As more businesses take up Web 2.0 technologies like wikis, blogs and social networks, learning departments are exploring how these tools fit into an enterprisewide strategy for learning and development.
The result is a need to formalize informal learning, said Lance Dublin, learning and development consultant from California-based Dublin Consulting. Formal learning typically refers to structured learning events and programs, while informal refers to unstructured learning that happens outside the bounds of traditional learning events, whether it’s over the water cooler, in the field or through a blog or discussion forum.
“There is a third domain,” Dublin said. “That’s the domain where you use all these informal tools but you use them with intention. You put enough structure around them so they have a purpose within the organization.”
Dublin calls this non-formal learning, although he readily admits he’s not happy with that term. “What if you intentionally want to learn something, but you don’t want to learn in a formal way, what do you call that?” Dublin said.
The learning industry tends to follow fads, from computer-assisted instruction, computer-based training and interactive multimedia to performance support, Web-based training and e-learning, Dublin said. The result is a loss of credibility to organizational partners and executives.
“We’re enamored of shiny objects and false gods,” Dublin said. “We’ve not done a good job historically [of] building an honest, authentic relationship because of that.”
Informal learning has become a victim of this tendency. As it has been largely defined and used, informal learning is too vague and unfocused. Many organizations struggle to get their arms around it and as a result devalue it.
“The fact that everybody at my company texts, the fact that we now have 100 blogs at my company hasn’t really done anything for me,” Dublin said. “How do I take those tools that have been named social learning tools or informal learning tools and use them to create something new?”
According to a recent survey by enterprise content management association AIIM, business use of wikis, blogs and social networks for collaboration and knowledge sharing has doubled in the past year. While only 25 percent of surveyed organizations are using these technologies across departments, that number is up from 12 percent in 2008.
“This new survey confirms that the competitive edge set by the early adopters is robust, and that it is now time for the early majority to get on board,” said Doug Miles, AIIM head of market intelligence. “Collaboration platforms, in particular, are being driven by knowledge-sharing initiatives, as well as faster project completions, savings in travel costs and green policies.”
Researchers noted that the trend is largely driven by users, not by management, and that 71 percent of survey respondents said it is easier to locate knowledge on the Web than within their own internal systems. This finding presents an opportunity and challenge for learning organizations to create ways to formalize informal learning.
“Non-formal learning is not a tool or technology,” Dublin said. “People think that technology is the approach. A blog can be used for informal learning and a blog can be used for non-formal learning.”
Some examples of intentional non-formal learning include a blog set up by a research department to share their latest work and findings with organization at large. It could be search technology and social networking tools folded into a designed learning program or infrastructure. It could be an internal wiki for the sales department to share common sales objections and strategies for overcoming them.
“That’s not a course, so it’s not formal learning,” Dublin said. “It’s not in the LMS. But it’s not informal learning because it’s not random and it’s not open to anybody having access to it. The intention of that activity is controlled learning within that department or company.”
The opportunity lies in defining the middle between the two poles, Dublin said. Non-formal learning is structured, but not formal, intentional but not directed.
“It’s taking the best of all the worlds we know,” Dublin said. “When is structure and intentionality good? When is randomness or unintentionality good? It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.”
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