5 Ways to Initiate a Powerful Personal Learning Network and Accelerate Your Skills

Since beginning this journey at Smarterer I’ve been immersed in the fascinating world of how people learn and develop skills. From myriad conversations with researchers, thought leaders, innovators and colleagues within the skills and education spaces, I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of how, when and where learning truly happens.

First, there’s the formal structured education we receive in K- 12 and college. We may take other instructor-led classes too, perhaps in the form of Princeton Review or Kaplan Test Prep courses as we prepare for standardized tests, or a summer math refresher before grad school.

Cultivate your own personal learning network.Later, once employed, jobs often require professional development – facilitated training to gain tools, skills or certifications needed to advance. A brief poll of almost any work force will likely reveal a wide range of professional training experiences– from safe food handling training for restaurant jobs to software training for web analytics (and that’s just at Smarterer).

For the self-motivated learner there are the myriad learning opportunities in vogue today – from Lynda to Udemy, Udacity to Coursera – MOOCs (massive open online courses) to online degree programs.

These are some of the known ways to develop your professional skills and advance your career. But what about all the informal ways you gain knowledge from the people around you? Isn’t skills transfer often a very personal interaction? Nobody can keep up with emerging skills and technology in isolation – don’t we learn from our peers in the same way we learned from our families and the people around us as young children, by observing what they do and modeling their behavior? Sounds like a Personal Learning Network.

A personal learning network is an informal network comprised of the people you interact with and learn from, both direct in a face-to-face setting and indirectly through technology. Peer-to-peer learning and its impact is constant and profound.

Here are five ways to initiate a powerful personal learning network that will help you accelerate your skills:

  1. Participate
    • Volunteer: Get outside your comfort zone and volunteer for something you’ve never done. I spoke to a student who had graduated from Boston Startup School and was now learning about sales by helping to bring more sponsors on board.
    • Join a professional board or group – then seek out colleagues who can offer assistance and knowledge when you’re trying to do something new.
    • Join a group or forum: I am in a forum for early-stage venture-backed CEOs that meets quarterly for two days, offsite. It’s an incredible way to learn from my peers, and share my own perspective (which in itself is a learning activity)
    • Find a mentor or coach: Seek people who know how to do the things you want to learn, and ask them for regular sessions. Mentoring is usually unpaid, while coaching is paid.
  2. Connect and Discover
    • Follow people on Twitter and see what publications they reference. Hash tags can help you find great content. Join scheduled chat sessions on key topics to help get up to speed.
    • Have conversations at conferences. At the ASU summit on Innovation in Education I learned a lot from the formal program, but gained tremendous insight from discussions I had with people on the sidelines.
  3. Consume
    • Read and watch presentations in SlideShare and YouTube. Check out TED Talks and the YouTube channels of some of the companies and people who speak most eloquently on your topics of interest.
    • Subscribe to RSS feeds for blogs.
    • Take a test (like Smarterer) or view flashcards.
  4. Create
    • Write an article, blog post, or op-ed piece about a topic you want to learn about. The process of researching your topic will teach you a lot.
  5. Contribute
    • Teach! In prepping for and delivering two classes I recently taught, I learned a great deal more about the topics. Want to test if you really know something well? Explain it to someone else. The minute you try to answer their questions, you’ll know how well you’ve learned.
    • Initiate a project and solicit others to help out. A friend wanted to improve his leadership skills, so he organized a Food Truck festival –something he’d never done before. He had to pull together numerous skillsets and deploy them to make this huge event a success. He came out of that experience a much better leader (and event planner…).
    • Curate! Seek out the best and most relevant content for your topic and share it. Explain it by helping others see the key points (and in doing so, learn them yourself).

If you consciously identify, prioritize and stay engaged with your most valued Personal Learning Networks and contribute as much as you take, you’ll find that learning becomes unavoidable in your life. If you select and immerse yourself into the right PLNs and truly engage, your level and pace of learning may astound you.