MON: The LinkedIn Effect: A new way of learning? (Louise Worsley)
Focus on project management LinkedIn communities.
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22 December 2014
While many people are aware of LinkedIn as a business network, fewer perhaps, are aware of the 1.9 million LinkedIn community groups (Quora,2014). This paper examines how these are being used in the field of project management to promote learning and share knowledge.
Open learning practices challenge the basis of what we traditionally mean by learning. Classic theories of learning focus on learning being acquired and occurring inside the person. In her engaging phrase, “I store my knowledge in my friends”, Karen Stephenson (undated) captures the opportunities faced by learning in a digital age where the sum of the knowledge that an individual or community has is defined not by what they ‘own’ but by what they are ‘connected’ to. This leads us to a different definition of learning where “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections …and learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”(Downes,2012)
The growth of online communities has been one of the emerging phenomena of the digital age. In a study in the USA, 73% of online adults use a social networking site of some kind and while Facebook is the dominant platform, 42% of online users now using multiple sites regularly. (PewResearch Internet Project, 2013). Growth in professional networks such as LinkedIn continues, as does interest in specialist professional groups such as Doximity, a networking site exclusively for medical professionals with over 295,00 members (40% of physicians in the US).(Alden, 2014)
LinkedIn, and in particular the community groups on LinkedIn, are examples of a member-initiated community (Porter,2004). In these ‘networks of practice’, participation is open for all to see, and it is common that participants are strangers. Given these characteristics, it is interesting to ponder why such groups should result in knowledge sharing and learning at all. Why do individuals choose to seek out information through these types of mediums and are they successful in gaining insights and learning? If they are sharing, are we moving to the position described by Wasko & Faraj (2000) who propose that “knowledge can be maintained as a public good… where knowledge exchange is motivated by moral obligation and community interest”?
As an active member of the project management community and a ‘knowledge benefitter’ from online engagements I have been intrigued about the growth of project management (PM) communities on the authors preferred social network LinkedIn. This presentation provides an analysis of conversations occurring on some of the most popular PM groups on LinkedIn. In doing so, it explores further how we classify social network conversation and starts to address the question: To what extent are social networks changing the way we learn and share knowledge?
Draft version of the paper: https://www.dropbox.com/s/huxxdkmr0wcijh4/Conference paper.v4.pdf?dl=0
Dr Simon Ball
16:34 on 3 February 2015
Extracted from draft paper (Discussion of results)
There is prima facie evidence of learning and sharing of knowledge in open communities such as LinkedIn. From comments received in response to surveys and from personal experience, it would seem that people do seek learning opportunities, and are using social media to extend the reach of their knowledge and experience.
“As I work for a very large company, I… have a tendency to be very inward looking. By joining networks like this I've recognised that I can challenge my thinking, understand other's journeys for example, particularly on topics such as women in leadership, where other organisations are finding their way and we can share learning in this area.”
[Female respondent: Large engineering UK company]
Many more organisations are comfortable with the concept that: “Not all information is found within our own organisation”, and as the respondent above suggests, there are genuine insights to be gained from practices in other organisations.
This emerging connectivism is supported by Wasko & Faraz (2005) who suggest that:
“…not only do virtual community members benefit from external network connections because they gain access to new information, expertise and ideas not available locally but they can “act free from constraints of hierarchy and local rules.”
It is this space that member-initiated, open communities such as LinkedIn currently occupy.
In the survey described in this paper, more than two-thirds of the respondents are aged between 45-64 – an age often associated with maximum responsibilities and a plateau in learning. Even so, nearly 90% use LinkedIn at least once a week and just over half use two or more social networks regularly.
As might be expected from a group with this age profile, the main use of LinkedIn is in creating and maintaining professional relationship. Less expected is that just under half used LinkedIn, and gained benefit from “seeking information on practices”, this being the second most important use.
With individuals brought up in the digital age becoming the dominant generation in the workplace, and the continuing rise of social networks, it is a fairly safe prediction that – like the telephone of the twentieth century - social media will simply become part of the way we not only maintain relationships but also the way we extend our knowledge and expertise.
But is all learning, is all knowledge sharing an active process? The received wisdom for traditional learning is that active learning is more effective, and more quickly absorbed. (Though there are counter examples: see ) Can learning and extension of experience occur passively?
In a survey (Fortuna et al,2007) it was found as many as 90% of people in online communities are ‘lurkers’, people who search and read content but never – or very rarely - communicate i.e. offer comments to others in the group. This is backed up by comments from one of the respondents:
“I hardly ever interact with these groups and often routinely delete the daily email from my Inbox without reading it … Sometimes when a subject line resonates with me then I do click on the link to follow the discussion, but I have not once submitted a post to any of the groups.” [Male respondent: Consultancy firm SA]
It is interesting to note that while nearly half the individuals engage with LinkedIn, less than a third participate in forum discussions. Further, analysis of the main information sharing activity suggests relatively passive observation of forum activity rather than active engagement.
