Informal Learning



For most of American history, the rhythms of everyday life served to facilitate intellectual cross-fertilization. From colonial villages to frontier towns, and from urban tenements to first-ring suburbs, American life was long centered uniquely on what Tocqueville and others termed “townships.” Yes, distinctions like race and ethnicity divided society, but while Europeans defined themselves by social class, Americans were much more focused on the neighbors who lived and worked nearby.

This article beautifully explains the negative impact social engineering, human nature, and the decline of civic institutions has had on innovation.  In the past citizens were deeply involved in civic meetings, church, and community events.  They focused less on finding personal satisfaction through family and friends.  The author cites research that suggests the reverse is now true and it is undermining our collective ability to innovate.  (Nota bene, the image used above is clearly of a European town square.  I could find no equivalent for an American city.)

Using his hometown of Buffalo as an example, he implies that the effort to become a hub for life sciences (e.g., biotechnology and pharmaceuticals) has not yet fulfilled expectations.  The reader is to infer that this could be explained by a lack of professional diversity, as is noted in the quote above.

Very few, if any, of us will ever influence a community the size of Buffalo.  However, we all affect our work community.  When compiling work teams, look for contributors from non-obvious or seemingly unrelated departments.  Create opportunities for employees to interact informally.  The author notes that “many firms allow researchers to spend a portion of their time exploring topics beyond the projects at hand.”  If the past is precedent, innovation will follow.

I’ll close this post with another example from the author.

Detroit, for example, didn’t become the global motor-vehicle mecca by design. Rather, random interactions among engine designers, ship builders, and carriage manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century created a mashup of ideas on the shores of the Detroit River, and from that intellectual ferment emerged the mass production of automobiles.


This article was a the top of my list from top articles on learning from 2013.  There are so many goodies here that I’m afraid I would plagiarize the entire article if I commented on everything I like in it.  Before I comment on the top excerpts I will offer a few general thoughts.

For years I have sensed a change was at hand in the learning world.  The days of event-based training programs were coming to an end due to the growth of social technologies and informal learning.  As a learning professional, the marketplace has changed.  A training/consumer is not dependent on proprietary learning programs.  In fact, those kind of large scale interventions are obsolete.  The resources (time, budget, personnel) required to develop these types of programs are unwieldy and outmoded.  I first realized this in the late 90s when I was developing CBT.  The development cycle for one 4-8 hour course was 6 months.  The training I was developing was for early Internet technologies.  Even then, before the days of perpetual beta, the technologies were evolving within that 6 month time frame.  As a result, we should have been planning the course update as we released the course.  If that was the case 15 years ago, how much more is the imperative for just in time information now.

The excerpts below address the issues I raise and more. NOTE: L&D stands for learning and development which I prefer of training.

Equally, I asked myself, why would people prefer to get information and learn through the intermediation of their L&D department if they have the alternative of doing so faster and more easily from other practitioners and colleagues, or people in their network who may or may not work in the same team, company or country as them? Especially if they can gain that knowledge and expertise without leaving their desk or workflow.

The answer, I believe, is ‘they wouldn’t’.

Under this view, Learning and Development has to change its focus from a provider of information to an enabler of information access.

[P]eople will only know that through developing a level of trust in their sources of information and learning. And they will develop trust relationships by using the information, advice and expertise they’re provided with.  If they find it helps them get their work done better, faster or smarter then they’re more likely to ask again, and a competence trust relationship builds.

Embedded in this approach is a commitment to learn and pursue expertise.  Not only does the L&D department have to change its approach, but the learner has to take a more active role in their development.

L&D specialists should be focusing on understanding critical business problems that are being caused by underperformance and then working with stakeholders to design the best ways to solve them.  This may, or may not, involve designing, developing and delivering physical or virtual training, eLearning or some other intervention.

This is why I am certified in Human Performance Technology.  If an intervention does not address or solve a critical business problem than it may not be worth developing.

[P]eople “will always use the easiest and fastest way possible to find information”. If they have difficult-to-navigate interfaces, or if anything gets in the way, then they will go elsewhere if they think there’s an easier option for them.

This is a critical challenge to L&D.  I am a strong proponent of lean design.  As the author says later in this paragraph, “If Google created any obstacles, it would not be first choice.”


Chief Learning Officer Magazine has an article in its January edition focusing on learning trends for the coming year.  Guess what?  Its all about mobility.  Whether its custom apps, QR codes, or video, the future is about getting the right information when you need it and in a format you can use.

I have advocated a learning approach that focused less on event-based learning and more on raw content for years (see my post from two years ago on personalized learning).  In a time when resources are tight, formal training should focus on the big picture.  Too many hours are spent preparing training that could be communicated more effectively through informal channels, such as blogs or podcasts.

A more nimble approach to training is possible and appropriate as mobile devices become more commonplace.  It is not necessary to allocate long hours to create formal training for most topics.  It is not necessary to produce polished training documents.  Today’s learner is used to content being rough around the edges.  There is a higher premium on timeliness and accuracy than on polish and comprehensiveness.

