The Informal Learning Page is now home to articles, graphics, free chapters from my Informal Learning book, video, and a link to some sources of the oft-quoted 20% figure.
Here’s an overview of informal learning. It’s several years old, but with the recent interest in informal learning and squabbling about how best to define it, I figured it’s worth a re-run.
Informal Learning in a Nutshell
WORKERS LEARN MORE in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning—classes and workshops—is the source of only 10 to 20 percent of what people learn at work. Corporations overinvest in formal training programs while neglecting natural, simpler informal processes.
More happens in a minute today than in one of your great grandmother’s minutes. Not only is more and more activity packed into every minute, the rate of change itself is increasing. Measured by the atomic clock, the twenty-first century will contain a hundred years. Measured by how much will happen in the twenty-first century, we will experience twenty thousand current years (Kurzweil, The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology.). Change itself is accelerating. People are anxious. The future is unpredictable. Companies are run by sound bites. People plan; God laughs. The traditional mode of training employees is obsolete.
Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs. Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom. Learning is adaptation. Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, to learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks.
Executives don’t want learning; they want execution. They want the job done. They want performance. Informal learning is a profit strategy. Companies are applying it to:
• Increase sales by making product knowledge instantly searchable
• Improve knowledge worker productivity
• Transform an organization from near-bankruptcy to record profits
• Generate fresh ideas and increase innovation
• Reduce stress, absenteeism, and health care costs
• Invest development resources where they will have the most impact
• Increase professionalism and professional growth
• Cut costs and improve responsiveness with self-service learning
Knowledge workers demand respect and expect to be treated fairly. They thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they’re asked to do. They rise or fall to meet expectations.
Training managers have complained for years that senior managers don’t understand the value of training. Lots of formal learning programs do not work. Maybe the executives do understand the value of formal training. They’ve determined that in its present form, it’s not worth much.
Tragically, many firms have mistaken measuring activity for measuring results. Training directors measure participant satisfaction, the ability to pass tests, and demonstrations. They don’t measure business results because they don’t own the yardstick by which business results are measured.
Training is something that’s pushed on you; someone else is in charge. Learning is something you choose to do, whether you’re being trained or not. You’re in charge. Many knowledge workers will tell you, “I love to learn but I hate to be trained.”
Formal learning takes place in classrooms; informal learning happens in learnscapes, that is, a learning ecology. It’s learning without borders.
Critics say that it’s impossible to formalize informal learning and therefore informal learning is unmanageable. In fact, I don’t want an executive managing learning; that’s the worker’s responsibility. What I want to do is optimize learning outcomes. Optimization means removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation, and so forth.
Reinventing the wheel, looking for information in the wrong places, and answering questions from peers consume two-thirds of the average knowledge worker’s day. Slashing this waste provides a lot more time to devote to improving the business, reducing payroll, or, more likely, a bit of both.
Knowledge management is no longer the intellectual high ground it once was, by and large because it didn’t work. Knowledge lives in people’s heads, not in mere words. You can no more capture true knowledge in a repository than you can trap lightning in a box.
The informal organization is how most business gets done, yet executives miss it because they can’t see it. Mapping social networks make the pattern clear.
It’s not who you know that’s important; it’s who those others know.
Learning is a skill, like playing golf. The more you practice, the better your performance is, but if golfers followed the pattern of businesspeople learning, they would arrive for a match without ever having thought about the game or touched a club.
Many traditional training departments concentrate almost all of their energy on providing training to novices. That’s like providing kindergarten classes to high school students to save money. In truth, the more mature learners, typically the top performers, are simply going to skip it entirely or become disgruntled.
Intuition is often more effective than logic because it calls on whole-body intelligence. It is born of relationships and patterns. It draws on the power of the unconscious mind to sort through meaningful experience as well as the immediate situation.
If something improves the overall value of the ecosystem and the welfare of the individual worker, I’m in favor of it. This includes helping workers build personal strengths and overcome personal obstacles.
If your basic mental systems are out of whack, you may be working extra hard just to cope.
It should come as no surprise that workers don’t like training. Most training is built atop the pessimistic assumption that trainees are deficient, and training is the cure for what’s broken. Everybody wins if the starting point is, “Be all that you can be.”
You may have the best thoughts in the world, but if you don’t communicate them effectively, they won’t help you or anyone else. I’m thinking about how you converse, tell stories, speak in public, and write.
If you’re not happy, you should do something about it.
