How To Build Smarter Teams With Connective Knowledge


The world of learning is overrun with theories, but here’s one that actually matters.

Connectivism has been described as “a learning theory for the digital age” which reflects how people live, communicate and learn today. Need the short version? Data and information is becoming too large and too detailed to retain and comprehend. It is increasingly distributed across a network of connections and “learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Stephen Downes – Connectivism and Connective Knowledge). It’s about building smart teams with connective knowledge.

Smart teams recognise that:

  • Learning is a process of connecting information sources
  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity
  • Maintaining and nurturing connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
  • Learning is more critical than knowing
  • Perceiving connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of learning activities
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process i.e. choosing what to learn and what to filter
  • The meaning of information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality

This last point emphasises the importance of everyday, continuous learning. While there may be a right answer right now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to changes in the environment and information affecting the decision. The Connectivist model is not just about theory but recognises the importance of practice. It states that to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect. Teaching is in essence backward looking, which is the limitation of formal learning. Continuous daily learning is forward looking – but it requires connective knowledge.

Team learning is a sharing process

Learning is not about remembering content but engaging in a process of discovery, understanding and sharing. Harold Jarche has developed a useful lifelong learning model which has three steps: seek, sense and share. He talks of the importance of connecting and participating in knowledge flows that challenge our thinking through connecting and collaborating to improve performance, to be “faster, smarter and better.”  Core to this model is sharing: “exchanging resources, ideas, and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues.”

The aim of a team is to transform their collective and diverse experience into knowledge and improve performance. Every person brings a unique perspective, and by sharing and commenting on content each person participates in a conversation that brings perspectives together. Thus each person can share articles and knowledge from their own perspective. We increasingly store our knowledge in other people and enrich each others’ viewpoint and understanding collectively.

The content people share isn’t the most important thing in itself – it’s the act of sharing and what it causes. The shared content acts as a catalyst for discussions, reflection and interactions. It may be useful as information but the process of continual learning has potentially much greater value. Sharing is effectively an act of content creation.

It is also better to obtain many points of view than just one. The knowledge of a collection of people is greater than just the sum of each person’s knowledge.

To share is to support a culture of learning by providing material that other people can learn from. It is appreciated by your team and you will probably appreciate the content they share with you. It’s mutually supportive and social in the purest sense.

Overcome filter failure with connective knowledge

In a world of data and information overload, or content shock, we need to filter. As it’s often said, there’s no real information overload, there’s just filter failure. How to set your filters? That’s a skill unto itself. Learning is in the first instance a matter of learning how to select content. You want to develop a process of pattern recognition. No one can read everything, so one of the important skills to learn is how to select and recognise patterns. This is vital for ensuring you’re efficient in your daily workplace learning. This is a skill that we don’t tend to have on our development plans for team members.

As Stephen Downes says, “Each person creates their own perspective on the material by selecting what seems important to them, and that it is these different perspectives that form the basis for the interesting conversations and activities that follow.” People make connections, they don’t start from scratch, they link ideas and synthesise the different perspectives. Thus in teams we not only need people to share but to act and comment, for example, to explain why a particular development matters or how a trend is affecting performance. The team helps us to filter more effectively, and how to decide what to read, learn and share.

Learn from diversity, reaching beyond the team

Connective knowledge works better when you’re reaching outside your immediate colleagues. By drawing content from a wide variety of sites and individuals, and organising this content into customised content streams, the range of information made available to a reader is much greater than it would otherwise be. It reduces the probability of group think or an echo chamber. How do you ensure diversity? You can follow individuals who share from a range of sources. You can bring in content from other disciplines and bring in what experts in another field are sharing. You can act as the filter from a group of diverse sources, bringing in ideas from less obvious viewpoints or disciplines.

Learn through team interaction

Stephen Downes has talked of the importance of communities as the places in which connections are built and maintained. They require four elements: autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity. The final point about interactivity is particularly important. Interaction can take a range of forms. It may be flagging a content item to team members, annotating it with some personal views and insights, sharing a filtered stream of content that you think is relevant to your network or team, or interacting with the content by reviewing it, assessing its relevance and acting on it. Reflection is also a vital element of interactivity. Taking time to reflect on what and how you’re learning is helpful on a personal and team level, and has been proven to increase learning retention.

So what can you do? 5 ways to develop connective knowledge

What can you do to help build a community with connected knowledge for your teams? Here are five ways to get going:

  1. Encourage sharing. Set a tone of sharing insights within your teams. If you’re leading a team, go first and set the tone. Use tools that make sharing content easy to do and easy to return to. Consider bookmarking or discovery tools like Pocket or Feedly. Email is not a good option, there are too many other noises.
  2. Use tools to filter. You can’t read it all and you shouldn’t share it all. Select content carefully using keywords or selected sites and influencers.
  3. Develop daily learning and filtering skills. Learning how to build and sustain daily learning habits is a core skill. L&D has a role in fostering that skill and providing the tools and environment to make it easier.
  4. Help people reach outside their networks. Encourage some serendipity, for example follow journalists, productivity bloggers, writers with a different set of insights.
  5. Promote interaction. If you’re an L&D leader or manager, reflect publicly on what you’re learning and sharing – work out loud and others will follow.