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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Wisdom of the Advancement Crowd: On Learning to Be Smarter, Together

Back in 2004, James Surowieki published his book, The Wisdom of Crowds.

Not all crowds are wise, says Surowieki; but collectively, large groups of people are often smarter than an elite few.

Test this theory by putting a group of Advancement professionals in a conference room, however, and it can sometimes be hard to prove the point. Worse still, sign us all up for an online learning portal and we appear to lose our way altogether.

A blurred photograph of a large group of people in a crowd appearing to clap or raise their hands
We are smarter, together, but only under certain conditions.

So I started thinking about how we can learn to be smarter, together.

How can we learn from each other and grow professionally, without confining another Listserv, Google group or cohort conversation to the graveyard of professional learning?

Many of our well-intentioned initiatives, I realise, started as what seemed like crowd-endorsed, good ideas at the time. But according to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, even if great ideas are born in crowds, it is only under certain conditions. Innovation, he explains, requires a certain kind of culture or ecosystem to thrive; there must be opportunity for ideas to collide, spontaneously connect, and grow over time.

Putting all of this together and mixing in my own experience of learning the craft of educational Advancement with others along the way, five design principles begin to emerge.

  1. A learning network often begins with a moment of serendipity. How many times has it begun with meeting someone by chance, colliding with the right idea at the right time?

  2. A learning network is founded upon a common value or belief. If we have nothing in common, we don't learn. It's as simple as that.

  3. A learning network resists formality and permanence. Too many networks, I believe, are too quickly institutionalised and timetabled. Innovation is almost always about what happens in the coffee breaks.

  4. A learning network is more about play than work. Attach the network to a specific product or task and the game is up.

  5. A learning network is a laboratory to deconstruct, test and build upon ideas. We learn when we are not conforming, not playing to the rules, not worried about failure or saying the right thing.

There is obviously much more to explore here and what this means for our traditional professional learning networks, I still don't know. What I do know, however, is that all of my most profound learning experiences over the years have expressed some or all of these principles.

And I am just wondering whether this kind of learning network is one that we can design, together.

Starting today.


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