Net Work Skills

Imagine if we limited our conversations to only those in the same office.  We would miss out on so many learning opportunities. Well it seems some people are still missing out.  Today, people with larger and more diverse networks have an advantage as professionals and in dealing with change. They are engaged in a constant flow of sense-making through multiple conversations.

Every professional needs to be open to continuous learning and to make much of it transparent in order to cooperate with others. Nothing remains the same, and the only way to remain relevant in the network era is to stay connected. This is life in perpetual Beta.

An open attitude is increasingly important. The people who blog or connect on social media can get things done quicker, find answers faster, get advice and just be more effective. All of this requires professional networks and these take time to build the necessary trust before one can even ask for help. For instance, strangers usually have to know something about someone before they will help out. Without some persistent point of presence (blog, Twitter, LinkedIn), one is invisible online unless he or she is already famous. Most of us are not.

It is not just an advantage to belong to diverse professional networks but in recent years the situation has tipped so that it is now a significant disadvantage to not actively participate in social learning networks.

With social media, anyone can easily create digital content and collaborate with others without any special programming skills. And the kinds of skills needed for all professionals today are not so much specific social media platforms, but rather changes in attitudes and perspective.

It is getting difficult for anyone to be an expert other than in a very narrow field for a short period of time. Bloggers can quickly get the scoop on professional journalists. As knowledge workers, we are like actors — only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting time, we may be viewed as experts. This erosion in perceived and conferred expertise means that professionals have to become learners themselves and follow the flow of the ever-expanding bodies of knowledge related to their fields. It is a shift away from subject matter experts and toward subject matter networks.

“Creativity is a conversation—a tension—between individuals working on individual problems, and the professional communities they belong to.”~ David Williamson Shaffer

Conversation is an essential part of being a networked professional today. One person cannot know everything, but can add to, as well as benefit from, the knowledge of others by engaging in various online conversations. Social media let anyone join in professional conversations, and conversely, may isolate those who do not.

Professionals immersed in communities of practice, or those continuously pushing their informal learning opportunities, may have a larger zone of proximal development (the gap between a person’s current development level and the potential level of development). They are more open to learning and to expanding their knowledge. Active involvement in informal learning, particularly through web-based communities, is key to remaining professional and creative in any field.

Being a professional in the network era is becoming more about your network than your current knowledge.

Fields of knowledge are expanding, new tools are constantly being introduced, and over a billion people are connected via the Internet. However, blogging still stands out as nearly ubiquitous, especially for professional development. Varieties of blogs include text, video, and audio, but blogs are relatively simple, give individuals voice, and enable conversation to flow. One can think of a blog as a professional journal to record thoughts and ask questions of peers.

Each blog post has a unique identifier (permalink) which can be referenced by others, without permission. This is where blogs still remain superior to many walled information gardens, like Facebook. Blogs enhance serendipity. Blog posts do not need to be perfect essays but can help make sense of the learning process. The comments between blogs help create networks of conversations around issues or topics.

Even once connected with social media, the critical aspect that remains is attitude. Accepting that we will never know everything, but that others may be able to help, is the first step in becoming a networked professional. This is an acceptance of a world in flux, and that knowledge is neither constant nor fixed.

Instead of trying to know everything in the field, we can concentrate on knowing with whom to connect. The network becomes all-important. That means embracing an attitude of openness and collaboration—joining others on a journey of understanding. Giving up control is a first step on this journey.

Having a blog, a permanent presence on the web, becomes the jumping off point for deeper professional discussions. I call it my home base. Producing a blog also opens a person up to criticism, so once again, an open attitude to learning is essential.

Networked professionals can no longer rest on their past accomplishments while their fields of knowledge change and grow. 

Through sharing and exposing their work on the web, networked professionals can connect to communities of practice and get informal peer review. There is no way to stay current all by ourselves. With blogs and other collaboration methods, each of us can become a participatory node in various communities of practice.

