With the current economic situation, learning organizations have been forced to look at more innovative ways to impact the business. Informal learning has risen to the top as one of the more desired approaches to extend our reach into the lines of business we support and show more direct business impact.
The trouble is, few have actualized these expectations. A recent study through the eLearning Guild by Jane Bozarth on the adoption of social media in learning shows that although 76 percent of learning organizations aspire to include social media in their learning offerings, only 20 to 30 percent succeed. Another study by Allison Rossett and James Marshall in T+D magazine showed that except for higher education, little informal learning is in practice, even things as simple and dated as discussion boards — even though most organizations’ top aspiration is personalized learning.
With all the hype, desire, tools and incentives, why have we struggled to make the transition from formal to informal learning? My experience has been that we lack a key perspective to drive utilization and adoption: context.
In the 1990s, there was a saying in our industry: “Content is king.” We were riding the wave of technologies such as e-learning and the LMS; our ability to publish, distribute, track and maintain learning content was at an all-time high. Our efforts focused on making learning assets available on a scale never seen before. The Internet was the tipping point. The danger was that our design models focused on accessibility and not always on relevance. Our main objective was getting information and training out there, tracking it and grading it, while driving certification, credentials and compliance. Content truly was king, and it was justified.
Informal learning is a different animal. Availability is the easy part. Adoption and consumption are another matter. The fundamental difference between formal instruction and informal is its intent from the learner’s perspective. Formal learning, be it just-in-time or classroom-based, is something we’ve been able to mandate, track and grade. Learners see it as meeting a very specific need: knowledge gain. It helps them learn something for the first time or learn more based on prior knowledge. This is a powerful and important need, but counter to what drives informal learning consumption.
Informal learning meets three other needs: trying to remember or apply what’s already been learned, keeping up with change and troubleshooting a problem. Content designed to support knowledge gain is often not constructed in a way that supports these three needs.
For informal learning modalities such as embedded learning, performance support, social media and even mobile learning to work, they need to be delivered in a more contextual way. The design and integration needs to be driven by the learner’s workflow, job role or problem to be solved.
For example, many communities of practice and Web 2.0 tools struggle to gain traction because they are seen as something extra to do, not as contextual environments that help the learner solve a business problem or perform better. Social media thrives outside the workplace because it is seen as a powerful means of keeping in touch with friends, enriching hobbies or keeping up with topics of interest. In other words, the tool enhances the context in which it is used. We haven’t made this same contextual connection in the workplace. We haven’t positioned these tools as something of value based on the need being served. When a voluntary option is seen as taking time away from what’s most important and helpful, it simply won’t be consumed.
If content was king in the 1990s, when we were growing our just-in-time technologies and formal offerings, then context becomes king in driving the same level of effectiveness and adoption on the informal side today. Organizations that are rewiring their thinking around these moments of need are succeeding; those that don’t will continue to struggle.
Bob Mosher is global chief learning and strategy evangelist for LearningGuide Solutions and has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.