Is social networking learning?

Great post by Shannon Turlington on the question of whether social networking is learning.  A point often missed in this debate is the serendipity inherent in social networking that enables you to discover new knowledge – i.e. we don’t know what you don’t know until we uncover it. Shannon writes:

What I like most about using social networking tools this way is how serendipitous it can be. Sure, I can ask questions or search for knowledge on a subject I know I want to learn about, but more often, it seems, I learn things I didn’t know I needed to learn. This happens when people in my network share what they are learning or thinking about or reading or writing about. That, for me, is where the real learning potential of social networking tools kicks in. I don’t think you can reproduce that quality with formal learning tools, because it is so ephemeral and unplanned.

Here are some other good points made in the conversation:

  • “I learn far more about what’s news and relevant to my work from my ‘network of trust and interest’ than I do from common denominator mass media.”
  • “Between spontaneous learning and network-of-trust filtering, you get a new level of just-in-time (JIT) learning: ‘before I knew I needed it’ learning.”
  • “Not everyone is going to succeed using social learning.  Many of those that can already use it.  Some of the rest just need permission.  But if you aren’t really interested in your work, if you don’t think it is cool, how much is unstructured, social learning going to work for you. “

Someone also made this point: “There seems to be a tension … among the openness of informal learning, risk management and message control.” I think that tension is always there when there is also fear over loss of control. I have found, though, that in successful learning networks, people tend to police themselves. The organization must let go and trust its people, or people just won’t use the network sanctioned by the organization. If they are really passionate about learning and connecting with peers, they will find ways to do so outside of the organization’s control and without the organization’s blessing. So why not extend that trust and see what happens? The organization can only benefit from engaged employees actively learning about their fields.

And this I think is the essence of what social networking is all about; trust, freedom to act and taking responsibility for personal development. Organisations that don’t support these basic tenets, or erect barriers and conditions that inhibit their development, are going to find it increasingly difficult to survive in a 21st century economy.


  1. The really simple answer is “YES” to your question, however as a Learning Specialist, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    Seriously though, I have, for years, been actively encouraging my University HR students to use social networking tools to support them in their studies as this has to be the easiest way to keep the skill of argument alive in their professional lives and well as their academic assignment writing.

    I also guide them to use it as part of their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as learning doesn’t (shouldn’t) stop upon the completion of a formal academic course.

    In addition to this I urge them to consider how to get their organisational trainers to ‘blend’ social networking learning with more traditional methods of training to give a more holistic and complete approach to knowledge acquisition.

    I firmly believe that knowledge is what you do with the information and data you get from various sources and social network learning is a valuable source of information if you know where to look for it and how to use it.

    Am I successful in my crusade? Well, it is a slow and sometimes painful experience as many still consider learning can only be done in a clasroom with a tutor.

    But still I continue because I know that the benefits far outweigh the frustration caused by those who cannot see the bigger picture.


    February 23, 2009
  2. Steve Dale said:

    Thanks for the comment Józefa. I think this illustrates the importance of Advocates such as yourself. Those who can clearly see beyond the immediate horizon and despite the many obstacles and frustrations that constitute everyday life, have enough belief in the vision to maintain sufficient energy to carry others with you.

    I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Machiavelli:

    It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.

    February 23, 2009
  3. I clouldn’t agree more – I am a lone Manager of a small Quality Managent System team in a steel manufacturing business – Social Networking and other Web 2.0 tools are enabling me to stay current in the really difficult financial climate across the world.

    “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”Henry Ford (1863-1947)

    “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein

    “No one keeps up his enthusiasm automatically. Enthusiasm must be nourished with new actions, new aspirations, new efforts, new vision. It is one’s own fault if his enthusiasm is gone; he has failed to feed it.” Source: Papyrus

    February 25, 2009
  4. Steve Dale said:

    KerrieAnne – thanks for the additional quotes, will add them to my little black book! You may think you are a lone manager of a small quality management system team – but in reality, you’re part of a much bigger social networking team. You have friends out here you know!

    February 25, 2009

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