Need Your Feedback on my Triangulating Thinking

OK, I need your help. I have been playing around with this idea of triangulation (possibly not the right term) for a couple of months. Lilia has written about it to help me, but now I need my network to help me sharpen my thinking. Can you please read this and give me your feedback? THANKS

Triangulating for Success:triangulation
a practitioner’s experience using external networks to leverage learning and outcomes within organizations and institutions


Organizations and institutions are ostensibly places for learning and getting work done. But sometimes individuals are blocked from achieving those goals. Blockages come from unsupportive superiors, a risk-aversive culture stifling innovation, a need for taking of credit by management, a lack of diversity of opinion and thought amongst staff, and simply the inertia of large organizations. The structure of organizations is often to replicate what is, rather than evolve into what it might need to be next. This can block success. In the context of expanding learning opportunities, one option is to triangulate outside the organization to enable increased learning within.

In an informal evaluation of successful collaboration, learning and teaming initiatives in a variety of contexts, the author and her collaborators have noted a pattern for supporting learning and getting work done: triangulating one’s work with external colleagues, communities and networks. This pattern has three phases: support and personal validation, connection to a community and/or network for practice and learning and finally, external validation. This paper examines each phase, reflects on how this external triangulation relates to some exemplar learning theories, and finally, offers some examples and suggests how designing this external triangulation into learning and work efforts can increase project success.

Blockages to Innovation and Learning

In working with knowledge sharing and learning initiatives within international non governmental organizations (NGOs), the author has observed a pattern where talented internal practitioners have struggled to spread innovations, engender learning required for successful work, and in general, been stopped from excelling.

The Three Phases

Phase 1: A mirror and a candle

Working in isolation and often without supportive management, practitioners feel alone. Isolation has been shown to be a factor in reducing a practitioner’s sense of professionalism and agency.1 Ideas and learnings, initially thought to be generative, start to be doubted by the practitioner. Often there is a diminished sense of worth, and an under-recognition of their own assets.

When an external practitioner connects with the internal practitioner, there is a chance to “hold a mirror” up so the internal practitioner can see the value of their work and their own professional skills. This process of validation can provide a great deal of self confidence and energy in what might otherwise be an unsupportive, or minimally supportive environment. It is like an infusion of courage and confidence.

The connection with an external practitioner then allows a sharing of ideas, and the beginning of a peer coaching or support relationship. This is the candle that lights the way to “next steps.”

In a large international NGO, a practitioner has developed an innovative new way to share learnings within and without the organization using new social media tools and collaborative practices. She feels her idea will accellerate knowledge sharing, increase learning and reduce duplication. However, she is blocked from implementing her ideas because her management has insufficient experience with social media, a reluctance to take a risk on a new idea, and is not fully convinced that the knowledge sharing would protect his team’s “competitive advantage” of being a gate keeper for knowledge flows. While this concern is counter to the organization’s mission, it is consistent with the way “business is done” internally.

Feeling discouraged, but not ready to give up, the practitioner connects with an external practitioner who enthusiastically encourages her, helping her see the power of her own ideas and experience. Instead of thinking her ideas are bad, she realizes they are legitimate but that she needs more examples of success from other organizations and a validation of her technical approach.

In this first step, an isolated practitioner moves from potential, to action, tapping that potential through support and affirmation.

Phase 2: A community of practice, a network of learning

The second phase is the recognition that the practice lives not only in the experiences of the internal and external practitioner pair, but in larger community or network of practice. According to Wenger2, a community of practice is ”Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” The importance in this context is that isolated practitioners, such as early e-learning innovators, need the diversity of experience of a wider group of people. Organizations often foster homogeneity which supports uniform execution of plans, but does little to support innovation. E-learning practices are still nascent and require the collaborative thought and practice laboratory with other practitioners.  Innovators need access to ideas, real examples of practice, “critical friends” who can critique the ideas, support, coaching and “testing ground” for thinking out loud in a safe environment. They need time and space for reflection.

New web based technologies now provide visibility of and access to these networks of practice. From the “social networks” of Facebook and others, which appear to have no direct relevance to professional work, to specific professional networks, to loosely affilianted networks of bloggers, people can now find and connect to others. Even the social networks give exposure to professionals and participation in these networks should not be automatically discounted. However, it is important to know how to present one’s professional online identity and effectively use the networks.

The external practitioner then connects her to an online network of practitioners working in other related organizations. Through effective internet searches, activation of personal networks linked via online social networks, the two reach out to other practitioners who enthusiastically offer their experience, feedback and support.

