If you work in the learning and development space, you would probably be aware of the buzz about informal learning. There has been a real awakening to the fact that informal learning can provide some of the greatest learning opportunities. Commonly thought to provide more than 80% of what we learn and the source of some of the most powerful lessons we will learn in life (& indeed in our organisations). But for many organisations, we are a product of our history. Locked into a paradigm of training our people to do a good job and rewarding learning and development professionals for putting more people through even more training programs.
But the current reality is not working. Business needs are changing rapidly resulting in a mounting list of unfullfilled training needs. We are struggling to sustain behaviour change at a rate that keeps up with the changes required by our environment and we find it hard to quantify the benefits associated with our training programs.
We are running the gambit of being high on the training drug, then suffering the hangover of reality where nothing much has changed. Yet we are addicted. It is in our nature. It is what we grew up on. It is hard to resist when people are prepared to pay us to give people ‘everything they need to know’ and entertain them at the same time.
‘Just tell them everything they need to know to do the job right’ – frustrated executive.
We have come to a cross roads, we are struggling harness the power of informal learning as it is a path that we feel we have little control over. Informal learning is a method that can easily go ‘under the radar’ or even ‘missing in action’. Yet the informal learning path is ever present. We just don’t know how to embrace it, leverage it and effectively measure it to prove to our stakeholders that there is a better way.
Let us pause and reflect on some key differences between our desired destination and our current state. Some of the key characteristics of informal learning include that it is self directed in nature, learnt largely through our experience and discussing our insights or questions with others. Informal learning is not new, we learnt how to do many things, from learning to walk, making friends, to solving our home storage crisis – largely through our own trial and error. In life we have typically also learnt a lot through formal learning. We have been through an education system, where we we have relied on others to set a path for us to follow and spoon feed us insights.
Typically informal learning is less visible, it happens in the moment and there are less signposts indicating ‘learning has occurred here today’. In contrast with training, it is very structured, it requires an organised meeting time, often with associated artifacts to take from that learning and hence it is very visible.
Informal learning, by it’s nature starts from a place of desire from the learner. ‘I wonder how to do this..’, ‘what’s is this all about?’, ‘could you show me how to do that?’. A sense of wonderment is a powerful learning tool.
Where as training represents the status quo. It comes with expectations, ‘prove it’, ‘show me’, ‘tell me’, ‘entertain me’. It is easily tracked and can keep law makers happy because we can prove we have checked the right boxes, all the relevant knowledge has been consumed – ‘we are safe to proceed sir!’.
Informal learning has exponential impact when it is transformed into ‘social learning’ through the use of colloboration technologies. Instead of accepting the nearest persons’ answer, we can tap into a digital social network for a better answer – although we must have the confidence and trust to do it.
How do we chart a course to leverage informal learning, whilst at the same time sensibly utilize our training addiction for what what it is best designed for? Like any good learning, the answer rely’s on us experimenting. Experiments I’m currently trying, include being much more deliberate about mashing up the learning experience. Using the best parts of each of the learning modes, to get a better result, with a clear aim of building a path that leads learners to cross the threshold from their addiction to training, to something that requires more pro-active engagement.
Follow me on twitter or my blog to read more about some of my efforts to leverage the power of informal and social learning.
Check out also the following resources on informal and social learning.
Please respond with your thoughts and favorite links on the topic:
- What is informal learning? – Jay Cross
- Where Social Learning Thrives - Marcia Conner
- Challenges and Failures are great tools for learning – Sumet Moghe
- 8 reasons to focus on informal and social learning, Charles Jennings, (Slideshare)
- Is Your Training Path Full of Traffic Lights (Instead of Roads)? Trina Rimmer
- The catalyst to updated learning and performance – Lars Hyland
- The new social learning isn’t a new thing. – Sumet Moghe