Interest in informal learning by the training function is tangible and growing.  The 2008 ASTD State of the Industry report contained a special survey section on informal learning.  The report concluded the following:

” Not only did survey participants acknowledge that informal learning plays a role in today’s workplaces, they also predicted that it would grow in the next three years. More than half of respondents reported that informal learning would increase during that time period”

When asked of the “incidence” of informal learning in their organizations, respondents had this to say:

The results are interesting for a few reasons.  First, Informal learning always has and always will be “occurring” in organizations.   We are natural learners and experience is a natural teacher.   I think the predicted increase has more to do with the heightened awareness on the part of training professionals that the vast majority of learning takes place on the job,  not in the classroom (or e-learning program) along with the current proliferation of knowledge tools.   I think the predicted increase also has to do with the training function’s intention of being more proactive in their influence and facilitation of informal learning…to formalize informal learning so to speak.

That intention will be a great thing if the efforts actually add value and don’t simply get in the way of the naturally occurring human learning already taking place.  Right now training functions are struggling to figure out what kind of services they can provide beyond providing social networking tools and letting employees have at it.   You can see evidence of the struggle in this definition of informal learning provided in the ASTD report:

“After careful deliberation, the researchers arrived at the following definition: “a learning activity that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support. Generally speaking, it takes place without a conventional instructor and is employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth, and timing. It tends to be individualized, limited in scope, and utilized in small chunks.”

huh?…defining something by what it isn’t seems the easy way out.  You can see the same struggle in the way trainers are reporting learning tools and resources being used for informal learning.  If e-mail is considered the top tool for informal knowledge sharing we have a lot of work to do.  From the ASTD study:

7 Informal Learning Services

We need to get beyond these types of generalities, and start adding clear service offerings that managers and teams can take advantage of to harness informal learning.  With that in mind here are seven services that a training function might add to their suite of services to influence organizational learning in meaningful ways.

1. Informal Learning Assessment

In the same way we now do needs assessment to identify formal skill development needs, learning consultants can analyze business processes, problem solving, and decision making methods to determine how and where informal learning solutions and mechanisms would help improve performance. This should be built into current performance analysis methods (in fact I wouldn’t even call it and informal learning assessment.  It should be one facet of a performance assessment or analysis)

2. Communities of Practice

This 20% activity on the ASTD survey needs far more traction.  It’s been around long enough to have worked out some early kinks and is a proven way to generate, share and maintain knowledge.  Many of the best CoP tools have now built web 2.0 inspired collaborative features (see Tomoye for example).  I’m a fan of Cop approaches because the focus is on the process of knowledge creation and exchange and not on the technology.  Also communities are focused around tasks and team accomplishment rather than the social meandering some “social networking” technology can result in.

Learning consultants can help teams plan, establish, build nurture and maintain communities of practice.

3. Action Learning

Another approach that has been out there and proven, especially for management development is action learning (see my previous post here). Action learning involves guided reflective learning around the completion of a real problem or task. A skilled learning consultant guides a small team through the process of doing, reflecting on results and making adjustments, that is at the heart of natural learning.

4. Performance System Design

You might simply call this job design (or re-design). There are so many things that can be hard wired into the design of a job or role that can cause incidental learning simply as a byproduct of doing.

One of the best is an effective feedback system.   No, not performance appraisal, but data driven visual feedback that is generated within the business process.  Performance feedback is frequent, specific and objective information to individuals (or teams) regarding how well they are performing against job requirements/standards.  Poor, delayed or no feedback at all breaks the chain of natural learning.

Other job design elements that will result in learning include access to information needed to do work, clear expressions of expectations, and tools necessary for good performance.   True, these resemble what line management sees as their responsibility but a good performance consultant can provide the guidance and expertise to get it right.

5. Social Media Coaching

Yes, use of social media itself facilitates learning, but how it is used can really accelerate that process. Skilled learning consultants can work with teams and coaches to help structure the use of social media to effectively capture and share learning.  To some, the notion of “structuring” the use of social media is antithetical.  But organizations have goals and collaboration has always been structured to meet those goals.  Social media as we are already seeing with corporate tools like Yammer, Mzinga, Rypple, and Kindling are already being structured for specific organizational purposes.

6. Team Development

Good old fashioned team development is informal learning.  When concerns arise with team relationships new approaches focus on the fit between the business process and human systems rather than narrowly on interpersonal conflict. Learning consultants can use simple tools and methods to help teams and individuals improve candor, feedback, resolve conflict and clarify roles in the context of business activities. The result is team learning and improvement.

7. Systems Thinking

A broad concept but one that can result in powerful learning and performance improvement.  Large scale change and improvement models from Toyota’s Lean Production System (based on Deming’s work), to Rummler-Brache performance improvement and Socio-Technical systems are all grounded in understanding organizations as systems.  Peter Senge’s fifth discipline is systems thinking.  Performance consultants skilled in the use of tools, templates and approaches for modeling an organization as a system can help managers and teams better understand their work and how to get to the deep fixes that organizations need to make both incremental and radical change.  Systems Thinking is a learning tool that results in organizational learning.

…and more

These are but seven broad ways training functions can start to add some value through informal learning consulting services. You need look no further than the sister professions of organization development and performance improvement for more, including coaching, mentoring systems and team learning activities.   I suggested here that it would be nice in the future to see organizations like Training,  OD,  process re-design etc. merge with a common mission of improving performance.  Training is the last one to the table on informal learning.  Many solutions with years with years of successful use and refinement are already available if we can find ways to better combine resources.

By the way, I don’t think learning functions should abandon their focus on formal, structured learning.  I do think they should do less of it and improve its quality.  More on that next time.

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3 Responses
  1. […] Skilled facilitation through team development, real time problem solving and process improvement efforts move learning in the direction needed to build individual and organizational capability.  Organizational Development, Human Performance Technology,  Senge inspired Organizational Learning have all produced sophisticated methods for results focused learning in job settings.  After initial training, as job expertise develops through experience, less formal learning interventions are more effective for shaping culture, building capacity, and improving performance.  I discussed some methods in my last post. […]

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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