Phase 3: External validation

The interaction with a community/network of practice leverages the learning of the individual practitioner, allowing them to build their skills, reflect on their practice and gain constructive feedback. However, this does not overcome the blockages preventing acceptance and spreading of new practices within the organization. They transform the individual, but not yet the organization. This is where the third aspect of external validation comes into play.

The familiar expression “you can’t be a prophet in your own land” reflects a common pattern of organizations not valuing innovation from within, instead relying on external “experts.” However, when internal work is validated externally, it is given more attention and credence. For example, consider the situation where an innovative staff member, frustrated with a lack of internal support, leaves an organization, becomes a consultant and is subsequently hired by their old organization as a valued consultant. They are paid more, given more respect, and most important, they are listened to.

While positive external “word of mouth” can give validation, internet based social media gives us a more visible medium to reflect on the work of the internal practitioner. This offers validation both publicly and validation available inside of/on behalf of their own organizations. External validation can affirm an innovation, or put subtle peer pressure on internal leaders to recognize the work/learning and respond to it (vs. block or ignore it.)

External validation can trigger management attention – even if this means management takes credit that actually belongs to their staff member(s). Once management recognizes the learning or innovation, there is a chance for it to take root and spread in the organization, triggering change that the one individual could not catalyze by themselves.

Finally, members of the network of practice begin to blog, write on their email list and web platform, about the work of the internal practitioner. This news filters back to the practitioner’s management, validating her ideas and giving them more reason and courage to  support the new ideas and practices that they had previously resisted. She now has approval to begin a pilot project to test her ideas. Her management is further recognized for their innovation, giving everyone a tangible example that sharing knowledge and collaboratively working can provide benefit to everyone.

Strategies for Individuals and Organizations

By recognizing the power of external support from individuals, communities and networks, we can begin to design this triangulation into our work. This suggests some competencies and actions, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

Competencies supporting triangulation

There are three important competencies: having one’s own online professional identity, scanning for related professional networks, and the willingness to “learn in public.”

Developing a public online identity as a professional is the first competency. “‘Digital Identity’ (DI) is a term to describe the persona an individual presents across all the digital communities in which he or she is represented5.  (For more information about building an online digital identity, see “This is Me” for NGO Folks by the author. 6)   Professionals need to establish their professional digital identity as a way for others to discern if they want to  learn with each other.

One cannot tap into external support without knowledge of other practitioners and their networks. Scanning for professionally related communities and networks, engaging with them and reciprocating support to others are core competencies for triangulation. Being willing to ask for help, reflect on one’s own practice in view of others and accept constructive feedback are also important. In organizations where “being right” is more important than learning, this ability to learn “in public” with others may be difficult. But today, learning and innovation require us to become professional networked learners7. We simply cannot learn all there is to learn by ourselves – let alone filter and evaluate everything in the world.  Digital tools create a flood of  information. Only with our networks can we filter that flood. And only by willing to experiment and think outloud can we do this together online. Not everything can or will be done behind “closed doors” or “closed firewalls.” Ultimately, our reputations will not rely soley on what we accomplished, but also how we accomplished it and with whom.

Reciprocation of support and external validation of others is important for maintaining one’s reputation and identity in an external community or network of practitioners. While reciprocity in networks is rarely one to one, being known as someone who gives, not just takes, increases social capital and the availability of peer support. Robert Putnam described the value of this  communally shared social capital as a cornerstone to society itself.8 One should never consider “one-way” triangulation. It is an ongoing interweaving of learning and support across the network.

Activities supporting triangulation

Triangulation can be designed both into projects and into personal practices. For example, during a learning project design, practitioners can include steps to identify external individuals, communities and networks that relate to the work and allocate time and other resources to tap into those networks. External actors can be included as part of project peer review and evaluation, creating natural linkages for support and validation. The inclusion of informal, ongoing publications sharing “work in progress” via blogs, micro-blogging or wikis can create additional windows for external triangulation.

Pitfalls to avoid

Triangulation is not without risks. There are two primary things to watch out for: transgressing organizational rules, norms and boundaries and the issue of who takes or gives credit to ideas and work.

Practitioners must not violate organizational rules about what can or cannot be shared outside of the organizational boundary. This may involve intellectual property, competition and other factors. These boundaries are often significant blockages themselves to innovation and learning, and organizations should be very careful about not overregulating. The value of openness often brings deeper and longer term rewards than a short term “holding tight” to ideas or a strong need to take credit for things.

