Social – it’s a little bit like water

Rachel Burnham writes: In February I took part in the Curatr based MOOC #exploresocial, in which we were examining what social learning is and why it is valuable to organisations right now.   I got thinking about this again yesterday, after reading Mark Britz’s post ‘Social Inconvenience is Important’ which was all about when and where people connect.   And suddenly, I was thinking about social learning and social networking as being like water.


Water is everywhere around us on this planet. In the sea, the rivers, the air and in living things, including ourselves.  Social is a bit like that too – it isn’t just limited to social media or the use of technologies in learning – it is there every day, everywhere, every time we have a conversation.

I remember when it suddenly became fashionable to drink bottled water in the UK and we were all urged to drink up to 8 glasses of water a day, as though we had never drunk a glass of water before and as though every cup of tea or coffee isn’t made with water!  And that is where we are at the moment with social learning – we are in danger of bottling up social with technology and fancy labels, when what we need to be doing is recognising where it already is and how we can simply make better use of it.


Water is an incredibly powerful force.  Water has shaped our planet. Ice and rivers have carved out valleys and rearranged the landscape.   The sea and tides have changed the shape of this island and continue to do so – cutting away at cliffs and creating new land spits.

Social is powerful too.  We are only just learning how powerful it can be in shaping our political & social landscape.  We are only just exploring how social can enable people to work and connect together within and without organisations in new networks and formations.  If you want to read more about this then I would recommend Harold Jarche’s blog.

The drip, drip effect 

One of the ways that water acts is by the slow accumulation of individual droplets of water that gradually seep through seemly impenetrable surfaces; that in caves make beautiful rock formations – stalactites and stalagmites – reaching out almost as though trying to connect.

Through social we are influenced one conversation at a time, one droplet of information, one tweet, one blog at a time.  But together the cumulative effect, the overall learning can be immense.

And the tsunami wave

Sometimes water is overwhelming and devastating in its almost instant impact.   And social has its nasty, destructive side too in trolling and social bullying – leaving wreckage in their wake.

Water flows

Water flows where it will, working its way gradually downhill.   It follows the gradient.  Rivers, streams, brooks, becks and burns all flow downwards.

Which brings me back to Mark Britz’s post yesterday.  You can’t force people to connect in one place or another.  An organisation can’t mandate the use of an enterprise social network.  People will connect when they find it brings value to themselves – when it makes their lives easier or helps them learn or is fun. People will go where the flow is.

Moving water up a slope is tricky and hard work.  Getting people to connect when it doesn’t meet a need for them, will need the equivalent of an Archimedes’ screw, the ancient technology which it is thought was used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Social is a bit like water.

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  Rachel is particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow Rachel Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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