professional identity

When a personal brand isn’t an identity

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Last Saturday I co-facilitated a workshop at the ALIA 6th New Librarians Symposium – Building and managing a professional identity.

Towards the end of the workshop, I shared my views on the concepts personal brand and professional identity, by placing them within the wider context, that is the information profession. I was greeted with stunned silence when I was re-assured by participants that their brains were ticking over, that I provoked thought. This was a good thing. I had met my objective. My work was done, so to speak.

I thought it appropriate to share this. And this post has been a long time coming.

There are loads of articles and resources out there that claim to improve a personal brand. There are loads of much of the same to (establish or) improve a professional identity. One might think these terms could be used synonymously, and they might be right. But let me put them this way….

Firstly, let’s look at connectivism. A professional identity can be illustrated through this theory and is of particular relevance to our networks. The theory of connectivism provided the grounding on which my research (a few years back) about developing personal learning networks sat. Connectivism shaped my thinking about professional development and learning as a profession, but more on that a bit later.

Okay, for those who need a refresher on what a personal learning network is, here’s my view. A personal learning environment is something you create for yourself to assist with professional and personal development. Tools such as Word, Evernote, a notebook and Twitter, for example. A personal learning network is the people component, it is those whom you connect with, interact with, exchange ideas and knowledge with. There appears to be articles abound saying a personal learning network is Twitter. I disagree. Twitter is a tool in your personal learning environment you use to connect with your personal learning network.

Back to connectivism. Nowadays there is so much information. We cannot process and make sense of it all individually. It’s impossible. The theory of connectivism says that knowledge is distributed and resides in connections, and that it won’t be a matter of knowing stuff (“just in case”) but we must now have the ability to traverse networks of knowledge, information and resources to know what we need to “just in time”, quickly and easily. Connectivism says the process of learning is creating, navigating and nurturing connections. The ability to see connections between ideas and concepts will increasingly become a core skill in this world. I’ll credit Siemens (2005) at this point as he was one of the first to publish on this idea.

Now hold those thoughts.

Think of yourself, an information professional, as a node in a network. A network has more than one node and is made up by connections and relationships. So I guess you could say a personal learning network, or even the profession itself. A network, or your personal learning network is a living thing that is constantly evolving as your needs and connections change. Sure, there’ll be people who you’ll be friends with for years, but generally, as your professional development needs and interests change, so will which organisations you’ll follow, articles you’ll read and courses you take.

Now hold onto those thoughts too. The picture will all come together, I promise. I just need to lay the foundations for you.

Since publishing a blog post in 2011 about personal branding, my thinking around it has changed (and so it should). Back then I identified three elements of a personal brand.

Perception – your personal brand is how others see you. How others experience your contributions to discussions, projects, etc form your reputation.
Public face – your presence (online and offline) and the professional you display publicly. A blog name, blog design, domain, twitter username, avatar, logo, all make up your online ‘public face’.
Differentiation – your character traits, skills, knowledge, experience and interests identify you as a professional and make you different from others.

From these elements, I identified three things that determined a personal brand.

  • identity
  • professional relationships (connections)
  • reputation

Makes sense, right?


I’m not going to say my thinking was wrong back then. But I will say that I dislike the term ‘personal brand’. Probably one of my biggest biffs about it is there is so much advice out there about building a personal brand and promoting your personal brand. A brand is a mark, a stamp. Quite frankly, the concept ‘personal brand’ says “me, me, me”, it also says ‘storefront’.  This makes a ‘personal brand’ inflexible. You see, I really don’t think the term ‘personal brand’ sits well with a network of information professionals, most only too willing to share and exchange their knowledge with one another.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all developing professional identities. An identity is something to be shaped and will evolve over the course of a career. A professional identity can be seen and developed online or offline. It just so happens we spend a lot of time online and those in the information profession who actively develop their professional identities tend to be those we recognise. Yes?

Growing as a profession

An identity invites interaction and growth. An identity is communicated through various means. Notice that I say ‘communicated’ there. I will argue there is a difference between promotion and communication. How so? Simple. Communication is two way, it’s engagement. An identity is formed not by a flashy website or a swanky Twitter handle. There’s no prize for that. An identity is formed through active engagement with the profession and its members. Developing one self into a professional that is recognised for unique expertise, skills and knowledge defines a ‘node’ in a professional network.

At this point, I’ll put this to you. If we all had well-defined and recognisable professional identities, would we then be able to recognise knowledge (skills and experience) more easily and make faster and stronger connections? With strength in connections and ability to make new ones (with knowledge), can we accelerate the development of the profession’s knowledge base, and make it more robust? If currency in skills and knowledge is the intent of most, if not all professional development activities, would we need to constantly make new connections?

I’d like to call this “learning as a profession”. What do you think? Is it possible?


The difference between ‘personal brand’ and ‘professional identity’ is that we don’t connect to a brand when we develop networks of knowledge, we connect with the knowledge, skills and experience as part of a network of professionals (the substance). There’s more to building a presence in this profession than setting up shop with all the happening social media tools. Developing a professional identity is not about promoting one self to get noticed. You get noticed in this profession by being generous with your time, skills and knowledge, and the sharing of resources and opportunities for development. Not with a storefront. Where I get a bit peeved is that there is so much focus on building a ‘personal brand’ that we run the risk of promoting (or flogging) the shit out of it. When we make connections, all we’re really connecting to is a ‘public face’, not an identity.

One can do all the right things like creating a LinkedIn profile, promoting a blog, spend hours deliberating over a Twitter handle. But all these things are really only one aspect – a public face. There needs to be more focus on developing our professional identities, the differentiation we bring to the profession. We need to make meaningful connections to people and knowledge, not just to a nice looking avatar. I’d like to see more emphasis on developing ourselves as a unique professional, and over time a well-defined one that we’ll all know where to turn for specific knowledge and/or skills. If we devote efforts to our professional identities, the other elements, like reputation and public face, will flourish with it.

A difference between ‘personal brand’ and ‘professional identity’

Perhaps not in the terms themselves. But the difference I’ll argue, is the motivations for being in the profession and in the online space – is it “me, me, me” or “hire me, I’m awesome”? Or do you see yourself as a participant in the conversation?

The theory of connectivism places developing a personal learning network in context. It takes a bigger picture perspective and approach to growing knowledge for the profession, not just ourselves.

If someone came to me, not that they have, but if they did and tell me “I have a Twitter account, a blog and I’m on LinkedIn but nothing’s happening. Why am I not hired?”, my first question will be, “did you splash your presence about the place, or did you engage in the conversation”?

So I ask then, why are you here?

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