Practitioners may also find that once their ideas are triangulated and validated externally, others in the network and even their own management may “take credit” for the ideas and work of the practitioner. While we hope that people aggressively work to recognize prior contributions, we know it does not always happen. The ideas in this very paper grew out of a myriad of uncountable and now untraceable ideas shared by colleagues and network acquaintances of the author. What of that attribution? It has flowed past, never to be recaptured. As a consequence, the credit may never fully land where it is deserved. This is a cost of working openly in and with the network.

Conclusion and Implications

Triangulating learning through external support from individuals, communities and networks can provide significant, low or no cost support to innovators and learners within institutions. This triangulation requires networking skills and a willingness to learn in public – even possibly loose part of all credit for one’s work. The rewards, however, are increased learning, practical experience and ultimately the ability to change not just one’s self, but one’s organization.

1 Barab, S., Kling, R., Gray, J., (2004) Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning, , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

2 Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Leaning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

3 Engeström, Y. (1999a). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R. L. Punamäki (Eds.) Perspectives on activity theory, (pp. 19–38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

4 Efimova, L. 2009 Understanding Networked Professionals accessed November 29, 2009 at

5 This Is Me by OdinLab, University of Reading (Not quite sure how to reference y et)

6 White, N 2009. This Is Me for NGO Professionals, accessed November 29th, 2009

7 Efimova 2009

16 thoughts on “Need Your Feedback on my Triangulating Thinking”

  1. Hi Nancy

    You seem to be using the notion of triangulation in a fairly colloquial way compared to its normal use in the social sciences, for instance. Nothing wrong with this of course as the history of the concept is already a series of borrowings and ‘re-engineerings’. The main thing is to be clear about what the intended scope (intension and extension) of the concept is. Personally I find the best way to do this is to construct a series of scenarios of the concept in use. My understanding is that the term was originally used in geometry and cartography – the process whereby a point in the landscape can be fixed in its location by having two bearings made of it from a known baseline. The point is thus located at the intersection of 3 lines.

    A brief paper on its use in social science by Alan Bryman, Professor of Social Research
    Department of Social Sciene:

  2. is the partnership of two eyes that creates depth and perspective..
    two ears use stereo to know the direction and placement in space.. energy needs two poles to circulate, so perspective, stereo, and energy are symptoms of triangulation. The three Rs are the perspective of relativity, stereo allows responsibility, and energy is respect ability. Father/parent relates to Son/child with experience of respect developing spiritual attitudes.

  3. Terry, thanks for the feedback and pointers. Exactly what I’m needing to suss this out in the particular context of creating positive change in slow moving international development organizations.

    Brad, I’m not sure I’m following your comment at all. I’m sorry!

  4. Some of the feedback on Twitter and a blog post from Ed—finding-experts-enthusiasts-and-key-words.html


    1. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Is that a reasonable summary or are you trying to get at something else?

    2. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite What u are saying: validation-role of soc med./networking-furthering careers, innovation, collaboration. Some threatened by it.

    3. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Gotta be a better word. I didn’t even understand triangulation when I looked in

    4. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Kids divide parents, people divide others at work, in relationships w/triang. 2 corners fight while the 3rd stays clean.

    5. june holley juneholley
    @NancyWhite Also less sense of community? more mini/short term learning escapades?

    6. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Triangulation has neg implecations. Is really reaching out 2 other nonprof pros/organizations-expansion, exploration, connection

    7. Josie Fraser josiefraser
    RT @NancyWhite: @PatParslow I like the metaphor in -interested in how this scales to orgs, beyond the individual

    8. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Oops…didn’t mean to include you on that other comment…sorry. Multi-tasking!

    9. Mamading Ceesay evangineer
    @juneholley @NancyWhite Check out Open Knowledge Foundation for more about those sort of issues

    10. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite @StCyrlyMe2 so true…but we got rid of shrubbery around white house…so we can do the same w/our twitter accts!

    11. Mamading Ceesay evangineer
    @juneholley @NancyWhite It’s about having knowledge be able to propagate freely & openly across organisational boundaries w/o IP baggage.

    12. Mamading Ceesay evangineer
    @juneholley @NancyWhite Good stuff, missing something abt putting bodies of knowledge out under open license like Wikipedia & Appropedia do

    13. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Not sure if Triangulation is correct word. Wonder if @valdiskrebs ideas about networking/closing the triange are related at all? about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck

    14. Heidi Massey HeidiEKMassey
    @NancyWhite Saw your post via Ken Homer RT. I think you are on to something. (Prob. reason nonprof pros don’t stay in one place for long!)

