Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It’s Who You Know

This post is only about halfway conceptualized, but I thought I’d throw it out there anyway. As always, my blog is a place for me to think out loud and have you guys help me clarify my thinking.

One of the things I struggle with is helping other folks understand why I find the concept (and reality) of a Personal Learning Network so powerful. I think it’s difficult to sum up in a brief conversation what a PLN really is and what it can really do for you, and it’s really one of those things you have to experience for yourself before you begin to see the possibilities.

As I was thinking about this the other day for some reason an old phrase popped into my head.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Now, I’ve never really liked that phrase because it seemed to elevate connections over competence, but I’ve also always realized that there has been some truth in it (whether I liked it or not). But for some reason my brain connected it with my musings about an “elevator pitch” for PLNs, and what came out was:
Who you know is what you know.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that there’s no need to know things – we all still need to know quite a few things, and how to do quite a few things. But I think that phrase is increasingly becoming true, that who you know – your PLN – more and more defines what you “know” and are able to do.

If you have a well-developed, well-nurtured learning network, and you have the access and the skills necessary to utilize it, then you “know” more than someone who does not. You truly have the ability for “just in time” learning. You can reach out to your PLN with a question, with something you want to know more about, and they can help you learn about it. Even if someone in your network isn’t an “expert” on the topic, more than likely someone in your network knows someone who is (not-completely-gratuitous Kevin Bacon reference here).

So, like I said in the beginning, this isn’t a completely developed idea yet, but I’m thinking that perhaps I will use this idea as a springboard for further conversation when talking with people about PLNs. I still think the only way to truly “get” PLNs is to experience it yourself, but my hope is that folks will be able to connect it with their background knowledge of the original phrase and perhaps be able to use that to help them segue into beginning to see the power and the promise of PLNs.



  1. I remember back when I was first trying to get into this profession I heard, it's not what you know or who you know but who knows what you know. I think that expression also applies to your thoughts on Personal Learning Networks. These are people who know you but they also know what you know so that when they want to know about it they will turn to you as you will likewise turn to them when you need to.

    I also remember when I first started teaching that I was hesitant to share, feeling that I did not have much to offer what with being new to the field and all. However, over the years I have begun to share practically everything. Without that sharing spirit how can anyone else truly come to know me or what I know? And how can I come to know them and what they know? Now I just put it out there on a plate, a smorgasbord so to speak,take as much or as little as you want, make your sandwich how you wish, create whatever combination works for you. Hey, and let me know how it was, I might learn something new about something I shared, "sandwiches" I had not thought of previously.

    Some might say that when you use a network that you are just using people. However, again if it has that spirit of sharing, the feeling is mutual within the network and therefore no one feels used.

  2. You might also look at reversing the phrase and saying, "It's not who you know, it's who know you." Since the power of PLN's is the two way communication between a variety of individuals which facilitate the exchange of information, knowledge and processes. We have all had experiences where we were looking for a piece of information and someone we knew answered, "Hey, I know someone who can help you."

    So, expanding the interconnections of the people that are in our PLN's and our friends PLN's, is a way to continue to make these connections for us. Think of it as increasing the number of synapses in our brain, the more connections, the more depth of knowledge we have.

  3. interesting - and timely for my mind. 2 big ideas i've been wrestling with:
    1) plns
    2) assessment

    on plns - - the link on "network" was from bud hunts recent post on social networking - and it was huge to me for distinguishing group vs network

    on assessment - recent thoughts on alternate assessments

    i'm thinking "who you hang with" could work for another alternative way to assess. help them tweak their plns. which in turn would help them tweak themselves.
    of course - we need to get the whole group vs network dynamic - and would need to let kids pick plns - like we are able to. otherwise it's just more of the standardization invasion.

  4. I taught for 30 yrs. and always was open to sharing my ideas, lesson plans, and more. My colleagues....not so much! I was always perplexed by this secretive, 'it's mine' attitude.

    Since retiring from teaching high school kids, I now work with teachers and co-teach a grad class in which I present the PLN process. I am amazed at how few, if any, have even heard of it. It is rewarding to watch them open up to the idea and begin to explore the social media and wealth of information that awaits them.

    For an 'old-timer,' I know that I still benefit from the PLN that I tap into every day. I don't think I will ever 'retire' from learning and sharing with the great network of educators that continues to grow with each passing week.

  5. PLN is a term that I am just beginning to come to terms with. I am following some really smart, generous people on twitter with some back and forth sharing, but does this mean I have a PLN? The term is so new to me, that I am not sure if I have a PLN. Do PLN's form spontaneously? Is a PLN a group of co-workers or friends, who already know one another? (Just thinking aloud here, trying to figure it all out.) I do know one thing about this PLN thing, I have learned more in a few weeks time from the educators I share with (PLN? I think that is what it is) than I have from all the 19 years of PD combined, and that's a lot of PD! So I think joining a PLN is a great thing for all educators no matter who or what you know!

  6. I have to say, I largely agree...

    For me, a big thing is having people I trust / know that can help do the services I need in my network. It's not just that you know someone that is in that profession, but that you would feel good about reaching out to them.
    Also - there's a lot of interpersonal skill and project management involved in reaching out to your network. That's a skill to.

