Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.
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.
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.
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.