The strongest link

Networked learning is fast proving itself a key tool in today’s business
world. From knowledge sharing to formal training, the system can turn a company
into a community. By Sue Weekes

A little more than 10 years ago Linus Torvalds posted a message on an online
bulletin board announcing he was going to release a piece of computer code for
other people to work with. To say it was the start of something big is an
understatement: this piece of code was added to, refined and honed by thousands
of computer programmers and developers until it grew into what we know today as
the computer operating system Linux.

So what have the combined efforts of a group of techies got to do with the
world of HR? Well, Linux’s development remains the best example of one of the
most revolutionary and empowering forms of learning. "No-one called it a
learning experience at the time, but it was a form of networked learning,"
says Crystal Schaffer of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s corporate university,
who has spearheaded much of the company’s research into the subject. The HR
professional’s challenge is to work out how to manage and harness this exciting
form of learning so it reaches its full potential.

Networked learning is where one or more individuals use a computer network –
be it an intranet, internet or a Wide or Local Area Network (WAN or LAN) – to
learn, exchange, share and build knowledge. At its simplest, it’s an e-mail to
acolleague to pass on nuggets of information that will progress their thinking
on a subject. At its most sophisticated (in the case of Linux) it involves
thousands of programmers and developers coming together virtually to bring real
innovation to the world of computing. But in any organisation it could be
different departments working together, sometimes informally, to solve a
complex problem.

"What makes networked learning compelling to the modern business is not
merely its methods, tools, approaches or technologies, but the output it is
designed to generate," says Schaffer. "At its heart, networked
learning is not merely an exercise in knowledge transfer, it is also a process
for innovating and advancing ideas within an organisation."

It suited the development of Linux to grow in an organic and uncontrolled
environment but, as Andrew Esposito, director of learning systems at learning
consultancy Premier IT, says, ultimately there needs to be standards imposed
for networked learning to sit comfortably in the corporate world.

"Linux shows what can happen when a pool of thought leaders come
together on a worldwide basis. But overall, we need standards – for instance,
there needs to be a minimum standard so that people know when they can join

What we’re talking about isn’t something that can be easily controlled:
allow networked learning to randomly grow and you run the risk of it becoming
unmanageable; police it too strongly and you’ll stifle innovation. It should be
remembered that networked learning should not be managed in isolation – it is
only one part of the bigger picture of learning technologies impacting the
world of training.

There is no shortage of idealised scenarios for how networked learning could
work in the corporate world, but Dr Vivien Hodgson, one of Europe’s leading
figures on networked learning and senior lecturer in management learning at
Lancaster University Management School, believes there is a lot of rhetoric
about the concept. "In practice things have to be more carefully thought
through," she says.

Hodgson has been involved in networked learning since 1986 when she looked
into how technology could support open learning. The advent of the web has
progressed things but she also believes it has a downside. "It has brought
to the fore the notion of content. People have become distracted by these large
information-rich repositories on the web and it’s moved the emphasis away from
connectivity. What we have now is something more like the computer assisted
model of learning."

True networked learning is where thought is stimulated, applied and
articulated within a group, but Hodgson admits that making this model work in
an online environment is difficult and believes more work needs to be done in
exploring the ‘people’ connectivity issues. "We don’t have all the answers
yet," she says, placing the ball in the HR and training professional’s

In her experience as a tutor at Lancaster University, Hodgson finds the
initial reaction from touchy-feely HR professionals to online learning is to
say "they like to be with people".

Motivating users

However, many of the students on one of Lancaster’s current management
learning courses have chosen to work online for a module where they have to
interact with peers. "This is partly because of practical reasons – for
example, one being in Dubai and another in Geneva – but it is also because
they’re starting to appreciate the degree of reflection and consideration you
can apply to online communication," she says.

Another big issue in the world of networked learning is motivating employees
to participate. "We hear of so many projects where people have set up a
discussion forum and nothing has happened," says Hodgson. "This is
because they haven’t been set up with any real purpose – they have got to have
a rationale."

Schaffer agrees, and says Linux worked because the people involved were
motivated to do it. They were a group of techies who wanted to improve things
for themselves and others. "The conduits and motivation have to be there,
and in Linux’s case they were. But it can never be just learning for learning’s
sake," she says.

At CGE&Y University applications of networked learning are always tied
into the business process and there have already been examples where it has
helped win new business. In one case a group drew on 10 different sources from
their network to put together a pitch. Schaffer’s colleague, director of
education at CGE&Y Steven Smith, says its aim is to build a network that
ensures its employees are never more than two clicks or two phone calls away
from the information they need – or someone who can help them get it. "As
subjects evolve, we want to allow employees who have left that subject for a
time to have a network they can plug into and which ensures the consultancy is
competent in this area."

