPsquare event next month.

Is “Social” a Good Fit with Western Workplace Culture?

In North America, we have become experts at chopping things into tidy fragments.  The black and white hats of 1950s Western movies still manifest in everything from politics to academia.  In the workplace, social media use is a lightening rod fosocial, black hatr the black and white police.  To begin with, “social” is a waste of time where heads-down is the mantrum for productivity.  And we all know that social media are primarily used to share what one had for breakfast.  Of course, I am writing this tongue-in-cheek.  However, there are executives who embrace social media use and teachers who encourage students to keep the cell phones out to enlarge the network of classroom-based learning.  These people understand that learning in a complex, interconnected world is fundamentally social.  We reach out to our multiple networks for DIY learning about how to lead and respond in our unique contexts.  Emilie Doolittle summarizes some related research in a blog post, showing that social networks can improve collaborative efforts, reduce costs, help people get just-in-time help, speed decision making, and retain employees.

social, social network analysis

A social network map, courtesy of Patti Anklam

Part of the problem with “social” is that it appears messy.  It doesn’t seem easy to control or measure.  And yet there are tools, which can give us a much more social view of how organizations work and how knowledge flows.  When we look at the social network analysis (SNA) map to the left, we get a good sense of how people are interacting and learning.  But it tells us almost nothing about where those managers/employees would sit on an organization chart.  That can be either exciting or frightening.

Does your organization treat knowledge as a thing and learning as a pre-planned and isolated activity?  If so, you might experiment by thoughtfully connecting some networks, and watch to see what happens.  You might start to thinking about social learning  and knowledge as flows, essential for decision making and innovation.

The image in this post is shared courtesy of Patti Anklam.  The slider image is from Simon Cockell (Creative Commons).

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