Corporate Learning Strategies

Daniel R. Tobin, Ph.D.


Building Your Personal Learning Network

Copyright 1998 Daniel R. Tobin

While many companies promise that every employee will receive one or two weeks of training per year, learning should take place every day on the job. Learning doesn't take place just in training programs, but should be part of every employee's everyday activities. You learn every time you read a book or article, every time you observe how someone else is doing work similar to your own, every time you ask a question. An important part of learning is to build your own personal learning network -- a group of people who can guide your learning, point you to learning opportunities, answer your questions, and give you the benefit of their own knowledge and experience.

I often use the following four-stage learning model to describe how we learn.

The Four Stages of Learning

Stage 1: Data
Stage 2: Information
Stage 3: Knowledge
Stage 4: Wisdom

In today's business world, we are all inundated with data (Stage 1) -- all those manuals, brochures, memos, letters, reports, and other printed material that cross our field of vision every day, not to mention all that we receive electronically. I once researched how much data was received by salespeople for a large computer company. The average salesperson received a stack of mail almost two feet high every month. There is no way that the salesperson could even look through all of this mail, never mind actually reading it and learning from it.

Management expert Peter Drucker has said that when you take data and give it relevance and purpose, you create information. Information (Stage 2) is the minimum we should be seeking for all of our learning activities. We need to find ways of sorting through all of the data that crosses our path and finding that part of the data that is relevant to our work and for which we have a purpose (to do our jobs more effectively or efficiently).

Even when we have information, we must use that information by applying it to our work before we can say we "know it." Until we use it, it remains information. Knowledge (Stage 3) comes from applying information to our work. This is the stage at which most company training programs fail -- too often the content of company training programs never gets applied to the employee's work. To me, this means that the investment in that training is totally wasted.

Wisdom (Stage 4), that most precious possession, comes from adding intuition and experience to knowledge. For example, in a paper mill, an operator may know that the mixture of chemicals in a processing vat is correct by the way the static electricity from that vat affects his hair as he walks by. This learning can come only from experience -- it cannot be taught in a classroom or explained in a textbook, but must be personally demonstrated if it is to be transmitted from one person to another.

Using this model, we can identify the challenges we face when we want to learn something new. First, we must sort through all of the available data to find only that information that is relevant to our learning needs and for which we have a purpose. Once we have gathered and learned the needed information, we need to apply it to our work in order to transform it into our personal knowledge.

One of the problems inherent in learning something new is that while we are learning it (in a classroom, from reading a book, taking a computer-based training course, and so forth) is that we often don't know what questions to ask. If this is a new area of learning that we have never experienced, we may think we understand the information, but we won't really know if we have mastered it until we try to apply it to our jobs. But by the time we get back to our jobs and try out what we have learned, the learning resource (a trainer or the author of the book) is no longer available to us to answer the questions that will inevitably arise. Unless our manager has been through the training, or has otherwise mastered the skill or knowledge himself, he cannot answer our questions. So, too often, when we face a problem with the new methods, we revert back to the old ways -- they may not be as effective or as efficient, but we know that they work and we know how to use them. This is why having a personal learning network is so important -- to provide us not only with pointers to sources of information, but to answer questions, to coach us, to reinforce our learning when we try to apply it to our work.

Who should be in your personal learning network? The members of your network do not need to be people with whom you work directly. In fact, you do not even need to know the people personally. The members of your network should be people, both inside and outside of your work group and your company, who have the knowledge that you are trying to master and who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you. Are you trying to master a new manufacturing technique? You may find someone in another part of your factory or in another one of your company's factories who has mastered the technique and will be willing to answer questions as they arise. Or, through the local society of manufacturing engineers, you may find someone from another company who would be willing to coach you. Another method of finding a learning resource would be to search the Internet to find a discussion forum on the topic and, through that forum, find people who have experience with the technique you are trying to master.

To establish a learning network, you can ask other people in your group, or with whom you have gone through a training program, to participate in periodic discussions as you all try to implement a new way of working, to support each other and share experiences with each other. Most people are happy to help -- people generally like to talk about their own work and are honored to be asked to share their knowledge and wisdom.

Knowledge is a unique type of economic good. With most economic goods, if you give them away, you no longer have them. With knowledge, you can give it away and keep it. In fact, the value of knowledge increases when you share it with others.

Here is an example of using my own knowledge network. I belong to a group of several thousand training professionals who share knowledge with each other through an electronic service provided by an American university. Last year, I was invited to give a series of seminars in Brazil that would be simultaneously translated. Never having worked with simultaneous translation, I sent a message to my network asking for advice from people who had this experience. Within two days, I had about fifteen responses. Some were from people who were professional translators, other messages were from people who had done similar seminars in Brazil and offered some comments on the Brazilian business community. The most interesting and useful response came from a seminar manager in Israel who recommended that I avoid a common error made by American speakers in foreign countries -- he strongly recommended that I not use any golf stories or baseball analogies, because people from other countries are not generally familiar with those sports. This professional network has provided me with a great amount of learning over the two years I have belonged. The fascinating part of belonging to this type of network is that of its 5,000 members, I have met only a few in person.

How can your learning network help you?

By helping you to sift through all the data to identify the information that will be most useful to you.

By helping you to identify learning resources and opportunities.

By coaching you and answering your questions as you try to apply your learning to your work.

By sharing their wisdom with you through dialogue.

Building a personal learning network is requires that you not only seek to learn from others, but also that you also help others in the network learn. Even when you are a novice in a field of learning, you can still make contributions. Did you read an article that might be of interest to others? Then distribute it to other in your network with a short note that you thought they might find it interesting. Did you hear of a conference on the subject? Let others know about the program and speakers and, if you attend, circulate your notes and papers you collect to other network members.

A personal learning network can be your most powerful learning tool no matter what the subject.



Dan Tobin welcomes your reactions to and comments on this article. To send him e-mail, click here or send email to


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