With over 700 project management related communities on LinkedIn alone, projects managers have a lot of groups to choose from. Some of the biggest of these groups have over 600,000 members are growing at a rate of some 15,000 members a month. Yet, what typifies successful communities of practice is engagement not simply size of membership – and the survey results described in this paper clearly identifies how differently the different groups score on creating and maintaining engagement.
The results, even in this small sample, strongly suggest that certain types of interactions encourage engagement and the exchange of ideas, while others act as dampers. This supports the views of Wasko and Faraj (2005) in their work on why people share on social networks. They found that there is strong desire to have access to a ‘community of practice’, which by their nature provide ’rich interaction’. As they reported, respondents said about their communities of practice, “If it just becomes a platform for Q&A and no discussion, I would lose interest quickly.”
Discussion threads which are genuinely seeking advice such as, “Hello, can someone explain sigma to me in layman's terms? Any help would be appreciated!” generate the greatest number of valued exchanges. A close second are those that seem to have the general intent to involve the audience and provoke debate such as: “What makes a great project manager?”
A third discussion thread, one which is mainly informational in nature (we labelled them, ‘Sharing information’) and which are often initiated by links to an article, for example, “The Science Behind the To-Do List”, do generate traffic, but this is typically five time less than those seeking advice.
The statistics collected on this are directly supported by comments such as:
“I personally feel that the information and interaction shared through the social media sites are of a significant importance to young academics and professionals that are entering into the construction industry. It is in these places that information can be shared openly and accessed easily and on the move; almost an essential requirement in the lives of the younger generation; that certainly is the case for me…
[Male respondent: Large construction company UK]
It is interesting to note that there does seem to be a significant ‘framing’ effect at work. If discussion threads include self or corporate promotion; if there are professional relationships and networking threads combined with sharing information, seeking advice and provoking debate discussion threads, then this juxtapositioning seems to reduce the general level of interaction significantly.
Of the three project communities examined in detail, one in particular demonstrates high levels of engagement, and this is associated with the information seeking and provoking debate discussion threads. Indeed, in this community forum, no’ promotion’ discussions were found, and each discussion thread received on average some 40 comments. This compares with just eight comments per discussion, and less than one comment per discussion, in the other two community forums.
All three groups describe themselves as professional interest groups and their group rules, which are published on the site, state that their aim is to promote group discussions.
The big difference with the group with 40+ comments per discussion is that it is moderated – posted discussions are ‘approved’ before making it onto the community area. It is hard to believe that this moderation process does not contribute to the higher levels of engagement and it may also impact the culture and general behaviour of the group in other ways. For example, in this group ‘seeking advice’ discussion threads always receive at least some comments, whereas in the other two groups it is noticeable that some of the requests for advice and support are totally ignored.
While it is not yet known what factors cause communities to behave differently, with thousands of project managers joining project management communities every month, an important question for those prospective members must be; “What do I want from my virtual community?”, and “How can identify the right one to join?” One move that is already apparent is the formation of groups within the LinkedIn project community which specifically state their focus is job recruitment. This may act so as to take these types of discussion threads out of the other project community forums
It is likely that, as social network usage matures, networks and communities within those networks will be selected that more closely match specific member needs and expectations. Hargittai (2008) notes that even though social networks are designed to be widely accessible, many attract a homogenous population and this leads to segregation. Doximity (an online network for doctors) is an example of a homogeneous network. Formed in the USA in 2011 it now has 295,000 members – some 40% of the physicians in the USA. (Alden, 2014).
So, do social networks support learning and the sharing of information? If they do, is the learning similar to, and is it as good as, the learning that happens in traditional formats?
The answer is a qualified – definitely. There appear to be three distinct types of learning going on. The first, a form of ‘active’ learning is delivered by the discussion thread that generates the highest levels of engagement, ‘seeking advice’. The sharing and debating of the responses to these questions builds knowledge and understanding in individuals and communities.
The second is ‘passive’ learning. Perhaps unfashionable, and certainly with a long history, there are ‘learners’ or ‘lurkers’ who watch and wait, and absorb content without responding. That some learning is going on is certain, as case studies show changes in knowledge and attitudes following their interactions with, but non-exchange with the social networks.
And there may be a third, which is identified as ‘gamification’, learning through ‘games’. The second most popular discussion thread – provoking debate is interesting. The most popular discussion by far, with over 4,000 comments and over 450 likes, was initiated in August 2014 and was going strong still in February 2015. (Table 10)
The discussion thread was started by, “Describe project management in three words!” Do the contributions made constitute learning as it would be traditionally recognised? Do the responses fit into the critical thinking categories described by researchers such as Newman et al (2004)? That there is conceptualisation, abstraction and refinement of ideas is evident in many replies. It is also evident that the individuals are heavily engaged with the topic and others interested in the thread, and these are all characteristics of learning in a social environment – and perhaps more importantly in a community of practice. It is fun and seems trivial – but the question remains “Are people learning from it?” – and the answer seems to be “Yes”.
17:26 on 3 February 2015