With the dramatic decline in traditional classroom training, the increased popularity of e-learning and the emergence of a more project-based and outcome-driven learning model, it’s important to take a look at the type of learner we are trying to serve and the methods of learning many are migrating toward. I have always felt that the learners are way ahead of many of us in the training industry when it comes to what meets their instructional needs. Because of how hard we work at developing and scaling our learning programs, we’re often not the most responsive and flexible group when it comes to change. The reality of living in today’s economic and technological times is that change comes quicker and more frequently than ever. Training as an industry tends to move and adapt at a much slower pace. Although the pedagogical methods we’ve worked on for years are instructionally sound and defendable, they can quickly become outdated and ineffective as our students adapt their learning to fit today’s complex work environment.
Although more formal forms of instruction such as the classroom and e-learning will be around for years, it’s becoming more and more important to watch and harness the more informal methodologies that our students are utilizing. Most of these methods have been around for years, but have gone unnoticed by the training community. If you ask many advanced learners today, they will tell you they are gravitating toward these more informal learning methods and away from traditional ones. Understanding, tracking, creating and encouraging these informal methods of learning can reach a growing population of students you may currently be ignoring or losing touch with altogether.
Before we talk about a few of the more popular forms of informal learning, let’s take a moment to examine the reasons they are becoming so popular. The first two have to do with immediacy and relevancy. Informal methods of learning are often found right in the work environment. They are seen as techniques that a learner can take advantage of right away and with work-related resources. Another reason these methods are so popular is because they are often very short. Advanced learners tell us that they don’t have the time or budget to attend more formal learning. Even the immediacy of e-learning is seen as something that will take too much valuable time. Finally, learners have matured to a point where they want to drive their learning in a more meaningful and self-directed manner. These informal methods are seen as more student-driven and job-relevant than most formal options.
Two of the most common informal environments used today are e-communities and, of all things, the learners’ neighbors sitting all around them. E-communities, often called communities of practice, are made up of threaded message boards, frequently asked question (FAQ) Web sites and chat environments. They have existed under the radar screen of most training programs for years. Many have grown to have huge followings of subject-matter experts (SMEs) and super-users. Most vendors offer some form of these Web sites. It is time for CLOs to recognize these communities and start including them in their learning offerings. Many could be created, hosted and tracked through an LMS.
The other form of informal learning that continues to grow is often known as “the grapevine” approach. Every organization has close-knit communities of practice within every department. The problem has often been that since this network was not controlled, many companies have ignored or even discouraged its existence. Clearly peer mentoring can be distracting and unproductive if left unchecked, but if fostered correctly, it can be very powerful, especially for the experienced learner. The easiest way to control and encourage these communities is to sponsor them within the corporation itself. “Brown-bag” lunches and meet-the-expert days are some examples of ways organizations are formally tapping into what used to be an ineffective and costly method of learning.
Informal learning has always coexisted with formal learning, and will continue to do so. With the maturation of our learners and the advent of collaboration technologies, informal learning can become a powerful part of a company’s robust learning offering.
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning. He has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. For more information, e-mail Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.