In my last post, we spoke about Drucker’s concept of the Knowledge Worker. From here, we should think about shifting from knowledge workers to learning workers. Today, there is a good chance that a great search engine and a smartphone can make you one of the most knowledgeable people in the room. The ability to learn and apply new knowledge and information, or learning how to learn, is the skill that people should continue to hone to differentiate themselves. This comes naturally to some, but don’t worry if it doesn’t for you. There are some concepts and tricks in this post that can help you utilize the wealth of information around you (or help people within your organizations discover how to utilize it for themselves). The first concept, is a Personal Learning Environment (PLE).

What is a PLE?

I am fond of Connie Malamed’s take on a PLE, “a self-directed and evolving environment of tools, services, and resources organized by a person seeking a way to accomplish lifetime learning — to create and connect with others of similar interests.” If you are reading on from my first blog post, you’ll notice that self-directed phrase again. Flexibility and the intrinsic desire to learn and adapt seem like necessary conditions to keeping up with the pace of the world around us. PLEs can be our training regimen to keep us fit for that race.

How should one think of building a PLE?

As mentioned earlier, a PLE is comprised of tools, services, and resources. Jeremy Hiebert’s model not only breaks down a PLE on a timeline, but also shows the actions involved in building and continuing your PLE: collecting, reflecting, connecting, and publishing. We can talk about some specific tools later, but for now, let’s talk about what these tools should afford the user of a PLE. Colin Milligan et al share a great summary in their paper which we can think of as a high level model:

  • Learn with other people: manage, discover, and create relationships and form links between an extended, informal network
  • Control their learning resources: the ability to structure, share, and organize their resources from their own discovery and from those in their network
  • Manage the activities they participate in: the opportunity to set up and join a variety of activities and groups that connect people with people and people with resources
  • Integrate their learning: combine learning from a variety of sources and institutions and start to make connections between formal and informal learning

Hopefully, this sheds some light on what we are looking for when we talk about the tools of a PLE. Let’s move on to examples of services.

Jane Hart shares a plethora of great tips to help people begin to set up their Personal Learning Network (PLN). Before you start scratching your head and saying, “Hold up. I thought we were talking about PLEs!?” Let’s quickly differentiate these terms. A PLE is holistic and all-encompassing. It may include tools, networks, people, resources, and a host of other items that you draw from to inspire and drive your learning. A PLN is a subset of a PLE and refers specifically to the people component. These people may be colleagues, professional association members, customers, competitors, industry experts, vendors, etc. The pool one can draw from is quite diverse. Examples of services that sit within a PLN could be social networking tools that help you discover and maintain connections with these people.

Tips for building your PLN


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We all know how hard it can be to change our habits. So, before you spend hours building this magical PLN, you should first make a commitment to yourself to build this behavior into your routine. Think about a personal daily learning workout or how you might spend 30 minutes a day. Perhaps you can spend 20 minutes reading/discovering and 10 minutes reflecting/writing. Start with this intention and then read on for more specifics about how to build out your network.

It is all about discovery! How can we enable that for you? Jane Hart, again, to the rescue with some steps one should take to build their PLN:

  • Analyze the existing state
    • What does your analysis show about your existing professional network?
    • What are 3-4 specific actions you could take to improve the quality, nature, and composition of your professional network?
  • Build or extend your PLN
    • How many people should you have in your PLN? (Value of members > quantity! Think about people who both reinforce your current thinking AND challenge you to think differently.)
    • Where will you find people to follow?
    • Identify which social networks to join. (Think about the pros and cons of each. The e-book referenced above has some guidance here as well.)
  • Start networking!
    • Sign up, check out support pages to learn the ropes, post, respond to other posts, add new connections weekly, and share your account details with others.
  • Manage your professional network!
    • Where can you spend your time that will bring you the most value?
    • Are you getting value from the people you follow?
    • Can you turn on notifications or other features to help automate your workflow and filter out the content you want to ignore?

Not sure where to start?

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The goal is to “learn the new” and there are some tools out there that can help you stay current. Many of these recommendations may seem fairly obvious to readers who are savvy social media and technology users. However, it is important to remember that we exist in a diverse, multi-generational workforce and these tools are for everyone. We’ll talk more about how organizations can encourage self-directed learning skills and awareness for their teams in my next post. But for now, here are some basic tools and tips you may want to utilize if this whole concept is new to you:

  1. Google Alerts
  2. Read, discover, and follow blogs. Utilize RSS feeders (Really Simple Syndication)
  3. Check out content curation tools (Twitter, Facebook, Google+,, etc.)
  4. Verify your resources! (Ask yourself: a) How reliable is this source? b) How valid is the content?)

From an individual lens, PLEs (and PLNs) are a great way to start thinking about building our capacity to learn how to learn. You can go pretty deep here into theory, tools, and all of the research related to PLEs but the intention of this blog was to think more practically about how to kick-start this process from an individual’s perspective. In my next blog post, we’ll talk more about how to build and develop this capability form the organizational perspective.