Network Learning: Working Smarter

“In the period ahead of us, more important than advances in computer design will be the advances we can make in our understanding of human information processing – of thinking, problem solving, and decision making…” ~ Herbert Simon, Economics Nobel-prize winner (1968)

The World Wide Web is changing how many of us do our work as we become more connected to information and each other. In California, Ray Prock, Jr. (2010) uses a Web-based note system to store messages, manage his financial risk and stay on top of the multiple factors necessary to run a successful dairy farm. He is constantly learning as he works and has found a method to keep up, thanks to the Internet.

For many, however, keeping up isn’t easy. The amount of information flowing through the Internet today is measured in exabytes, or billions of gigabytes. We now create as much data in days as it took us centuries to create in the past.

This information overload has a direct impact on workplace learning. Workers have access to more information than ever before, but often don’t know if it’s the right information or if it’s current. In the industrial workplace, our training programs could prepare us for years of work, but much of what we learn today will be outdated in months or even weeks.

We need to re-think workplace learning for a networked society. Our organizational structures are becoming more decentralized, with individual access to almost unlimited information, distributed work teams, and digital media that can be copied and manipulated infinitely. In the interconnected workplace, who we know and how we find information are becoming more important than what we know.

As the Internet Time Alliance’s Jay Cross says, formal learning can be somewhat effective when things don’t change much and are predictable, but today’s world is the opposite in every way imaginable. Things are changing amazingly fast, and there’s so much to learn. Today’s work is all about dealing with novel situations (Cross 2010a).

Jane Hart, another colleague at the Internet Time Alliance, has examined social media and learning in the context of the workplace and has noted that much of it is informal (Hart 2010). Formal, structured learning plays only a small role in getting things done in the networked workplace. Research shows that about 80 percent of workplace learning is informal (Cross 2010b) and that less than 10 percent of what knowledge workers need to know for their jobs is in their heads (Kelley 1999).

Informal learning is nothing new, but it is of growing importance in the modern, digitally connected workplace. Making sense of information, both personally and in networks, is becoming a key part of work. Teams and organizations that can share information faster and make better sense of it are more productive. Social learning is about getting things done in networks. More attention must be paid to how we can support and encourage informal learning in the workplace. A “workscape” focus is  broader than the traditional training and development approach.

Network Learning

Network learning is an individual, disciplined process by which we make sense of information, observations and ideas. In the past, self-directed learning may have involved keeping a journal, writing letters or having conversations. These are still valid, but with digital media we can add context by categorizing, commenting on, or even remixing information. We can also store information for easy retrieval as we need it.

Network learning, at the individual level, includes:

Personal directed learning – how individuals can use social media for their own (self-directed) personal or professional learning; and

Accidental and serendipitous learning – how individuals, by using social media, can learn without consciously realizing it (e.g., incidental or random learning).

At its core, network learning is a way to deal with an ever-increasing amount of digital information. It requires an open attitude toward learning and finding new things. Each worker needs to develop individualized processes of filing, classifying and annotating information for later retrieval.

Standard document management methods have been shown to fail over the years, as most workers do not personally adopt them. Developing good network learning skills, on the other hand, can aid in observing, thinking and using information and knowledge. Learning in networks also prepares the mind to be open to new ideas and can result in “enhanced serendipity.” As Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind.

One way to look at network learning is as a continuous process of seeking, sensing and sharing.

Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date. Building a network of colleagues is helpful in this regard—it not only allows us to “pull” information, but also have it “pushed” to us by trusted sources.

Sensing is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing.

Sharing includes exchanging resources, ideas and experiences with our networks and collaborating with our colleagues.

Seeking: Using Filters

In seeking, we need to develop effective filters so we are not overwhelmed by too much information. A high signal-to-noise ratio is desirable.

We can use human filters, such as asking a close colleague for a good source of information on a subject. This often happens in open work environments, where someone asks the group, “Hey, does anybody know how to … ?” This is a naïve filter, in that the recommendations provided are not necessarily reliable. The closest people are not always the best sources of knowledge.

Another option is to find a known expert in a field and ask him or her for advice. It’s a better approach, but dependent on the expert.

The best option is to connect with a network of expertise and corroborate advice from a variety of experts. Twitter is an example of a platform that enables this. We can follow many people in a discipline and fine-tune the network by adding or subtracting from it until we have an optimal signal-to-noise ratio.

There are also tools that use mechanical filters, such as search engines or analytical engines that show trending topics. Using both human and mechanical filters can ensure a good flow of information without being overwhelmed. Keyword alerts can be set up with a variety of online systems, or regular searches can be conducted on social media platforms. With practice, we can find what we need when we need it (and sometimes before we need it).

