I recently chatted to L&D consultant, and long-time friend of GoodPractice Fiona McBride, about how to develop your Personal Learning Network or PLN. Fiona regularly speaks and writes about this topic, amongst many others, and is an advocate of social media for the L&D professional. This blog summarises the 'best bits' of our conversation and offers lots of useful tips to help you expand and nurture your own personal learning network.

There's no need for labels

A PLN is something that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Although it may have a fancy name, your personal learning network is simply a way to think about the people you have in your professional network. We all have contacts and connections, but a PLN is an active group of people you bounce ideas off, share experiences, discuss challenges and debate new ideas with. You don't have to label this group as a PLN to get value from the concept. However, being proactive about nurturing this group of people can help you grow as an L&D professional. Here's how.

1. Think about where you go to learn

The first area Fiona and I discussed was about understanding the bigger picture in relation to your PLN. A good first step is to ask yourself some questions about where your professional learning happens, and who is involved in that process. For example:

- Where do I learn?

- Who do I ask when I have questions I can't answer?

- Who are my first 'ports of call' when I am not sure about something?

- Who do I discuss new ideas with?

- Who is open and approachable about sharing what they know?

- Who shares interesting, useful information with me?

For example, some of the things you might cover could include reading blogs, watching TED Talks, going to industry events and conferences, participating in a MOOC, meeting a colleague for coffee to chat about a work issue, joining a group of professionals with similar interests to you (either in person or on LinkedIn and Slack as well as on forums and messenger boards), connecting with people on Twitter and taking part in Twitter chats, etc.

2. Map it out

Fiona recommends mapping out your PLN so you can visualise the extent of your network, and see the different areas you currently use in a visual way. There are many ways to do this, from mind-mapping, to spider diagrams, or using good old pen and paper! You can also make use of online tools such as Coggle and MindMaple. I also found this useful summary of the best free mind mapping tools. Helen Blunden of Activate Learning Solutions has written about her experience of mapping her PLN, and shares some useful insights in this LinkedIn post about what she learned from the whole process.

3. Consider what your network looks like

Once you have mapped out your network, take a step back and look at your whole PLN. Take some time to reflect on it and see what you notice about it. Consider what is there and, more importantly, what isn’t. How do these relate to your current, and emerging areas of professional interest? For example, if you're an in-house L&D practitioner, is your network comprised of internal-only people from an HR, L&D and OD background, or is there also a wider, external perspective there? It is also worth considering whether your network includes a good spread of individuals across other areas of your organisation that you can draw on to improve your understanding of business challenges.

3. Nurture your network

Once you have a clear picture of what your PLN looks like, the next phase is to nurture what you've created so far, and expand your network to encompass any new or emerging areas of interest you have. Fiona says this is about recognising what you've achieved, and thinking specifically about how and where you could improve your PLN. Questions to ask yourself include:

- How could you start to plug some of the gaps you identified earlier?

- What could you do more of?

- What could you start to do?

As part of this process, it is important to look at ways of bringing in a diverse range of views and perspectives to your PLN wherever possible. It's great to find and connect with people who do a similar job to you, in a similar organisation. However, you can also get really good insights from people who have taken a different career path, or who work in a different sector to you.

4. Don't be afraid to ask questions

A good way to grow your PLN is to ask questions and actively seek out advice on problems and challenges you're facing in your role. As we mentioned in a previous blog, Twitter chats are a great way of dipping your toes in, as they allow you to ask questions and debate topics with a receptive audience.

5. Be reciprocal within your network

It can be easier to be a bit of a lurker within your PLN, particularly if you are just getting started. It is also less daunting to ask a question and wait for the replies to come in than it is to actively respond and put your views and opinions out there. However, to get more value from your PLN, it is important to get into the mindset of being an active contributor, rather than just a consumer of information. As you start to actively build your network, think about how and where you can start to add value. If you don't do so already, try and get into the habit of sharing useful information, such as blogs, research or other resources that you've found valuable.

6. Remember the basics of online etiquette

As you start to get more involved in online conversations, don't forget the basics of online etiquette. Thank people for their input if they have taken the time to respond to a question you've asked or provide advice on a challenge you're facing. You don't have to enter into a lengthy debate or discussion, but it is important to say thanks for sharing your view. You would thank the person next to you in the office if they helped you with something, and it's important to do that when someone helps you online as well.

Find out more

Fiona and a group of people from her network have written a series of blog posts about their PLNs and how they work together. I'd also encourage you to visit Fiona's website, to find out more about her work. As part of last week's Learning at Work Week she visited Frimley Health Trust to run a series of sessions on PLNs. One of the participants, Cath Heaney, tweeted a photo of her PLN map. It's a great example of a real PLN - take a look and be inspired to nurture your own PLN!