Can social networks be environments for real learning? What would happen if you tried to mash up social networking and knowledge management with a human-centred approach to how people learn and develop in organisations?

Ollie is co-founder of the Oslo-based NoddleSoft. Their first offering, as a start-up company, is a platform called NoddlePod,. What interested me was NoddlePod’s emphasis on employees driving their own social learning in an emergent process. As Ollie put it in her blog, 'I just simply don't believe that people can "be developed".'. They have to be active, not passive, to develop.

How did you come to found NoddleSoft and where have you got to with it?

Ollie Gardener: I founded NoddleSoft out of frustration — frustration that I was in a role where my role was to enable learning, yet I came to feel that what I was doing was more about managing and controlling learning. I felt more of a bottleneck then an enabler.

I was in charge of implementing wikis and forums to enable knowledge-sharing across companies and within companies. I loved the idea of it, but I also came across all of the obstacles to making it work. It's fabulous once you get the ball rolling. But at the start, it can be a heavy process. There are a lot of culture issues, like, "Why should I give away my knowledge that is making me valuable in a company?"

So I thought it would be better to enable more everyday learning, to allow the individual to organise the material the way they want to do. Because, in a wiki, obviously someone has to set a structure and that doesn't necessarily reflect our individual mental models of how things are linked and what's relevant to me. That was the first thing: I wanted the individual to be able to create a structure that reflected how they thought and what they actually needed of content and information.

The idea of NoddlePod sprung from there… You could make the platform social, in that I can actually share what information is relevant to me now.
It's not like a project management, delegation type of thing… But we can work towards individual things and still benefit from each others learning along the way.

So how does NoddlePod help?

It's a marriage between a project management tool and a social network like Facebook. But it's very learner-centric.

Content-focused tools like blogs and wikis leave out additional cues, like "When do I need this information? In what context is this relevant?" And that's going to be different for each individual learner. So it's a matter of connecting the content with the context that's valuable to the individual, based on their own need and preferred way of learning. As you elaborate on the structure, you're creating your own world and your own learning.

We want NoddlePod to be a catalyst, but not an additional ingredient — the hanger for the individual to make sense out of their content, whether that content is a training programme or a website they've found, or discussions with colleagues, or to-do items for their own work

What areas of enterprise activity do you think NoddlePod is best suited for?

When we built it, we referred a lot to graduate programme, knowledge programmes, talent programmes.

However, we've actually found that NoddlePod is just as valuable for an enterprise that deploys it as part of an organisational development process. They use it to connect change agents across the organisation who have different roles in implementing an organisational strategy. So these agents, working on different bits of the process, connect and discuss to see if people are experiencing the same kind of resistance or issues.

Are there particular kinds of companies that welcome the NoddlePod approach? What resistance have you met?

I've targeted employee-engagement-aware companies. I think that's a growing sector, and people are starting to value the individual in all of this. They're recognising that we shouldn't being trying to create copies; we should be creating originals and encouraging individuals to make a unique contribution to the company.

If companies treat recruits and interchangeable according to the role they’re given, it's as if they're just a jigsaw puzzle piece. People aren't like that. You will get a lot more value from each individual employee, if you connect with their reason for being. If you can connect with what drives them – as an employee and as a human – it makes for a more healthy organisational culture, with more innovation, much more initiative and engagement and productivity.

A lot of the barriers are to do with there being so many organisational structures that are there to control and to moderate and to steer the organisation. Those structures are there because of tradition, often, or because of status, because of fear.

We don't trust our employees and, really, if that is the honest answer when you dig deep enough, you've got a problem. You're not going to succeed as an organisation if you can't trust the people that you've hired. If those people know that you don't trust them, then what commitment will they have? How will they engage? Will they contribute their best ideas to the organisation, or will they keep them to themselves and do their own thing?

In the past we focused too narrowly on on productivity and control. I think productivity is kind of a side effect of doing all the other things right.