PKM 3 – People First, Then Technology

Now that we’ve introduced the idea of personal knowledge management (PKM) and shown how it starts with self-awareness, some may think it is time to dig into the technology. But not just yet – a PKM process is built around people first, then technology.

The next step in your PKM journey is to look for individuals and communities who can help you tap into the networks of learning that you are drawn to. There are a number of layers to this step:

Social Learning:From the times of tribal storytelling thru apprenticeships and modern mentorships, personal connections with people are how we’ve shared tacit knowledge about work and the world around us. At some points, social learning has taken a back seat to the manuals and centralized training of industrial era hierarchies. But the Internet has restored social learning to the forefront.

While face-to-face communication remains the most powerful means of learning, members of virtual communities are leveraging digital connections to empower their work on many scales. Special interest tribes have spread across disciplines, demographics, organizations, and continents. With nothing to lose and much to believe in, a single tribe member can spark a movement with just a passionate idea and Internet access. In total, this creates a flood of noise for those who are trying to listen.

Networks of filters: What’s noise to me could be signal to you. NYU Professor of New Media Clay Shirkey says of our digital dilemma, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure”. Each of us has free access to filters that can help us tune in to our respective signals. In part two, we introduced critical judgment and credibility tools as preliminary filters. A future post will cover mechanical filters. But the best filters available to you today are the fellow seekers, connectors, curators, and experts that you choose to add to your own personal learning network.

A Personal Learning Network acts as your own informal advisory board. Each person in your personal learning network can serve as a noise filter or a source of information or feedback. Reach beyond the already-familiar names to include diverse perspectives that can help you make new mental connections. See “Effective networking: it’s not who you know, it’s who they know”. Since learning is not a popularity contest, quality trumps quantity here. Regularly pruning your network will keep the noise level down and the flow interesting.

Working out loud: Educators seem to be the most advanced at working in personal learning networks. They exchange pedagogical practices and resources across grade level, district, and state boundaries. Their experimental mindset allows them to innovate in the space between a maze of accountability standards and the chaos of the classroom. We can learn from them and a variety of professionals who are regularly “working out loud”; sharing and observing each other’s thinking, unfinished projects, and lessons learned in person and online. Even the knitting community is in on the fun.

For years, Harold Jarche has been modeling how working and learning out loud can engage the structural layers of social connection. Using Jarche’s graphic below, imagine the three ovals as the people in your work team, people in GMN or other communities of practice, and people in your broader social network. How do your levels of engagement with these people vary?

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(Graphic reprinted with permission from Harold Jarche) 


Analyze your personal learning network:

  • Is your network diverse with regard to demographics, role, experience level, education, or professional field? Keep in mind that distinct networks also exist within organizations.
  • How many people in your network do you actually engage with versus just knowing them?
  • What type of event or thought prompts you to reach out to them?
  • How often and in what ways do you engage them: social events, school, church, clubs, phone, email, discussion boards, group projects, association meetings, conferences, or social media?
  • Your capacity is limited, so keep your network to a manageable mix of value and variety.
  • What goals or challenges are people in your network facing? How many of them know yours?
  • What relevant perspectives are missing from your field of awareness?
  • With whom do you need to strengthen social ties to build trust?
  • Write out a plan of who you will engage and how. Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Accessing broader networks of people and ideas enhances serendipity and creative potential. A five year study of employee innovation found a positive relationship between the diversity in one’s Twitter network and the quality of that employee’s ideas. Having an interest in exploration and an ability to integrate ideas were also positive contributors. Surprisingly, the number of tweets, number of followers, and number of people the employee followed were not correlated with higher measures of personal innovation. So you don’t need to be a social media superstar to reap the creative benefits. Simply make a practice of listening to the flow of conversations, look for patterns that have meaning for you, and take note of the ideas and resources that spark new connections at the edge of your current understanding.

What is your give and take ratio? : People in your personal learning network are not just sources of information; they too have their own goals and challenges. Get to know what purpose drives them. Regardless of your role, you can return value to the members of your network by making introductions, sharing relevant resources, and asking thoughtful questions. Build on what others have contributed. Practice filtering skills so you’re not just adding to the noise. The timing and placement of what you share is important. A future post will explore sharing what you’ve learned as a means of repaying a mentor, building trust in a community, or engaging a network in sense-making.

A community of practice like GMN is much more than a one way flow of information; it is a platform for collaborative problem solving. As with most communities, engaged members contribute their time and brain power to study problems and build collective resources that benefit the whole. GMN’s rich history of volunteerism has shown that when we work together, we can enhance the value of our shared role while increasing organizational and field effectiveness. We can amplify this impact. Focusing on the people in our networks will help us endure the shared frustrations and mind-numbing pace of change with technology. Mastering the networked learning tools available to us will strengthen our mutual awareness and interconnectedness.

The next posts in this series will look at technologies to find and filter the flows of information from your network.


The “People First, then Technology” title is inspired by a quote by Biz Stone, author of “Things a Little Bird Told Me”

Chad Gorski

Chad Gorski is grants and finance coordinator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @chadgorski.