The motivation for making people meet and exchange knowledge online doesn’t
have to be tied to business issues, but so far it appears to be the most
powerful encourager. Networked learning also has a much better chance of
thriving if the company already has a culture of knowledge sharing – which
takes the discussion to another area that has been surrounded by rhetoric over
the years: knowledge management.

It is no surprise that those companies which have placed a high value on
knowledge management are the ones poised to take advantage of networked
learning in its many guises.

The Unipart Group has made knowledge management a cornerstone of its
business development, believing the only sustainable form of competitive
advantage is to learn faster than its competitors in the logistics, automotive
and accessories sector. It set up the Unipart U corporate university nearly 10 years
ago, which features the Knowledge Management Factory, a centre designed to help
the organisation understand the knowledge management process.

"Many companies aren’t explicit about what knowledge management is or
what it means to a company," says Frank Nigriello, one of the driving
forces behind the U and director of Unipart’s Advanced Learning Systems
business unit that acts as a learning consultancy to external clients.

Knowledge cycle

Nigriello and his team have put in place tools that enable the workforce to
feed in knowledge and share it across its network. "For instance, we’ve
given employees a tool that lets them create a website in 10 minutes so they
can use it to write about processes or perhaps a project they’ve been involved
with. This sort of material is really rich," says Nigriello, explaining
that it is all part of the company’s knowledge cycle: "We create knowledge
from experience – such as when we’ve been through an event and succeeded at
something – and then we look at how we can turn that knowledge into learning.
We then capture that knowledge and codify it so others can access it."

But knowledge sharing is far more than just system-based at Unipart. Every
Friday at its headquarters in Cowley, individuals give a five-minute presentation
on some aspect of technology and explain how it has helped the business. So you
have a group of people in a room sharing knowledge and frequently linked to
this via tele-conferencing is another group, explains Nigriello. "After
this, all kinds of media may be used for follow-up discussion," he says,
such as e-mail or websites, or just face-to-face discussion.

IT solutions company Fujitsu Consulting (formerly ICL) has one of the most
well-developed learning environments, and like Unipart has worked hard to embed
learning into the company culture by using knowledge management as its base. It
launched one of the first knowledge management systems back in 1996 called Café
VIK (Valuing ICL Knowledge). This has since evolved into a corporate portal
through which self-service HRsystems and e-learning programmes can be accessed.

During the course of its evolution, online communities of practice and
interest were added to share knowledge. There are now around 400 of these
communities, which range from the 4,000-strong engineering community to small
groups who may be working together on a specific project or pitch. Participants
typically publish whatever material they think may be valuable: conference
papers, presentation material, tenders and proposals. "A lot of clever
work is carried out for tenders, so this way we can make sure it is
captured," says principal consultant Tom Knight, author of the recent book
Knowledge Management for IT Professionals.

Knight is aware that the communities should be managed and run properly if
they are to work, so a sponsor is identified who can take ownership and
responsibility for that community and an administrator is appointed to keep an
eye on day-today matters such as making sure information is up to date.

The incentive for individuals to get involved in communities is based on
peer recognition and esteem. Fujitsu Consulting eschewed the approach by some
companies of offering tangible benefits and rewards (such as Air Miles) since
it wanted the individuals to appreciate the value of sharing knowledge for the
company as a whole and view themselves as part of that whole.

So instead, it relies on employees feeling that there is a certain kudos to
leading a community or publishing a paper on it. "It’s an opportunity to
impress peers. It is a sort of carrot approach: you get respect and recognition
and it is built into the appraisal system," says Knight.

HR’s role

Neither Knight nor Nigriello would claim to have designed the ultimate
corporate learning blueprint, but they have a knowledge culture and technology
infrastructure in place that certainly stimulates and facilitates a level of
collaborative and continuous learning that all companies will be striving to
reach if they are to remain competitive.

Overall, the excitement surrounding networked learning currently outweighs
the tangible benefits it is delivering, just as the developments in networking
technology are ahead of progress in how people actually exploit these networks
to their full potential. And you don’t have to be part of a networked community
of Einstein, Newton and Galileo to deduce that there’s a correlation between
the two. Which is why it’s time for HR to get involved and apply some good
old-fashioned people management principles and, as IT Premier’s Esposito points
out, who knows where this could lead.

"Linux was an operating system developed online; maybe next will be a
database or whole applications. And one day, with the right thought leaders
collaborating, why not even a new HR system."

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