What does collaboration mean? Social learning spaces and the freedom to learn

Today is a rare office day. There are eight other people in the same room as me: we share a kitchen and a coffee machine, but we are not collaborating. We may talk about the weather, ask how the holiday was, go for lunch together, but that does not make us collaborators. We are cohabiting.

Collaboration is a rare beast. Hard to find, hard to tame and greatly valued for it’s fur. If i collaborate with the right people, i can achieve more than i can alone. My ideas will be stronger, their challenges will drive me to better performance, to question myself and to question the things other people tell me. If i can be humble enough to listen to what my collaborators say and if i can be disciplined enough to act upon it, then we will, collectively, excel.

This is not an aspiration, it’s a fact, and it’s the reason why i reach out through the blog, through my learning network, to friends, colleagues and strangers, reaching out to others who also believe in the power of collaboration and the value of social learning.

There are foundations that need to be in place to learn in social spaces: we have to be prepared to step outside our boundaries, our comfort zone. We have to lower our barriers. If i step into a learning space and just try to demonstrate my expertise, i will fail. I may know a lot about some things, but i know next to nothing about others. In a collaborative social learning space, the dynamics of leadership and expertise are fluid. We take an agile approach, with experts contributing in their areas and listening humbly in others. If we get it right, we learn, if we get it wrong, we just broadcast what we already know.

So to succeed, we need to believe in the integrity of others, we have to be prepared to be vulnerable in front of them. We have to teach and to learn within the same space. Social learning spaces give us the freedom to learn, but only if we give ourselves up to the process.

So can you mandate for collaboration within an organisational, commercial setting? Hard to say: you can’t mandate for respect or for trust, you have to earn both, so probably not. Sure, you can make people have a dialogue, but just being in the same room, just having conversation is like me sitting in this office. I’m present in body, but i’m not collaborating.

Part of the art of building your Personal Learning Network is developing the relationships that are founded on the trust and respect that allow you to collaborate. That’s why these things take time to settle, to bed in. Trust is built over time and over actions.

Social learning spaces can be great places to collaborate, and collaboration can lead us to achieve more than we ever could alone. If we are willing to let it into our lives. If we are humble enough to engage.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Achievement, Agile, Blog, Broadcast, Collaboration, Community, Community of Practice, Learning, Personal Learning Network, Social Learning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to What does collaboration mean? Social learning spaces and the freedom to learn

  1. Nick says:

    Enjoy your day in the office Julian … I am in mine where there is one of me with two desks, however, today is a collaboration day as a colleague is joining me to excel in the way you describe.

    A valuable day in prosepct :)

    • julianstodd says:

      I like the idea of having the hot seat ready for a collaborator! Relationships that build over time: in our case, first meeting in person, then exploring new ways of sharing ideas in this learning space!

      I hope you have a great day :-)

  2. paul h says:

    great blog today! I believe the young are more eager to jump in and engage this way becuse there is less of that fear and thy are willing to “risk” being wrong.

  3. Stuart says:

    “I never learned anything while I was talking.” Larry King.
    And if that’s true for one person in conversation it is equally true for the other so the natural state appears to be that no learning takes place. Collaboration is where dialog alternates between talking and listening, with both parties making progress towards a goal. To what extent does that need to be a common goal? That, I suspect, is the key to whether organisations will be able to perceive value in social learning.

  4. Heidi Smith says:

    Interesting article Julian; I viewed a shared workspace last week and walked into one space where there were at least 20 small businesses “cohabiting” but the room was silent. I wondered about the reasons why those people had decided to adopt a traditional office environment having, presumably, fled the a corporate environment in the past. To encourage older people to collaborate (among which I have to number myself) it seems that a clearly defined incentive is required; my experience of being around 20 yr olds is that they are more willing to collaborate on a wait-and-see-what-happens basis. Impossible to split attitudes along the lines of Before-40 and After-40, but some patterns are noticeable, to me at least. Would be interesting to study – and it must surely have been written about in volumes – the most successful R&D models and how collaboration contributed.

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