Last week during a discussion about design, Jeanette Campos asked me a fairly is simple question: What are the three artifacts that have shaped you most as a designer of creative learning solutions to complex problems?

Immediately one word came to mind: Twitter.  It isn't the tool itself that has been so impact full for me; it's the world to which Twitter opened up to me.

I started my career as a learning and performance professional much the same way many in our field do: without any training or education on what it means to work in this field. It's a challenge for individuals and for the industry as a whole.  It leads to a "We do what we do because it's what's always been done in this organization" approach to training. It's also a big part of why much of what we commonly define as training is nothing more than information communicated by those with expertise.

I recall those early years well. I read a number of books and took classes to educate myself on how "Training" was supposed to be done.  Still, I felt that there was something missing that I just couldn't put my finger on. It was like looking at a puzzle that was missing pieces, just enough so that you could not determine what the whole picture was supposed to be.

Then I discovered Twitter. From that moment on, I have never looked at 'Training' the same, and each day the interactions I have on Twitter continue to shape me as a professional.

To be fair, it was social media in general that enabled me to extend beyond the walls of my organization and connect with others externally in the field.  I am active on all the major social media channels, and they each have their strength and weaknesses. I find that Twitter has the audience and usage that best provides professional development support for those in our field.

Connecting with the community of learning and performance professionals on Twitter exposed me to new ideas and possibilities that enabled growth that wasn't possible before, simply because I was unaware of the possibilities that existed.

I connected with a few individuals at first.  Over time, that number slowly grew, and I started to become aware of a new type of network that has rapidly become one of the most important things in my life: my Personal Learning Network, or PLN.

Wikipedia defines Personal Learning Networks as:
A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.
An important part of this concept is the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Learners create connections and develop a network that contributes to their professional development and knowledge. The learner does not have to know these people personally or ever meet them in person.
Every learning and performance professional should have a PLN. These networks are, in my opinion, the single greatest source of professional development and support available. They expose us to new ideas and ways of thinking, they provide us with more targeted and qualified results than a search engine query, and they enable us to connect and share with peers and experts.  As the expression goes... None of us are as smart as all of us.  Personal learning networks powered by social media networks like Twitter allow us to tap into this collective knowledge in ways that simply wasn't possible before.

A well-cultivated PLN can also be your most powerful search engine, surpassing Google or Yahoo.  When I am researching a learning and performance topic, my PLN is my primary research tool.  Instead of a Google search, I send a question out to my network, and quickly receive answers to my query that come from the minds and experience of individuals I have chosen to connect with.  In almost all cases, the resources shared by my PLN are better than those I am able to find from a standard Google search.

So how does one build a personal learning network? In a word - participation.

Search out people and topics that interest you and participate in discussions. Ask and answer questions.  One of my favorite ways to introduce newcomers to PLNs is to invite them to participate in one of the Twitter Chats for Learning And Performance Professionals. There are a number of other great ways to build your personal learning networks. For more suggestions, check out Nuts and Bolts: Building a Personal Learning Network (PLN) by Jane Bozarth and Build a powerful PLN by Steve Wheeler.

The digital age has provided learning professionals with an amazing opportunity via personal learning networks; and as with most opportunities, this one comes with a risk. PLNs aren't just for learning professionals; it's representative of a fundamental shift in the way people learn. People all around the world are forming PLNs, most without even realizing it yet.  It's a natural evolution of our increasingly connected world.

Put another way... It's the future of how the individuals whose performance we are responsible for supporting will learn.  As such, our roles will need to adapt to accommodate this shift.

Over the next three weeks, I look forward to visiting this future with you, and exploring the new skills - like filtering and curating - that learning and performance professionals will need to add to their skill sets. Thanks for joining me for the ride.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and Member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.