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Learning from someone else's mistakes

17th Jul 2014
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It was former first lady of the USA, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Whenever I talk to people about what they want from a network or community of practice, learning from others’ experiences – and especially their cock-ups – is clearly the driving motivation to get involved. I remember talking to an international group a few years ago. Coming from different countries and different time zones, the opportunity to collaborate online was seen as a real boon to everyone’s practice.   But the information published on the company intranet was all about successes and achievements.  To read the write ups available, all projects were models of implementation.  No hold ups, no wrong turns, no avoidable mistakes and never any friction within the team.  The plan was made, the plan was put into action, the plan worked – job done.

Now, anyone who has ever been involved in any project ever knows this isn't the case.  What’s more, the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful project is often predicated on how well you’re able to respond to the errors and SNAFUs which inevitably emerge. 

So sharing experiences in a meaningful way which supports learning will always require some insight into the errors made and the things which the team would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.  Surely, that  is what defines learning from experience.

There have been two recent online events which I think may make this kind of warts and all experience sharing a little less likely.

The first is the demand that Google should enable people to be forgotten – or at least their past misdemeanours.  This has come to prominence since May this year when Mario Costeja González brought a legal case to the European Court of Human Rights.  His successful case was that an old newspaper report about his past financial difficulties should not appear when his name was the subject of a search on Google.  (The irony is, of course, that that is now all we know about Senor Costeja González, but there you go.)

The other case hit the news headlines this morning.   Caroline Doudet, a French fashion blogger, was so incensed about the service she received in a restaurant in the upmarket resort of Cap Ferret that she wrote a negative review.  The review ranked highly on Google and so the owner took action in the courts and the blogger was fined €2500.

Now I don’t want to get carried away by the fact that two negative things about a person or a business on the internet should have been the subject of legal cases.  I don’t think that the internet is being gagged nor that people will be being sued left, right and centre. 

However, as businesses finally get around to drafting social media policies, might some rather risk-averse legal minds think ‘better safe than sorry’?  Might corporate policies about what is mentioned in blogs and online postings mean that anything negative will be removed or toned down on the basis of the precedents set by these two cases?

I have tried to engage with a number of online debates for my own learning and updating.  Like my international group I want to learn from others and that means, inevitably, learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, I find that one of the features which defines many blogs and discussion forums is their blandness.  They are often overly positive to a Pollyanna-ish level.  In my mind we need more, not less, controversy and strong opinion. Where there are refreshingly opinionated views being expressed, like on Donald Clarks’ Plan B blog, I am concerned that those upset by strident opinions, even when supported by evidence, might seek to limit debate by citing these two cases.

For online collaboration to really assist learning, we need to be able to engage in proper debate. We need to be able to disagree publically (though politely).  We need to be able to discuss failures and analyse mistakes.  My fear is that these two cases make honest and forthright online reflection a tiny bit less likely to happen.

About the author

Robin Hoyle is the author of Complete Training – from recruitment to retirementHe has been a trainer, learning designer and consultant for the past 28 years and is now Senior Consultant at Learnworks Ltd.  He is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference, September 30th to October 1st at the NEC, Birmingham.

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