Fortunate learners and PLE's

I experience myself as a fortunate learner. I've been on a roll since I started reading two books a week around 1990. I continually find something that answers a question I've been carrying or shows me a better question to be asking. When I lose interest in what I'm reading, I'll happen to pick up or come across something that follows on what I was reading. When I come back days later to the reading I abandoned, I discover that I left off in a place with fits perfectly with what I'm thinking about days later. All this good fortune has "gone on steroids" since I've subscribed to blog feeds and followed links in blog postings.

I'm also fortunate in the realm of creativity and innovation. Inspirations come to my mind at perfect times. It makes sense that new ideas occur to me when I have a "prepared mind". Stewing about something and then letting it go works great for me. The process of inventing serendipitously seems very similar to my process of fortunate learning. Both are open-ended and fluid enough to change directions, intentions and timing. Both are intuitive and getting guidance from within. Both are intrinsically motivated and done for their own reward. Both are full of contradictory combinations of structure & process, requirements & freedom, or practicality & visionary possibilities.

I'm very aware of the ways I can undermine this process. Books on creativity confirm what I've "learned the hard way" about the fragile nature of my relentless good fortune. Extrinsic rewards and imposed structures defeat the inspired flow. Kathy Sierra said this beautifully in Don't ask employees to be passionate about the company. Harold Jarche recently blogged about 3M's loss of innovativeness that resulted from becoming more efficient. David Weinberger offers a similar point also made in The Starfish and The Spider: Messy, leaderless, multi-faceted approaches bring out amazing talents, contributions and initiatives from everyone. Organized, controlled, and catalogued approaches undermine all that.

This means there are also unfortunate learners. Clive Shepherd's wonderful critique of Andrew Keen's new book, The Cult of the Amateur portrays the author as unfortunate. Powerless employees in need of PLE's as power tools are also unfortunate learners. Learning becomes a struggle like studying textbooks we don't want to read for tests we don't want to take for grades that are meaningless beyond the stupid course requirement.

This distinction between fortunate and unfortunate learners gives me a way to provide context to our ongoing exploration of PLE's.

When PLE's are productivity tools to facilitate research work, learning is most likely going to be an unfortunate struggle. The good intentions behind providing better tools will backfire -- like the process improvements at 3M or asking employees to be passionate about the company. The emphasis on tools puts a damper on the necessary messiness. Think "playing beach volleyball in three piece suits". Improvisation is possible but not easy.

When PLE's are created from workflows and use cases to support informal learning, the process is more open-ended, self structured and individualized. I equate this with my own subscribing to blog feeds and acquiring books to read -- prior to jumping around among my resources serendipitously. This approach to PLE's can set up fortunate learning, but does not constitute the learning itself.

When PLE's are intended for learning empathy and other advanced capabilities, the learning is freed from imposed structures and controls. If and when the learning happens, it will seem fortunate and similar to innovation. The structure is very open-ended and supportive of free ranging, like the library systems I use and the blogosphere we search successfully.

When PLE's seem unnecessary, we are learning from everything that: happens, comes along unexpectedly or occurs to our minds. Learning is non-stop and delightful.

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  1. Tom, I agree completely with your thoughts on how PLEs for efficiency and productivity can backfire--at least for someone like me. At various times I've felt a need to "organize" myself, but when I go too far, I find that my ideas and connections begin to dry up. When I read about 3-M (one of the companies profiled in Built to Last), it made me think about how we really have to balance efficiency with serendipity. One of 3-Ms most famous inventions, the Post-It, was discovered by a scientist who was trying to do something else and stumbled upon the formula for the "useless" glue. In an efficient organization, that glue might never have made it to product status. There would have been no mind space for connecting the adhesive to the idea of Post-Its.

  2. Thanks Michele.
    One of the entrepreneurs I'm mentoring lacks organizational skills and spends too much time in the messes he's created. He has no concept of being too organized and sacrificing good fortune as a result. Seems like another taxonomy with different stages of development.