    15. PatParslow PatParslow
    @NancyWhite not as organised as your thinking, but I see parallels with my post on Navigating you Learning Landscape

    16. Irmeli Aro ConnectIrmeli
    Triangulating learning: “..ultimately the ability to change not just one’s self, but one’s organization” by @NancyWhite

    17. Carol Cooper-Taylor kiwicarol
    RT: @NancyWhite: OK network, I need feedback on some draft thinking about triangulation please

    18. Kerry J kerryank
    @NancyWhite When you have

    19. june holley juneholley
    @NancyWhite I’d be interested in how networks of learning differ from org-contained CoPs…

    20. june holley juneholley
    RT @NancyWhite: OK network, I need feedback on some draft thinking about triangulation please

    21. ken_homer ken_homer
    @NancyWhite My initial look is that it is great. I am headed out, but will give fuller reply later when I have a chance to look in depth.

    22. Howard Rheingold hrheingold
    @NancyWhite Triangulation is also used to describe practice of checking credibility of reports via 3 different sources

    23. ken_homer ken_homer
    RT @NancyWhite: OK network, I need feedback on some draft thinking about triangulation please

  5. Wonderful to learn about this triangulation – a transformative and innovative way of learning and performance enhancement through the weaving of external networks with organisations and institutions. I have discussed these in my and have since been thinking about research in this area.
    What are some of the implications of such triangulation on individuals? I think we need further action research to reveal the impacts of triangulation on organisations and institutions.
    What do you think?
    Thanks for your great insights.

  6. ..since I was enrolled to my tenth school when I started tenth grade, I was triangulated many times, to be a detached observer. The behavior described in this post respects the form of an attitude that weaves integrity from recognizing diversity. Presenting experience in story form rather than as an authority figure.
    Credit needs to be shared for recognizing better behavior, conceptual properties need to encourage appreciation into innovative support systems. Collective consciousness?
    Thanks for describing this style of responsive imagery beyond reflexive rational.

  7. Thank you Nancy for a very insightful and useful post!

    The distinctions you make about the three stages and the ordering of how the process unfolds mirror my experience; and from listening to many practitioners at informal meetings, the experience of many others.

    I appreciate the “mirror and candle” metaphor especially. Those are images that work well for me.

    Likewise, I appreciate your languaging of the role that elearning plays, as it is a newer dimension of human experience and an observing platform from whence most of us do not have a habit of reflecting. This feels very aligned with an integral perspective of: self, other, work and world.

    I also like very much the competencies and strategies that you outline.

    The actual word “triangulation” is a tad fraught for me, and I find it difficult to set the baggage of previous uses aside whenever it appears above. It sort of jars me and I can’t exactly say why. The concepts and examples you outline seem spot on, but then the word appears and I suddenly cognitive dissonance arising.

    In exploring that dissonance, I find resonate with the navigation use of “triangulation”, but not many consultants that I’ve met have the seafaring background to know how to use a sextant, map and compass and have a sense of measuring one’s relationship to relatively fixed external references as a means to know where you are.

    So the usage of “triangulation” in my mind keeps kicking up the model of people talking behind each other’s backs. And perhaps because that is such a widespread negative social practice observed in organizations, it seems problematic to use it in this context.

    I wish I had a nice clear crisp alternative, but I’m not feeling that smart tonight. The best I can offer is some weak attempt at “building out your network”, which does not do justice to what you are pointing at.

    Perhaps someone else who reads this and experiences feelings similar to my own will have a better word to suggest.

    None of this is meant to detract from the lovely and useful descriptions you have offered here.

    Thanks and take care,


    PS It is a delicious slip that you wrote “can’t be a ‘profit” as opposed to ‘prophet’ in your own land”

  8. Nancy, thanks for blogging it! There are a few things to comment on, but that would take time to formulate, so I’d just start with the credit issue. I struggled a lot with it in my PhD research, where I heavily fed from the ideas from my networks (see Not only it’s difficult to attribute every fragment of what comes as a result of a collective intelligence, but also the practices of attribution differ between hierarchical and networked environments.