The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and knowing who to call becomes more important than having the right answer. But we are all humans and we relate on a human level, which means that we first have to get to know others and develop a level of trust before real sharing can happen. Collaboration is a two-way street.

Finally, critical thinking – the questioning of underlying assumptions, including our own – is becoming all-important as we have to make our own way in the network era. Critical thinking can be looked at as four main activities, which social media can help us achieve:

  • Observing and studying our fields
  • Participating in professional communities
  • Building tentative opinions
  • Challenging and evaluating ideas

In the early 21st century, it’s time for all professionals to develop net work skills.

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10 Responses to “Net Work Skills”

  1. Jamie Billingham

    Another great post that struck home on a couple of fronts. Imagine if our conversations were limited to only those in our community. I’m doing a lot of work with First Nations communities right now and despite their being not so far from a major city the communities don’t have stable internet access. Some can access via smart phone if they have the funds to get one with 4G. The digital divide exists in Canada and it’s not just northern communities nor is it just First Nations.

    Half of Canadians, roughly, are on Facebook. I hear that all the time. Half are not. Over half the professionals I meet with still snicker at Twitter even though it has become so ubiquitous that the evening news on all major stations references it nightly. Locally, we have a school board member who talks about the “internets” not being that important because not that may people use them. From her perspective that’s the truth.

    It’s not the lack of using the technology that is creating a wider divide. It’s the networking potential and the knowledge and new ways of seeing things, the new mental models being explored that are making the divide wider.

    I read your posts and others and realize that for the most part they will make no sense to those who have not been a part of the “conversation” from the beginning. The zone of proximal development is widening and for many people the leap is becoming too wide. They don’t know the language well enough to take part in or even follow the conversation. This concerns me.

    I realize that the “problem” will eventually resolve itself. Eventually twenty somethings will be in positions of leadership and the tide will turn. Can we, as a society afford to wait for that? Is there something we can do now to help narrow the gap? Or do we just allow the natural consequences of failing to adapt to occur?

    • Harold Jarche

      I’ve always questioned the education systems and their use (or not) of the Web. Who will model the appropriate behaviours if those in charge don’t understand the medium or speak its languages?

      Our programme on Net Work Literacy is aimed at working professionals who some day (perhaps very soon) will have to come to grips with the digital economy.

  2. Jamie Billingham

    I just saw that post and the new course. Looks very cool!

    The problem we face locally, and perhaps in other areas of the country too, is that the only people who will see that post, my rt of it AND feel comfortable enough to learn online are people already online.

    It’s almost like the challenge I used to face in counselling. Clients who were stable enough to seek out and attend treatment usually didn’t really need treatment. They needed support, but not formal treatment. The folks that really needed the treatment where too unstable to actually seek out treatment. Catch my drift lol

    I’m going to offer a face to face workshop series for small business and local nonprofits. I’ll give them a paper workbook even (so sorry trees) and try to meet them where they are… in the world of pens, paper and traditional media. Heck I may even start with a PowerPoint with bullet points just to establish a comfort zone. Yikes!

  3. Jamie Billingham

    Kinda caught the drift… I was testing your mind reading, sorry. When people weren’t stable enough for treatment I’d just meet them where they were and offer the kinds of supports they needed and were willing to accept. Need a ride to the needle exchange, no prob.. lets chat on the way.. Need a coffee, no prob, lets chat over coffee.

    The relationships forged made a difference and only occurred because I was willing to simply meet people where they were. So.. moving that ethic and practice into the – helping business and non-profit folks learn about leveraging online networks, PLEs, PLNs and social media realm – we are back to flyers, face to face and workbooks.

    Give people what they want, in the way they want it, and offer it where they are. Wish me luck :-)

  4. Tom Catalini

    Love the phrase “social learning networks” and your central point of the need to build, nurture and leverage those networks.

    Clearly there is an evolution of one’s own personal professional value proposition going on. This post makes a good case for that, as well as what to do about it. Love the focus on attitude vs. strategies/tactics.

    Tom