Sensing: Validating, Synthesizing, Presenting, and Customizing

We make sense of data by using our existing knowledge to create more information. This is what writers do—they take various data and write a coherent narrative that becomes information for someone else. While this is an efficient way of transmitting information from one to many, it does not transfer knowledge, as a recipe book does not a chef make. Each person makes sense and builds expertise on his or her own terms.

As mentioned, filtering information is an easy way to start to make sense of digital information flows. Social bookmarking services, such as Delicious, enable us to categorize and annotate Web pages. Social bookmarks are searchable and can be shared within a group or made public. They are a good initial step toward moving information to the cloud. Making information public helps to validate it, as we can check references, analyze logic and compare sources.

Another level of value can be added by synthesizing information. This synthesized information can then be presented in various digital formats to facilitate understanding. For example, a good graphic may make more sense than several pages of text. A slide show with voice-over can help convey complex ideas. Information presentations can be further customized for specific contexts, such as an analysis of global trends and how they may affect a specific business.

These are examples of taking information and adding value to it for the individual, the group, the organization and the network. By treating information as grist for our cognitive mills, we can build knowledge bases that will help us get work done. Thus, a blog can become a place for small, coherent thoughts that, when aggregated, become a discussion document or a policy paper.

Without the ongoing process of sense making, we can fall into the trap of grabbing the easiest information that is available at the time.

Some Web tools for sense making include:

Note taking (e.g., EverNote)
Social bookmarks (e.g., Delicious)
Micro-sharing (e.g., Twitter)
Blogs (e.g., WordPress)
Presentations (e.g., Slideshare)
Videos (e.g., Vimeo)

Not everyone will use all of these tools, and there are many others, but it is important to develop methods of sense making that work on a day-to-day basis.

Sharing: Joining a Community

Network learning practices are part of a social learning contract for better organizational learning. Sharing is an essential part of network learning. Without it, we become islands of knowledge that cannot take collective action.

The use of online media enables sharing and can result in exponential network effects. Because knowledge has no known limits, the potential return on investment in knowledge co-creation can be many orders of magnitude greater than traditional process improvement methods.

The most wonderful aspect of Web-based social media is that they are designed for sharing. We can start our sense-making journey in a completely selfish way, but by using Web tools we can easily share whenever we wish. This is network learning. For example, blogs can start as private journals, but after a while we may want to share our posts. As the blog is already online, it can be made public, and all of the information it contains is available for distribution. No extra programming is necessary.

By sharing information and engaging in online conversations, we become part of a community. We will discover that we are truly in a community of practice when it changes our practice.

By seeking, sensing and sharing on an individual basis, we create the building blocks for a dynamic community of knowledge workers, continuously pushing at the edges of our disciplines. Network learning lays the foundation for the ongoing process of idea management, a necessity in complex work environments that require continuous adaptation. This sharing and using of ideas is at the core of business innovation.


Cross, Jay. 2010a. How to Support Informal Learning Informal Learning Blog.

Cross, Jay. 2010b. Where Did the 80% Come From? Informal Learning Blog

Hart, Jane. 2010. The State of Learning in the Workplace Today. Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies.

Kelley, Robert E. 1999. How to be a Star at Work. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Prock, Ray, Jr. 2010. Ray-Lin Dairy: A Progressive California Dairy Farm Blog.


This article was published, with minor changes, as Personal Knowledge Management: Working and Learning Smarter, in Information Outlook, The Magazine of the Special Libraries Association, Sept 2010.

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11 Responses to “Network Learning: Working Smarter”

  1. jim burke

    Nice summary and it definitely will be captured in Evernote! One comment/question–you mention several tools for sensemaking and I can understand how you can make sense by collecting and sharing. They are not analytic tools, necessarily, that would enable users to “sense” new insights. The act of creating a blog, writing an article, building a briefing, involves that idea of sensemaking as a byproduct, an important byproduct, and, in some cases, serendipitous.
    Some tools that you may want to consider for sensemaking include the various mind mapping tools which enable one to see relationships otherwise not apparent or some of the argument mapping tools that lay out the different pieces. With that, especially given the nature of your article, consider adding a “we sense” in that dialogue, especially in the context of a network, is one way that new insights, ideas and sensemaking occurs. Cheers, Jim.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Jim. Good point about mapping tools. Visuals can be powerful learning aids. I also advocate the use of value network analysis and social network analysis for organizations to get an image of social interactions and relationships. Being able to “see” these relationships can then generate conversations on how to promote better social networking for work.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Beth :) [BTW, my software marked your comment as spam & I almost missed it. I had better be more careful in checking]