Net Work Skills

Imagine if we limited our conversations to only those in the same office.  We would miss out on so many learning opportunities. Well it seems some people are still missing out.  Today, people with larger and more diverse networks have an advantage as professionals and in dealing with change. They are engaged in a constant flow of sense-making through multiple conversations.

Every professional needs to be open to continuous learning and to make much of it transparent in order to cooperate with others. Nothing remains the same, and the only way to remain relevant in the network era is to stay connected. This is life in perpetual Beta.

An open attitude is increasingly important. The people who blog or connect on social media can get things done quicker, find answers faster, get advice and just be more effective. All of this requires professional networks and these take time to build the necessary trust before one can even ask for help. For instance, strangers usually have to know something about someone before they will help out. Without some persistent point of presence (blog, Twitter, LinkedIn), one is invisible online unless he or she is already famous. Most of us are not.

It is not just an advantage to belong to diverse professional networks but in recent years the situation has tipped so that it is now a significant disadvantage to not actively participate in social learning networks.

With social media, anyone can easily create digital content and collaborate with others without any special programming skills. And the kinds of skills needed for all professionals today are not so much specific social media platforms, but rather changes in attitudes and perspective.

It is getting difficult for anyone to be an expert other than in a very narrow field for a short period of time. Bloggers can quickly get the scoop on professional journalists. As knowledge workers, we are like actors — only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting time, we may be viewed as experts. This erosion in perceived and conferred expertise means that professionals have to become learners themselves and follow the flow of the ever-expanding bodies of knowledge related to their fields. It is a shift away from subject matter experts and toward subject matter networks.

“Creativity is a conversation—a tension—between individuals working on individual problems, and the professional communities they belong to.”~ David Williamson Shaffer

Conversation is an essential part of being a networked professional today. One person cannot know everything, but can add to, as well as benefit from, the knowledge of others by engaging in various online conversations. Social media let anyone join in professional conversations, and conversely, may isolate those who do not.

Professionals immersed in communities of practice, or those continuously pushing their informal learning opportunities, may have a larger zone of proximal development (the gap between a person’s current development level and the potential level of development). They are more open to learning and to expanding their knowledge. Active involvement in informal learning, particularly through web-based communities, is key to remaining professional and creative in any field.

Being a professional in the network era is becoming more about your network than your current knowledge.

Fields of knowledge are expanding, new tools are constantly being introduced, and over a billion people are connected via the Internet. However, blogging still stands out as nearly ubiquitous, especially for professional development. Varieties of blogs include text, video, and audio, but blogs are relatively simple, give individuals voice, and enable conversation to flow. One can think of a blog as a professional journal to record thoughts and ask questions of peers.

Each blog post has a unique identifier (permalink) which can be referenced by others, without permission. This is where blogs still remain superior to many walled information gardens, like Facebook. Blogs enhance serendipity. Blog posts do not need to be perfect essays but can help make sense of the learning process. The comments between blogs help create networks of conversations around issues or topics.

Even once connected with social media, the critical aspect that remains is attitude. Accepting that we will never know everything, but that others may be able to help, is the first step in becoming a networked professional. This is an acceptance of a world in flux, and that knowledge is neither constant nor fixed.

Instead of trying to know everything in the field, we can concentrate on knowing with whom to connect. The network becomes all-important. That means embracing an attitude of openness and collaboration—joining others on a journey of understanding. Giving up control is a first step on this journey.

Having a blog, a permanent presence on the web, becomes the jumping off point for deeper professional discussions. I call it my home base. Producing a blog also opens a person up to criticism, so once again, an open attitude to learning is essential.

Networked professionals can no longer rest on their past accomplishments while their fields of knowledge change and grow. 

Through sharing and exposing their work on the web, networked professionals can connect to communities of practice and get informal peer review. There is no way to stay current all by ourselves. With blogs and other collaboration methods, each of us can become a participatory node in various communities of practice.

The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and knowing who to call becomes more important than having the right answer. But we are all humans and we relate on a human level, which means that we first have to get to know others and develop a level of trust before real sharing can happen. Collaboration is a two-way street.

Finally, critical thinking – the questioning of underlying assumptions, including our own – is becoming all-important as we have to make our own way in the network era. Critical thinking can be looked at as four main activities, which social media can help us achieve:

  • Observing and studying our fields
  • Participating in professional communities
  • Building tentative opinions
  • Challenging and evaluating ideas

In the early 21st century, it’s time for all professionals to develop net work skills.

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