    I dealt with the credit issue in several ways:
    – tried to add credits/real names/links in the dissertation (as far as I could bend academic conventions 🙂
    – do that as much as possible in the weblog
    – (most important) make sure that my dissertation is online under Creative Commons, so others could feed of my thinking in the same way I did with theirs

    So, in respect to triangulation I’d say: credits are important, but your network might actually appreciate more if you share your learnings about their ideas from inside the organisation.

  9. Hi Nancy – this piece hit home for me, especially the reference to not being a prophet in your own land. I had that experience with two different organizations I worked for – now I’m a consulting on the very same ideas I had before and feeling much more respected and listened to by the same people (and better paid too! LOL). The funny thing is that as I consult with one particular organization over an extended time, it becomes more like I’m an internal person again, even though I’m still a consultant.

    I agree with Ken about the use of the term triangulate – I looked up a definition and the one that connected to my life experience was:

    to pit two others against each other in order to achieve a desired outcome or to gain an advantage; to “play both ends against the middle”

    …which left me with a uncomfortable feeling. It made me think that I’m doing this for “selfish” reasons… while what I’m trying to do is to open up thinking and learning…

    But maybe this discomfort isn’t a bad feeling to have – I’m not sure. Because what you describe is what I’ve been doing – “using” external connections for support, learning and validation.

    One last thought from a practical stand-point. Even when internal management may be trying to be supportive, validating, etc., it’s difficult to focus on this when the day-to-day demands of the workplace intrude – how can we talk about big ideas when the reports need to be done, the meeting arrangements made, the annoying stuff needs to be attended to. When we connect outside our organizations, it can be more easily focused on what we are **thinking** about, not just what needs to get checked off the “to-do” list.

    I’m looking forward to more of these Big Ideas.

  10. Hi Nancy. Hope your trip to Oz was enjoyable!

    Thankyou for this. I have used the Triangulation metaphor on many occasions in workshops as a way of breaking old thinking in relation to coordinating efforts and collaboration. I’ll have a read and get back.

  11. Hi Nancy, I join the side of not being comfortable with term “triangulation” for several reasons already noted. The term doesn’t give this good idea the chance it deserves to gain attention. What you have here is more about “casting a wide net” (though that allusion isn’t succinct enough to the context). Will keep thinking on terminology.

    Your thoughts have grabbed my attention because I can relate to them. I hope you’ll (we’ll?) keep working on this 🙂

    I like the candle/mirror analogy very much. I also like the COP section. On external validation, to my thinking there needs to be some counterpoint when that validation is present but in fact has no impact.

    I think the issue of “credit” is something to be addressed in terms of the evolving organization. I don’t need credit for my work on Wikipedia, nor do I need credit from you if this idea of yours is advanced every so slightly by my thoughts here. There are other benefits that I gain from both of these activities of mine. This is a move beyond the “citation mentality” that propelled individuals through the organizational systems most common in the past. Today some large organizations may be headed in a new way with systems where groups, not individuals, are rewarded for performance, etc.

    Finally, but quite important, while I’ll agree that “learning through external support from individuals, communities and networks can provide significant” support, I am not comfortable with the statement that it is “low or no cost support.” There is a lot of cost involved in being an outlier (as the person in your first example was at the beginning of her attempt to work in this way), there is cost in going beyond what can be an easier path within the confines of an organizational structure (no concerns about proprietary info, no dealing with unfamiliar systems, etc.) … and I think in some ways the idea that it’s “no cost” may make it sound “cheap” to a management system that believes anything with value has a definite cost.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to think, and to share my thoughts 🙂

  12. Hi Nancy. Interesting idea (triangulation) and some good commentary in response. I would extend the triangulation metaphor… I’m thinking of Wade Davis’ book that came out last month – the Wayfinders – a story of ancient wisdom and how Polynesians were/are able to navigate, or rather find their way, across huge expanses of water, without any technical equipment (e.g., compass, sextant). Holistic, systems thinking; they learnt through direct experience and the testing of hypotheses, with information drawn from all branches of the natural sciences, astronomy, animal behaviour, meteorology, and oceanography. Makes me think this is what you are trying to articulate, in a different context! Hope this isn’t too far off the topic.

  13. Hi Nancy, the situation is very recognisable to me! I’ve worked in a lot of isolation.

    Two issues: to whom are you writing this? to the professional/to the organisation? And has it not changed because of the social media. Who needs to be isolated nowadays? This is ofcourse your point about the networks but I wonder if professionals are not already networked.

    And I agree that triangulation has the connotation of research method (PRA principle), maybe find a better name?

Comments are closed.