We humans are sight mammals. We learn almost twice as well from images and words as from words alone. Visual language engages both hemispheres of the brain. Pictures translate across cultures, education levels, and age groups. Yet the majority of the content of corporate learning is text. Schools spend years on verbal literacy but only hours on visual literacy. It’s high time for us to open our eyes to the possibilities.
Graphics are not fluff. Consider how they can improve informal learning throughout your organization. Graphics work wonders when you need to:
• Bring deeper understanding to complex subject matter.
• Share results of dynamic meetings with others.
• Help the team see the big picture and focus attention.
• Improve the decision-making process.
Conversations both create and transmit knowledge. Frequent and open conversation increases innovation and learning. Schooling planted a false notion in our heads that real learning is something you do on your own. In fact, we learn things from other people. People love to talk. Bringing them together brings excitement.
People spend most of their time at work or at home. Work is a demanding, pressure-packed, rats-in-the-maze race with the clock to get the job done. Home is a comfortable, private space for sharing time with family and individual interests. Neither work nor home, a World Café is a neutral spot where people come together to offer hospitality, enjoy comradeship, welcome diverse perspectives, and have meaningful conversations.
Business conversations at Pfizer no longer consist of knee-jerk emotional responses, because people have a means of critiquing the quality of their conversations. They ask, “Is the information valid? Are we making an informed choice? Are we exercising mutual control over the conversation?”
Unless you are a hermit, you are a member of several communities of practice, although you may not have thought of it that way.
For a long time, I maintained that communities were organic. Like truffles, they sort of sprouted up on their own, where they wanted, and the most you could do was to nurture them by providing time and space for them to meet. Times have changed. A quarter of the world’s truffles are cultivated on a plantation in Spain.
As fast and easy as it is to search Google, Cisco sales engineers can pinpoint just the knowledge they’re looking for. They query the in-house repository of VoDs, and the system takes them down to the exact sentences or slides of interest.
LEGO hobbyists are a community of practice. Subgroups create building standards that enable them to create large displays quickly.
It has become trite to point out that the e of eLearning doesn’t matter and that it’s the learning that counts. I don’t think the learning counts for much either. What’s important is the doing that results from learning. Executives don’t care about learning; they care about execution.
In 2001, training directors turned their attention to return on investment. Unfortunately, instead of learning cost-benefit analysis, people who wanted to speak the language of business studied accounting. Created long before knowledge work was invented, accounting values intangibles such as human capital at zero and counts training as an expense instead of an investment.
Consider how we managed to end up with a VCR in every classroom. Was it because teachers wanted to show nature documentaries? Hardly. Massive demand by America’s seemingly endless thirst for pornography drove the unit price to $100. Smart phones, voice recognition, and virtual reality are learning tools, but learning won’t drive their development. Courses are dead.
The Internet changed everything. In 1996, there were 16 million Internet users; in 2006 they number more than 1 billion. Google is the largest learning provider, answering thousands of inquiries every second.
Recently, I hosted a series of unworkshops on learning with blogs, wikis, and Web 2.0 tools. Why the un? To crush the old paradigm of workshop leader spoon-feeding participants.
Imagine having an in-house learning and information environment as rich as the Internet. You’d have blogs, search, syndication, podcasts, mash-ups, and more. You’d also have a platform just about everyone already knows how to use. CGI, a large Canadian services company is doing precisely that.
To grok is to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy. Learning without training is alive and well. BP employees in vital positions grok their roles in an extremely complex organization digesting several mega-mergers.
Business meetings used to come in one flavor: dull. New approaches are creating meetings that people enjoy, often organized in scant time, and at minimal cost. These meetings are not events; there’s typically activity before and after. If something is working well, why not share it with everyone? And why not keep it alive as long as you can? Successful gatherings are those where everyone participates.
There were no presentations at BAR Camp, no PowerPoints, no better-than-thou, no podium, and no positions carved in stone. Instead of presentations, campers had conversations. We were equals, co-discovering new ways to look at things. We sat in circles. No one was in charge because we were all in charge.
Management must assign enterprise-level accountability for learning. Unless you are blessed with a rare, sensitive executive management team, you must address governance or scrap plans of getting the benefits you’ve been reading about.
Natural learning requires an attitude of surrender and acceptance. Informal learning is unbounded. It enables us to find a voice to take its place alongside other parts of who we are as humans. We need all of who we are to be fully engaged, outside and with inner realms to meld with larger wisdom in the world.
As work and learning become one, good learning and good work become synonymous.
Don’t start with problems. Beginning with problems starts you off on the wrong path. You may solve the problem but miss a fantastic opportunity that was yours for the taking
Informal Learning Page