Advocates of the most laissez-faire approaches informal learning suggest that given the right tools employees will do just fine without all the interference by the learning department.
No one can argue that experience is not a powerful teacher, or that our most valuable learning occurs while working. But it’s pretty broad generalization don’t you think? Some experiences must be more valuable than others for achieving learning and performance goals. And if so, what makes those experiences more valuable and how do we know them when we see them? Or, from the perspective of the learning professional, how can we help create the right experiences to help people develop their skills? These seem to be important questions if we are to get beyond loose approaches to informal learning.
Research in developing expertise has shown that not all experience is created equal. Years of experience in a domain does not invariably lead to expert levels of performance. Most people after initial training and a few years of work reach a stable, acceptable level of performance and maintain this level for much of the rest of their careers. Contrast that with those that continue to improve and eventually achieve the highest levels of expertise. High performers may have 20 years experience but average performers seem to have 1 year of experience 20 times!
The following chart from the body of research on developing expertise, illustrates the results of different types of “experience” on workplace performance.
Average performers learn just enough from their environment (experience) to perform everyday skills with a minimal amount of effort. In contrast, experts continually challenge their current performance and seek feedback from their environment to stay in a more or less permanent learning state, mastering everyday skills but continuously raising their personal bar. This deliberate approach to learning from experience is what separates top performers from the norm. Continuously challenging current skills is hard work and it takes it’s toll. Some decrease or stop their focus on deliberate practice and never achieve the excellence of the expert (arrested development).
So, performance does not improve simply through cumulative everyday experience. It requires targeted effortful practice an environment rich in accurate and timely feedback. That does not mean formal training. It does means experiences designed and targeted to develop skills and expertise. This is a very different thing than routine, everyday work experience.
Some of the best learning approaches that work well in helping people challenge their current skill levels fall into that fuzzy middle ground between formal and informal learning (see this post for a continuum of learning experiences) and can include the following:
- Cognitive Apprenticeship
- Simulations and other surrogates for authentic experience
- Feedback systems (built into work-flow)
- Action learning
Designing, fostering and supporting work experiences that develop expertise is an emerging role for the learning professional. That role is to assure that people are working in a setting where they can challenge and develop their knowledge and skills. You can’t make them learn but you can help surround them with the resources they need to learn. This approach to learning is truly a partnership between the individual, their managers and you as a learning professional. In doing that work you are practicing and developing your own expertise.