Retrospective: ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning’

As part of my own professional development i am carrying out a critical review of certain of my published works, as well as a broader reflection on the ideas that have influenced and shaped my thinking. This work will be ongoing through 2023. I have broken this reflective process into three streams: [1] ‘My Published Works’, [2] ‘Communities and Experiences’, and [3] ‘Influential Books’.

Today i am revisiting the book ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning’, which was published in 2012, right at the start of my writing career! This book was couched as a ‘book from the blog’ and is essentially a reprint of fifty or so blog posts, wrapped in a broader context for each post.

In a real sense, this work represented  my first meta-analysis and reflection upon my primary output on the blog, and hence my first fully rounded experience and demonstration of the (then emergent) methodology of #WorkingOutLoud.

Before i dive into the book itself, to consider how those ideas have stood up over time, i just want to explore that context and notion of #WorkingOutLoud, and why this publication was a transitional step.

I did not formally define or share #WorkingOutLoud as i understand it as a practice until later in my writing, but the idea was clear to me from the start. A methodology whereby one shares the journey as well as the output. It’s a somewhat vulnerable approach, but also a defensive one: by openly stating that work will be fragile, will be wrong, it’s possible to mitigate some of the consequence of it actually being wrong. Or to put it another way, i say that it’s wrong before you do, so i feel less constrained to share incomplete and fractured work.

Under this approach, i usually describe the blog as my ‘first reflective space’, which means it is not very reflective at all! Books represent a second reflective space: a more considered and analytic narrative. And arguably current research and community events represent a live and dynamic third reflective space – but a very forward focussed one. I typically find that new ideas emerge and are articulated for the first time in my ‘performance’ spaces, followed by a frantic attempt to capture them in writing after the event.

As i look back, to analyse my practice, i can see that there are some specific traits of #WorkingOutLoud that we can define: [1] sharing fragments, [2] developing vocabulary, [3] layering interpretation.

Sharing fragments of thought is about building bricks, but without the need to understand what the whole building will look like. It’s about creating a basket of ideas that can be shaken around. In my own practice, i realise that these fragments are typically sparked by observation (of the world around me, within these disparate communities and spaces that i am lucky enough to inhabit), and connection (the practice of the generalist, to move between domains, to carry ideas as one does so). My work (and head) are full of these ideas, and they sometimes appear in multiple streams of work (although the majority probably remain forever swirling around!).

Developing vocabulary is about creating reusable assets and ideas, in this case held in language. For example, i now widely talk about ‘leading at the intersection of systems’, when describing Social Leadership, but when i wrote the Social Leadership Handbook in 2014, i did not have that vocabulary. It took me years longer to find the right language, but now i reuse it widely.

Blogging, alongside live performance spaces, is great for developing new language, as one rapidly finds what works.

There is something akin to poetry in this, in that the right language can be a matter of cadence and rhyme as much as meaning – for language does not carry intrinsic meaning, but is rather imbued and contextual. It’s also not dissimilar to the experience of structuring a song.

The third aspect, layering interpretation, means that one operates at various levels of abstraction and reflection. For me, these three speaces: primary, secondary, and tertiary spaces of reflection – the blog, the books, and the performance, which then loops back around to the blog.

But back to ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning’.

Most of these articles that i had written through 2011 and into 2012 represent my thinking shifting broadly from ‘learning as event’ and ‘learning as artefact’, through to ‘learning as journey’, and the broader social context of learning. Almost nine years later, documenting broad trends in Organisational Learning, i would revisit the themes, but articulate the context far more clearly.

In my writing back in 2012 i can spot recognisable parts of the landscape: ‘The corporate colonisation of informal space’ represented a first consideration of ownership and separation (i revisited the ‘separation of space’ in a whole chapter of ‘Finding your Campfire’ – a lockdown remote working survival guide, the lineage of which traces back to this earlier work), and ‘How big is a community’ is a first consideration of boundaries, scale, and trust (although i did not use the word ‘trust’ until much later, in 2018/19 with the ‘Landscape of Trust’ research).

Again, whilst it would be 2020 before i first directly used the term ‘Social Currencies’ (to describe the forces that hold us together or apart), i am clearly seeing them at play in this earlier work (sections on ‘Social Capital’, ‘Winners and Losers’, and ‘Idle Chat’ all relate to these currencies, and the ways that they are traded.

Some parts of this work are clearly lacking or naive: my exploration of social collaborative technologies is cursory and limited. Descriptive rather than analytic. Although i can remind myself that back then, ten years ago, much of our collective thinking was locked into infrastructure, so this is not surprising. I remind myself that much of my experience from 2000 through to 2010, running the eLearning company, was of infrastructure: driving around the country with servers and CD ROMS to build local networks for training!

Somewhat surprisingly to me, the work has not dated as much as i may have expected: although i am unsure if that is a good thing or not. In some ways, i want old work to feel out of date, partly as a validation to continue exploring new ideas! But there is also some comfort in familiarity.

My closing summary for the book states, “As I’ve written this book, I’ve found my own ideas evolving. I can see how conversations develop, how behaviours are modified and how we learn more about how to incorporate a social layer into all our learning experiences. I have realised how there is very little ‘cause and effect’ in social, how it’s often nuanced and that our ability to generate engagement does not always come in the ways that we expect”. Today, i would recognise that as part of a trans-disciplinary approach and part of #WorkingOutLoud.

For me, this book remains relevant, but more as part of the archaeology of my ideas, and for that reason i would move it to an Archive space, not a performance one. I have enjoyed revisiting it more than i expected, perhaps because it is written through a largely analytic lens. My more theoretical or philosophical work i tend to find dates more badly than this has.

I will continue to share my retrospective analysis through this year.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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