  7. Thanks for impressive post. I've updated my ideas about finding informations using the social network Versus finding them using the search engine (reference:

  8. When I first heard about PLNs, I tried to find instructions for how to make one, assuming that there was a formal, correct way to do it. I soon realized that the "Personal" in PLN means that you find your own way. Like many things in this Web2.0 world, a PLN can grow spontaneously.

    What has surprised me as I follow "interesting" people on Twitter and blogs is that I discover really great ideas that I would not have thought to search out on my own. Many times, these new ideas or practices are shockingly relevant to what I am thinking or doing at the same time.

    This coincidence occurs too often to be random chance. I think it's better explained by memes. It also reminds me of your thoughts on "idea confluence" from The Invention of Air. (Great book, by the way.) Ideas take shape when shared and discussed. It requires people to do that. The people in your PLN largely determine the content and quality of ideas that you will find.
    To borrow a phrase from Hugh and John Pederson, "The network is more powerful than the nodes."

  9. I'm not a math teacher, but could it be represented as: What you know = (who you know + who they know) * what they know ?

    Also, see


  10. Wow - there are some great comments here. As I think about two other blog posts that I've read tonite and some other posts about dealing with information overload, I'd add that it's not just who you know, but how you access and identify those people who can help you to process the information that you're dealing with. I think that's one of the strengths of developing a PLN.

  11. I had the pleasure of attending Will Richardson's and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's PLP workshop last week in Philly. It was there that the power of networks really hit home. What I took from that experience is that it is not necessarily who you know now, but who are you will to connect and collaborate with. In other words, you may not have a person in your PLN at this point to help with a particular issue, but are you willing to reach out and get to know that person?

  12. Let me just say I love you guys. You took a half-baked idea and have made it at least three-quarters baked.

    @lifewithl - I think it's important to keep in mind that while a PLN is definitely more than the sum of its parts, there are three parts: Personal, Learning and Network. So, I'd guess I'd answer that since a PLN is personal, you're part of one if you think you're part of one. Sort of. I also think it's important to keep in mind that a PLN is different than a "group", although I still struggle with that a lot. See this post for more on groups vs. networks.

    @everyone - So, perhaps it's "Who you know, and who knows you, and who knows what you know and who you know, and who you know knows what and who they know, and who knows what you don't know but want to know, and who you know that wants to know something and you know someone that can help them know that better, and who you know that can help you process all of the above, and the willingness to constantly reach out to get to know more folks and be reached out to."

    Yeah, that doesn't quite roll off the tongue, but that might be getting closer to the whole idea of it.

  13. seth's post today seems fitting

  14. KARL!! These comments are too funny. I just sent this to a friend/principal of mine to say have a look at it again-the newer version, and in the message I reminded her of who you were to me-not just one of the guys responsible for this video, but also a virtual friend in my PLN who invited me 2 straight years to be involved with your 9th grade school wide Dan Pink project with your PLN. I had not even read any of the comments yet, so I think its wonderful that almost all the comments are about PLNs too. Hope you are having a good time at BLC. Wishing I was there.

  15. This reminds me about some discussion from business school. There was a concept about "Knowledge Gatekeepers" - people who are have a high level of subject knowledge, but are in a position to know even more subject matter experts. College professors are the easy example. This brings up a sticky point about the PLN concept: What if many of your contacts have "bad" information? Then you might know LESS because of them, if you count inaccurate information as a negative contribution. There would need to be some consideration of the quality of the material recovered from a subject matter expert.

  16. Karl,
    Have you read Love Is The Killer App by Tim Sanders? What you're talking about is one of the three main planks of becoming a "lovecat"- knowledge, network and compassion. Being incredible in the new economy means being meaningfully linked and engaged with people through real, nurtured relationships. If you have ready it yet, I highly recommend it.

  17. As I read, I kept thinking about Siemens & Downes 'Connectivism' -
    "One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node: information, data, feelings, images. Learning is the process of creating connections and developing a network."
    For me the key sentence in your post was this:
    "If you have a well-developed, well-nurtured learning network, and you have the access and the skills necessary to utilize it, then you “know” more than someone who does not."
    The reason I like this is that to be 'well-developed' and 'well-nurtured' there is the implication that you don't just have a PLN but that you work at it in order to enrich not just who you know, but also what you can possibly know from that network. Essentially you become a contributor and not just a benefactor within your network.

  18. Dave Truss - Thanks for your thoughts. I'm curious, how did you come across this post now, over a year after it was posted? I'm always interested in seeing how folks find things.

  19. I created a paper-li paper which features the links of key people that I follow on a Twitter list: and it was highlighted as a link shared by @snbeach
    To be honest, I didn't look at the date and only assumed it was current as the subject is still one that people often talk about.

  20. Very interesting ideas. "It's who you know" - I have been wondering that myself. The Personal Learners Network (PLN) seems like an excellent resource to have. I have been searching for ways to break into my genre (Media Arts). The closest thing I have done to any networking is contact past professors and graduates from the degree to stay connected. I have set up a Linkedin account but really do not utilize because I'm not sure how to if I do not know people already.

    Have you or anyone had any success at networking outside of your current occupation?