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Personal learning networks: what’s love got to do with it? #xplrpln

It appears at this stage that PLNs are pretty loosely defined, so it was interesting to consider the question posed in Exploring Personal Learning Networks this week (week 2).

Are PLNs absolutely “personal”– meaning that everyone will have their own version or a definition? Or will there someday be clear marks to know where a PLN begins and other types of networks or communities end? And, if these two questions were terminal points at the opposite ends of a scale, where would you land – closer to “personal” or to “there are clear defining attributes?”

Instantly I thought, PLNs are deeply personal, everyone has their own version. And what’s more, I’m not sure that I want to define it either. I mean, it’s a bit like how do you define love? It’s impossible to define love in a concrete way because everyone experiences love differently. But hang on a minute, if you think about it, love must have certain traits that characterize it across time and space and endow it with universal similarities, how else can you explain why Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the like, still resonate today.

So, maybe a PLN does after all have clear defining attributes, to some extent or another.

In that case, perhaps the question shouldn’t be posited on linear thinking, and this echoes some of the thoughts Maureen posted in the comments to her blog.

In her blog, Maureen interestingly poses the question “can a network be owned?”. The conversation moves to favour the notion that networks can’t be owned, seeing as they are after all “just a number of relationships or connections”. Upon which the question is then asked, “if PLNs can’t be owned, then do you think that your employer can rightly demand that you provide a list of the people who are in your personal/professional learning network” Now there’s a thought. Can your PLN be co-opted by your employer?

When I looked it up, co-opted has four meanings. Here are 2
  • appoint summarily or commandeer
  • to take or assume for one’s own use

No, this doesn’t sit well. After all, a PLN is personal. It’s about sense-making; that is my sense making, and my sense making for me. In his post, “the knowledge sharing paradox“, Harold Jarche admirably addresses this aspect. Using frameworks such as PKM, he says that individual workers can develop sense-making skills to learn continuously and to apply their learning to their work. Individuals care about what they need to get the job done, or about what makes sense to them. As such, knowledge is a very personal thing, and individuals are more likely to invest time developing their knowledge networks, and more likely to share their knowledge, if they remain in control of it. He says, organizational knowledge sharing will never be as good as what networked individuals can do. Hence, the challenge is how to connect the two.

This brings us to, what’s been posed in this open seminar as “the PLN problem“, basically how to leverage PLNs for organizational success. In the final week we’re to make our case, as advocate or otherwise.

This is tough, especially as I’m not enamored of conjuring up a definition of a PLN in the first place, but as Jeff Merrell points out, unless you have a general definition of a PLN it’s not possible to tell if PLNs and organizations are in  “structural conflict with each other” (or “structural alignment” for that matter). And therefore you won’t be able to determine the kind of changes, if any, required in the organization to effectively incorporate PLNs and create a business advantage. Thanks, by the way, to Kay for mentioning this point in her blog. It was particularly helpful.

Still tough though. So far, I’ve got as far as discovering that I’m wary of defining a PLN but will probably have to, not being convinced that you can own one and that individual knowledge making practices trump organizational ones.

So, the challenge, it appears, is to see if PLNs can bridge the individual-organizational knowledge sharing divide to become a match made in heaven. Hey, we’re back to the theme of love. Not quite, but something reciprocal or mutual anyway. Until next week, where the topic is barriers to PLNs.

PLNs and organizations: are they a match made in heaven?
PLNs and organizations: are they a match made in heaven?

References: Jarche, H. (2013) The knowledge sharing paradox. Accessed at

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  1. Let me just say that one of the joys of having started this event, and of “facilitating” it, is that I never have to take off my learner hat. (I put facilitating in quotes because I honestly think the direction this is going is much more due to the talents of the participants than anything…proof: just read the blog posts).

    You hit on a theme here that hits on why we find this topic so interesting. Do we actually do ourselves a disservice by trying to define this thing, to think of it as some kind of “intervention” that can be implemented? And if so, just how do we think or talk about this in organizational settings? Because you can certainly see how someone’s PLN can add value to an organization – certainly my own PLN is adding value to MSLOC. Can’t wait to see how all this plays out over the next couple of weeks.

  2. Thanks for this great post! I especially like that you are delving into what it means to “own” your PLN or allow your organization to “co-opt” it (in cultural anthropology we often critique acts of “appropriation” where the power dynamics are uneven, much the way you are discussing here). In thinking about the learning question for this class, I am wondering too about the politics of bringing PLNs to the table . . . for my organization it would be the table set by higher education administrators. Very provocative post!

  3. Thanks for the comments. The point about definitions seems to have something of the “if you can name me, you can tame me” about it. In defining what something is, you are to some extent defining what it isn’t – or what it might be even.

    Alongside the question of PLN ownership must come the question of “what’s the value proposition of a PLN?”. I didn’t think my post was provocative, but I can see it’s important to consider this as a labor relations issue too.

    Yes, it will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the next few weeks. Plenty to ponder for sure.

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