It’s all a matter of learning, but it’s not the sort of learning that is the province of training departments, workshops and classrooms. At work we learn more in the break room than in the classroom. We discover how to do our jobs through informal learning—observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial and error and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning—classes and workshops and online events—is the source of only 10 percent to 20 percent of what we learn at work.
Informal learning is effective because it is personal. The individual calls the shots. The learner is responsible. It’s real. How different from formal learning, which is imposed by someone else. Workers are pulled to informal learning; formal learning is pushed at them.
Nonetheless, organizations invest most of their training budgets in formal learning. This stands common sense on its head: Invest your resources where they’ll have the least impact.
Many learners today are not self-directed—they are waiting for directions. It’s time to tell them that the rules have changed. It’s in their self-interest to become proactive learning opportunists. Their reluctance is hardly surprising. Most training is built on the pessimistic assumption that the trainees are deficient. Training’s job is to fix what’s broken rather than make what’s good better. Consequences include:
- Ineffective negative reinforcement.
- Unmotivated learners.
- Learner disengagement, unrewarded curiosity, spurned creativity.
- Training instead of learning.
- Focus on fixing the individual rather than optimizing the team.
Several years ago, the late Peter Henschel, then director of the Institute for Research on Learning, posed an important question: If three-quarters of learning in corporations is informal, can we afford to leave it to chance? Here are a few suggestions of what to do.
Support the informal learning process:
- Provide time for informal learning on the job.
- Create useful, peer-rated FAQs and knowledge bases.
- Provide places for workers to congregate and learn.
- Supplement self-directed learning with mentors and experts.
- Set up help desks 24×7 for informal inquiries.
- Build networks, blogs, Wikis and knowledge bases to facilitate discovery.
- Use smart tech to make it easier to collaborate and network.
- Encourage cross-functional gatherings.
Help workers improve their learning skills:
- Explicitly teach workers how to learn.
- Support opportunities for meta-learning.
- Share ways others have learned subjects.
- Enlist learning coaches to encourage reflection.
- Calculate lifetime value of a learning “customer.”
- Explain the know-who, know-how framework.
Create a supportive organizational culture:
- Set up a budget for informal learning. (There’s no free lunch.)
- Don’t confuse “informal” with “random” or “optional.”
- Publish a statement of support for informal learning.
- Position learning as a growth experience.
- Conduct a learning culture audit.
- Add learning and teaching goals to job descriptions.
- Consider all-in cost of turnover and of not growing your own.
- Support innovation (which requires making failure “OK”).
- Encourage learning relationships.
- Support participation in professional communities of practice.
Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of meta-learninglab.com. For more information, e-mail Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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