Expanding connections

Connecting learners to others with similar challenges is often enough for them to set their own path. And when learners get stuck, connecting them to someone with even part of the answer usually regains their momentum.

Startup accelerators build a network of experts, sometimes hundreds of people with deep skills in different technical areas, industries and markets. Fellowship and alumni groups also provide convenient access to a helpful expert.  Explicitly offering access to the wider network around a few people's personal networks is an easy start. Or, thinking about it like a doctor, who will diagnose a patient and make a referral to specialist as needed.  As those network activate and grow, they mature into more formal lists.

Mentor-to-mentor referrals

Mentors don't just provide learners with guidance, they provide connections.  By default, mentors rely on their own personal networks.  Providing time for mentors to meet and learn from each other, or facilitating communication to share their current mentoring challenges, help them include other mentors when a relevant challenge emerges. An easy start is to distribute summaries of mentors' reports, which gives them all a bird's eye view to spot patterns across all the learners. This insight is useful to adapt the program itself. Also, look at mentors as learners themselves, and support them with their learning goals. This makes them more engaged and engenders a more open culture of sharing.

Shell connects its engineers, and then gets out of the way

Oil refineries are a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week operation. An important step in the process of refining is Fluid Catalytic Cracking. This is done with a machine referred to commonly as the CAT cracker.

Decentralising connectivity

Brokering individual connections between learners and experts is hard work, involving trial and error, and speculative exploration.

The more a self-directed learner progresses, the more complex and specific their challenges.  At the same time, these people are often experts to others, and learning from them is attractive to others.  This presents the opportunity to shift from hunting individual connections, to gathering larger groups of people who all have something to offer another. It's time to increase the odds of serendipitous collisions.

Discussion gatherings

Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith wanted to start a group that would discuss Lean techniques in knowledge work – but didn’t want to start a whole new cumbersome organization with steering committees, speakers, and such. They wanted a group that did not rely on anything other than people showing up and wanting to learn or create.

In 2009, they started Lean Coffee, an coffee chat where the focus of discussion is a jointly compiled agenda. It's called Lean because it uses the Lean methodology to give everyone input into the discussion topics: people suggest topics, vote on them, and then start talking about each in order of popularity, until each has had enough time to run its course.

Open Space unconferences

Another way for getting fresh perspective is by sharing everyone's experiences, and letting everyone share topics they find interesting. Setting up a schedule with multiple-tracks, full of learner-led sessions lets everyone choose the topics are most relevant for them. Open Spaces are an alternative to conferences, where the day starts with an empty schedule that gets filled by suggestions from anyone participating.

Become the attractor

As educational programs progress towards providing these serendipitous environments, internal events become more and more permeable to outsiders. At some point, effort shifts towards promoting these and building a reputation for hosting a serious community.