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Martyn Sloman warns against leaping on to the social networking bandwagon too soon.

A new concept has captured the imagination of our profession: social networking. Articles are appearing in abundance in magazines emphasising the potential advantages of new methods of working based on collaboration, the co-creation and sharing of content, and enhanced communication using the internet. Social networking has given many conference programmes a whole new lease of life.

So is something important happening, or is it all a load of marketing hype? The mounting excitement brings to mind a statement of the then US labour secretary, Robert Reich. When considering flexibility, he argued: "Rarely has a term moved so rapidly from obscurity to meaninglessness without passing though an intervening period of coherence."

Well, time alone will tell, but we've been here before. This sense of enthusiasm brings to mind the rise and fall of the learning organisation. The term 'learning organisation' shot to prominence following the publication, in 1990, of a book with that very title by the US academic and consultant, Peter Senge. All of a sudden, we all wanted to create learning organisations--it was a seductive idea.

I experienced my first serious misgivings about the value of the concept when I had a telephone conversation with an intense Masters student. I was working as head of human resources development at NatWest Markets--the investment-banking subsidiary of the retail bank.

The student said she wanted to base her thesis on a comparison between a number of learning organisations and a control group of non-learning organisations. I asked why she thought NatWest was a learning organisation and she said we were declared members of the learning organisation network, so we must be one. So a learning organisation was an organisation that said it was!

In addressing her misconception, I was able to clarify my own thinking. What matters in human resource development are neither labels nor statements of intention, but the interventions that are in place to support the acquisition of knowledge and skills and how effective they are.

So the questions on social networking are about what sort of new activity is taking place, and its effectiveness. The potential use of the internet for individual and team learning certainly far exceeds its current applications, but the future path will be driven by personal and organisational preferences --not the availability of technology.

These considerations came to mind when I recently uncovered an academic paper on 'organisational learning mechanisms'--a compelling label if ever there was one.

The paper was written by two Israeli academics at the University of Haifa over a decade ago. It never received any exposure at the time--but then what academic paper does? This is a shame, because it offered some useful insights. It addressed one of the central problems in the concept of the learning organisation. This problem is anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities. Put simply, individuals can learn but organisations can't learn in the same sense. However, steps can be taken by individuals or groups in organisations to ensure that learners learn, apply their learning and share best practice.

The authors of the paper introduced the idea of organisational learning mechanisms (or OLMs) to reconcile contrasting perspectives on the learning organisation. They defined an OLM as 'institutionalised structural and procedural arrangements that allow organisations to systematically collect, analyse, store, disseminate and use information relevant to the performance of the organisation and its members'. I find this a powerful and attractive idea.

So what we should be looking at is the mechanisms for learning in organisations that support learning by organisations.

Here's where we get back to social networking. To what extent do these fashionable mechanisms for collaboration and the sharing and co-creation of content over the internet act as organisational learning mechanisms? The answer, of course, must be 'it depends'. Some social networks could be very constructive, consider relevant topics in a thoughtful way and enhance the capability of the organisation. Others will be neutral. Others will be a waste of time or even hostile to the organisation's interest.

So let's take a hard look before we jump on the rapidly rolling bandwagon. As ever, the skill of the trainer will be a craft skill of judging when and how to intervene.

Martyn Sloman is CIPD adviser in learning, training and development. From 1997-2000 he worked as director of management education and training for Ernst & Young. He is a visiting professor at Glasgow Caledonian and Kingston Universities. He can be contacted at
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Sloman, Martyn
Publication:Training Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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