Personal learning networks: feedback from the IRISS Challenge

Debbie Lucas is a staff development officer in a local authority social work department. She took part in the IRISS Personal Learning Network Challenge to learn more about using social media both in her own role and to support colleagues. These are her reflections.

Apart from dipping my toe into the world of Twitter by setting up, but never actually using, a personal Twitter account, I would consider myself to be a “Twirgin”. I never really understood the concept of Twitter and was a bit overwhelmed by the fast pace at which information seemed to come through this form of social media.

I took up a new post in a local authority training team in May 2014 and as part of this role, I made contact with organisations such as IRISS and SSKS. This led me down a path of e-information and wanting to know more about how social work practitioners were able to access this information in a way that was quick and easy, especially in the fast-paced, busy environments that we work in. And so, I came across IRISS’ Personal Learning Network Challenge. I was keen to participate and learn more about how I could use social media in my own role, but also how I could use it support practitioners within my organisation.

As with any journey, there were some exciting parts, but also some ‘bumps’ along the way. IRISS, and many others have written more than a few articles about the use of social media in the workplace. These articles focus on the barriers and challenges that organisations and, more importantly, individual practitioners face. Whilst I can appreciate the concerns that senior managers have about allowing staff access to social media, I entirely identify with the individual challenges that those before me have come up against.

Of course, access to Twitter was blocked to almost all employees of my local authority, so I was prepared to participate in this project on my own personal mobile phone. To keep myself right, I shared the information with my line manager and informed her that I would be using my own phone to access Twitter. This was met with some reservations, but I reassured her that my profile was entirely professional and that I would not make any connection with the local authority we worked for. I have to say that although it has never directly been called in to question, I have struggled with the unconscious mistrust that exists in relation to my professional integrity and the use of social media. I do appreciate that there is always the potential for someone in a professional capacity to behave inappropriately on social media, but surely employers should trust in their own selection process and policies/guidance to ensure that their employees will behave in a professional and mature manner when it comes to their job?

The PLN challenge was broken down in to small steps and this made it feel less daunting, especially since I had never fully made use of Twitter before. Soon I was building up a healthy list of colleagues and groups to follow. More excitingly, some started following me, although I was yet to actually say anything on Twitter!

I was amazed at all this information that was virtually “falling in to my lap” and I soon started to master the art of skimming through my Twitter feed and zoning in on information that was relevant or of interest to me. This made the next step in the challenge easier as I had to re-tweet something that I found interesting. I then had the task of actually tweeting something myself….! What on earth would I have to say that anyone would find interesting? So I kept it general and in the vein of the challenge tweeted about looking forward to working with IRISS about improving access to information and even “hashtagged”!

Screen grab of Debbie Lucas's tweets

I wasn’t sure what to expect after this first tweet, but I can tell you it was not to be re-tweeted by Alan Baird, Chief Social Work Adviser to the Scottish Government!!!
In the short space of time that I have been using Twitter, I have grown in confidence in terms of voicing my opinion. Reading other people’s/organisation’s thoughts on things that matter in the world of social work has made me consider my own thoughts and views to a greater extent.Whilst I still need to work up the courage to actually post my opinions, I have definitely noticed a shift in my willingness to publicly express a view.

I was quickly becoming more confident in using Twitter and really excited about being able to pick up information that may, or more likely may NOT have, come to my attention. At times I was opening up all sorts of links and never actually getting round to reading much of it: a small insight in to how difficult it can be for others to stay abreast of new or important information whilst managing busy caseloads and something to think about when supporting my colleagues to access and use social media in the future.

In the meantime, the Director of Social Work for my local authority, had been given information about the PLN challenge and had been made aware that I was participating in the challenge which led to me being given access to Twitter on my work computer.  I am disappointed, however, that I cannot always follow links to potentially interesting blogs as most of these are still blocked by the network.

I was also linked in with a colleague from the Corporate Communications and Public Affairs team who went over some of the basics of using social media, and also gave me some pointers in terms of ‘Lists’ that you could use to filter the information coming through on your Twitter feed. This definitely streamlines my feeds and I can look at specific lists depending on what information I may be interested in at the time.

There are differing views about the use of social media as a professional. In my opinion, there are two different elements to using social media in a professional capacity:

  1. as a representative of the organisation or group that you belong to, offering news and views of the organisation or group; and,
  2. as a professional in your own right with your own (professional) views and interests.

One of the arguments about allowing staff access to social media is the time it would take to manage this. Whilst this is true for the first point, for the second it becomes less of an issue in terms of workload management and more an issue of time management.

For those interested in the use of social media in the work place or as a professional, I’m sure you’re familiar with all the arguments against and for it. I am not going to go into this debate, but I do have an opinion about mixing the use of personal and professional profiles on social media. In the first element above, I feel it is to be avoided. The second element is more likely to lead to some debate, after all, most of us have professional colleagues whom we would consider friends as well.  I feel, however, that this is a blurring of boundaries and it would be too easy for a comment to be inadvertently posted in the wrong context, leading to potentially serious repercussions and damage to a person’s professional integrity. But this is another discussion for another day.

I am still very new to using social media as a professional but I have to say I do understand Twitter more as a professional than I ever did on a personal level. I am really excited about the possibilities and opportunities that this presents. I think that with small steps and a lot of education, we can convince senior managers of the benefits of social media for sharing information and improving practice, especially when there are specific social media networks set up for use in a professional capacity.

I am hoping that I can make a contribution to this ongoing debate and will continue to have discussions in my organisation regarding how we can effectively use social media to improve practice.