Bringing Informal Learning Up To Date

I’ve changed my tune since writing Informal Learning. 

I rarely use the word learning these days. Business managers hear learning and think schooling and don’t want to invest a dime in it. I’m tired of having doors slammed in my face, so I now talk about Working Smarter. I’ve yet to meet a manager who didn’t want her organization to work smarter (even though learning is a major component of doing so).

Push and Pull
Push and Pull are more useful terms for describing learning than Formal and Informal. Push and Pull get to the heart of the matter: who’s in control? Training is push; learning is pull. Training requires extrinsic motivation (“You do this”); learning relies on intrinsic motivation (“I want to do this.”)

Push and Pull are not separate forms of learning; they’re a matter of degree. All learning is part Push and part Pull. After a formal class (Push), you learn with your informal study group (Pull). Consider a simulation. The environment for learning is constrained (Push) but there’s no set curriculum (Pull).

Role of Managers
The book downplayed the vital role played by managers and supervisors. The 70:20:10 model posits that 70% of learning is experiential, 20% comes from working with others, and 10% results from formal instruction. Optimal learning requires all three. The other people involved in the 20% are most often the managers and supervisors who play an enormous role in the development of their people. They stoke learning by giving stretch assignments, providing feedback on performance, recognizing improvement, and giving guidance on development. Leaving them out of the equation cripples how people learn.

Employee-directed Learning
Niklas Angmyr commented on a prior post here that perhaps we should be talking about “employee-directed learning” and “manager-directed learning.” That makes sense, but overlooks the fact that not all learners are employees nor all instructors managers.

Formalizing the informal
I recoil when people talk, usually jocularly, of formalizing informal learning as if they’ve said something profound. What they mean is making informal learning routine, accepting it as legitimate, and taking action to make it work better.

I also back away from the word eLearning. What once held such promise for democratizing learning often led to boring page-turners no one should have to endure. I’d like to see bad top-down training eliminated, flipped, or made experiential. Most eLearning is formal, in that it has a rigidly defined curriculum, and it’s based on the flawed notion that exposure to content is all that’s required for learning.

Don’t ditch the formal
The book underplayed the importance of formal learning. (I’m going to call it training here to avoid stilted language.) Training is necessary for bringing novices up to speed. You don’t learn algebra by standing around the water cooler talking with your pals. Changes in the world, especially in technology, insures that we’re all novices at some things. Training and certification are mandated for compliance. Training is standard for onboarding new hires and grooming managers, although it’s better when supplemented with job rotations, coaching, and plain old walking around.  Push learning is often the most effective way for a newcomer to master the lay of the land, the jargon, the cheat sheets, and sacred knowledge, and to be recognized for it.

Not that formal learning is bad. Learning that is purely self-directed doesn’t help people who don’t know what they need to know. At times, others know what’s good for you and push you beyond what’s familiar and comfortable.

When an organization identifies an area for improvement or a new priority, for instance a sales process or new service offering, pushing workers through a learning experience can be expedient and productive. Learners are not instructional designers and may not naturally come up with the optimal way to acquire a new skill.

Says Who?
Clark Quinn points out that formality is in the eye of the beholder. Think of a Job Aid drawn up by the training department for performance support.

The Performer can choose to use the Job Aid or not. The Performer is in control and sees the support as informal. The L&D Department created the Job Aid to support one way of doing the work. From this perspective, L&D is in control and the support is informal.



11 thoughts on “Bringing Informal Learning Up To Date

  1. Niklas Angmyr

    Hi Jay and thanks for the post. I started officially in February as a consultant within …. ??? Actually during the spring I have had a hard time to pinpoint exactly what my business proposal is. I started with “learning 2.0″ but left it because it is cryptic even people familiar with web 2.0. I continued with “collaborative learning” which is closer to the target but could sound like I am a missionary of social learning only. Then “medarbetardrivet lärande” (my native langauges is Swedish) came up which I translated in my comment to one of your older posts to “employee-directed learning”. I acknowledged your comment about overlooking the fact that not all learners are employees. I also see my shortcomings as a translator because “co-worker” is more close to “medarbetare” which then means that “co-worker-directed learning” is more close to my originally thought. But of course a co-worker is maybe a person which most often is employeed which then does not solve the overlooking.

    In my mission to be crystal clear in my commersial communication I would like to catch, in as few words as possible, that so many hard working smart workers (Jane Harts words) on a daily basis are solving conceptual tasks. They stand in front of problems and say “How do I do now?” And they start to learn, on their own initiative, because they are autonmous, and they do learn, sometimes on their own and sometimes they do it with their colleges, comrades and others. They will use multiple ways as googling, reading, attend courses, networking, asking bosses, experimenting etc etc. The essence is that this learning is directed by (co)-worker/s individually and collaboratively. This is difficult to formulate in Swedish, and that is why I thought in terms of who is directing, instead of formal and informal.

    But the communication problems lies also in the same fact as you describe, the mental model for learning is from schooling. And yes, it is boring and kind of Sifosys-work to change that model. That means a long way to business and I do not have that time. I need to find a shortcut.

    I have also thought of communicating the aim instead of the means and therefore used the word “performance”. But it really does not solve the problem because the follow-up question will be – “And how do you intend to increase performance?” and then I need to get into the “co-worker individually and collaboratively directed learning” thing again.

    Sorry, this post became a lamentation about my novice problem as newly established. I will continue to follow you and I support you on your mission about “working smarter”. Thanks.

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  4. Niklas Angmyr

    Are the models 70:20:10 and 80:20 mixed up with each other?
    The model 70:20:10 are well known for the readers here, learning in the workplace, social and courses. The model 80:20 stands for 80 % informal learning (or as I prefer to call co-worker-directed learning) and 20 % formal learning (my words – manager-directed learning). Workplace learning is sometimes called informal learning and courses formal – and there you are with mixed up models. When giving it a second thought, these two models stands for two complimentary views on learning, context and initiative. Shouldn’t then a combined model look like this?

    LEARNING Workplace Social Courses
    manager-directed learning 14 4 2 20
    co-worker-directed learning 56 16 8 80
    70 20 10

    Of course managers can direct workplace learning when given problemoriented tasks for training purpose. And co-workers can direct their learning into traditional courses but when on their initiative it remains informal.

    Opinions someone? The figures are of course indicators and not at all exact. But if you believe in the correlation between learning and performance the matrix could be used as an ideal learning resource distribution model.

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