What We Can Learn from Craft Networks: Social Learning in Action

Last weekend, a small group of eight ladies from one of my Craft groups (I’m a member of two) hired out a beautiful house called The Retreat in Woodend, a delightful country town.  Even though we meet weekly to share our knowledge and expertise in our respective crafts, we have these getaways to leave our families and chores behind so that we focus on our projects.

Throughout the week I had been reflecting on the future of Learning and Development but also trying to link knitting to what I was experiencing of social or informal learning.  Part of me wanted to create a link from a blog post I wrote sometime ago called “What I Learned from Social Learning Came From…Knitters” to what I had observed at craft camp.

But before you turn away thinking what on earth can a group of crafters teach us about informal learning and social networking, I ask you to bear with me.

There’s no denying it but knitters do have a stereotyped image about them.  Think about a knitter, you’re probably thinking of an older lady sitting in her chair in the corner of her  lounge room happily knitting baby jumpers for her grandchildren. Learning and Development professionals also bear the brunt of the stereotyped image in organisations too and this is where, in the first case, nothing could be further from the truth and in the second, we do have some way to abolish the image but it’s not impossible.

Doing my best to abolish the stereotyped image of knitters…by knitting socks …?!

At the same time, I had also been reflecting on The Internet Time Alliance’s The Coherent Organisation Map which was mentioned by Harold Jarche’s in his blog post “What is Learning’s Role?” and my eye automatically went to the top circle that outlined a co-operative approach where social networks in organisations interact, share, care, listen, contribute, discuss values and track related areas and results.

My automatic reaction to this was that my experience of Learning and Development teams to date, within organisations is that they are not at this point in this diagram just yet, but my craft groups most certainly are!

The Coherent Organisation by the Internet Time Alliance

Get a group of crafters together, you have a group of individuals from all backgrounds and ages, connected by one thing: the passion for their craft.   When they get together, the group is on equal footing with each other and it doesn’t matter whether you are a novice or a professional in the group, there is always an opportunity to learn, share and contribute to everyone else’s project.

Everyone at their craft

What really stands out is that they don’t question it, they don’t outwardly seek out to create the co-operation or the network – it just is. People come and go into the network because what connects them are not the tools or the media (which certainly do help them) but it’s the passion of the skill or the craft itself.  The tools are secondary.

One example of this was when one lady mentioned to the group that she needed help to baste a quilt. At the time, all I knew about basting involved a turkey and succulent juices but I was wrong.  Basting a quilt means sandwiching a quilt in three layers: the quilt top, batting and backing which you need to do first before you start the quilting.

The ladies quickly came to her support and we stopped our respective projects, cleared the large table and threw the quilt over on the top of it.  We gathered around, looked at the quilt, moved it this way and that and talked about how we were going to do the basting.  Although I couldn’t add anything to the conversation, I listened carefully and observed the behaviour of the group.  Everyone was mentally engaged and excited. They were focused at the task at hand.  They all had an equal opportunity to say what they thought, share their knowledge and advice, ponder on how they were going to baste it, who was going to do what, when and how.  It was brilliant team work in action.

That was my ‘A-Ha’ moment.

I had experienced the top circle of “Co-operative Social Networks” not in my daily work with my L&D colleagues but in my craft group: it was seamless, it was inclusive and it was inspiring.

So if this is social learning in action, why wasn’t I doing this with my Learning and Development colleagues? After all, we are connected by  our ‘craft’ in L&D, why weren’t we co-operating to hone our collective skills, learn from each other and work on projects that ensure our survival in a new networked workplace?

Are we simply too scared to look beyond formal learning approaches because we will need to change the way we think, share and collaborate with each other using new social media tools that we’re too afraid to use as they may expose our inadequacies?

Quilt Basting: Teamwork and Learning at its Best.  Photo by Shannon Rowe

All of the ladies at craft camp use social media.  All of them have their own blogs, all use Instagram or Pininterest and all of them tweet.  In fact, my experience of crafters is that they are one of the groups who actively use social media as a means of personal expression of their art and craft and to connect with others who share the same passion.  You only have to look at the popularity of Ravelry (or otherwise known as Facebook for Knitters) to see this in action.

But what is surprising for me is that for them, it’s not about the tools or the media. It’s not about Twitter, Pininterest or Instagram –  it’s about the craft.  These tools are simply ways to promote their work to others and have others comment on, share ideas and contribute to the conversation.

I had lost count the number of times these were mentioned in the conversation on the weekend (and at one stage, they talked about the ‘second generation bloggers’ – their sons and daughters who blog about their own interests) but it was never about the functionality of the tool – it was what they had found online, how it was shared, what was learned and who endorsed it.

For example, we had our dinner made from recipes found on Pininterest; we had our conversations centred around what various bloggers around the world were working on and how we had used their suggestions in our work; and we shared our finished projects to our friends who couldn’t be there through Twitter and our blogs.  All this without really thinking about the tools as separate entities but instead, as a means to promote our craft to our wider network.

So my craft weekend not only allowed me the opportunity to finish my knitting projects but I came away with a heightened sense of awareness of what collective and co-operative learning is about.

This is what Learning and Development must aspire to.

To my fellow crafters, they probably didn’t see the significance of the weekend to their own personal learning journeys as the sharing of skills and learning from each other was obvious – it was a given.  But for me, I came away thinking that if L&D could inspire the same feelings around workplace learning with shared respect for the skills we all bring to the team to solve organisational issues, then we will have a bright future ahead of us.

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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