Yesterday a colleague was discussing one of my posts (thanks for reading Bob) and I told him that part of my reason for posting what I did was to clear shortcuts off my desktop.  Like most people I get email digests on articles that might be interesting to me.  As a way to manage my inbox I skim articles that may be interesting/useful and create a shortcut on my desktop for the ones I want to read later.  In other words, I am taking clutter out of my inbox and moving it to my desktop.  It ain’t perfect but it works.

My colleague, Bob, tried to explain a way I could use functionality in Google Chrome (or was it Firefox?) to manage these shortcuts without clogging my desktop.  I don’t think it was bookmarks but honestly I can’t remember (sorry Bob).

This brings me to my point.  The best advice, recommendation, insight, tip, etc is worthless if the person is not in the right frame of mind to process it and incorporate it into their routine, skill set, knowledge base, etc.  This is one of my chief complaints about event-based training.  If the only opportunity a person has to learn something is during a live, face-to-face event it is likely the learner will miss out on some valuable information.

Why does this happen?  Here are some reasons that come to mind quickly.

  • People are overwhelmed with all the new information
  • People don’t have the experience/pre-requisite knowledge to understand what is being taught
  • Distractions (This was the case in my example above)
  • Instructional strategies that don’t match the content or learning preferences of the audience

Providing handouts helps but it still puts a lot of responsibility on the learner.  They have to take good notes, which isn’t always easy or accurate.  The learner also have to take the initiative to go back to them when they need an answer.

Providing digital resources can also extend the learning and compliment the materials provided in class.  Its also helpful to encourage networking in class and support it beyond the event itself.

If this is true for training imagine what its like at a person’s desk with all the distractions there.

A water cooler has long been a metaphor for where you get the real scoop of what is going on around an office.  With the growth of social technologies, the water cooler has been digitized.  Savvy employees know where to find an answer when they need it.  The problem is that not everyone is digitally savvy.

What can an organization do to overcome this obstacle?  Below are some tips.

  • Encourage your employees to be entrepreneurial learners not enterprise learners.  Entrepreneurial learners are able to navigate “the ever-moving flows of activities and knowledge, ‘because in this new world of flows, participating in these knowledge flows is an active sport.’ Furthermore, in this new world of constant flux “learning has as much to do with  creating the new as learning the old’.”
    “[E]nterprise learners” simply follow the course that has been set for them.”
  • Be an information DJ.  “Buzz happens because we’re “information DJs”: we take in information and enjoy it but at the same time we also think about whom else might like it as well. With our social media and other technology, often this effect is intensified. As we share it, we often get rewarded for this behavior because if we’ve shared information on say, Facebook or Twitter, our status is elevated — something most of us like. The seed to a meme begins with our mentalizing about others we know, preparing us to direct information to the right people and in such a way to tap into their intrinsic interests.”
  • Develop a system for storing, cataloging, and retrieving information (e.g., an LMS or LCMS).
  • Reward the employees who contribute actively to the LMS and who share their skills and knowledge. (H/T Topyx)

Google recently announced that it is “launching an initial set of Google+ features designed specifically for businesses.”  If you don’t know, Google+ is a social networking platform similar to Facebook.  The plan is to make Google+ available to companies that are already using Google Apps.  This move has great implications from a performance improvement perspective.  Let me tell you why.

Informal learning has been a hot topic in learning circles for several years.  The struggle has always been to capture the dynamic of the water cooler without losing its value.  By adding social networking features to Google Apps an organization can bring the water cooler to everyone’s work space.  I will attempt to provide some examples of how this can work.

An analyst becomes aware of a shipping problem at the warehouse.  He contacts the supervisor to get a status report on the problem.  Using the Hangouts On Air feature, the two discuss the problem and work out a resolution via video chat.

The entire process can take minutes to complete.  The analyst and warehouse supervisor do not need schedule a meeting or even be in the same location.  The conversation can be recorded and shared for everyone in the organization to access or it can be shared with specific groups (called Circles in Google+).   When the video is posted viewers can comment and ask questions just like they comment on a post in Facebook.

The Circles feature is another great way to encourage and facilitate collaboration.

A circle enables you to decide who has access to information.  If a work group is created to develop a new sales strategy they can collaborate in a circle.  Throughout the process they can share selected information with other circles to solicit feedback or provide updates.  They can add members as the needs of the project dictate.  When the project is complete they can share their final report with other circles.

These are just two examples of how Google+ can improve an organization’s performance.  The company I work for uses Google Apps.  We have stretched the docs and sites features to improve collaboration within the corporate office and with our remote locations.  I think the social aspect of Google+ would take the work we have done already to an entirely new level.

This article provides practical ways to leverage social media to improve your business.  A recently as last year I was essentially clueless when it came to social networking.    I had a Linkedin account but never used it.  I was not on Facebook.  I maintained this blog but it consists largely of one-way communication.  I’ve come a long way in a year but still have lots of room to grow.  I’m still not on Twitter and I have not developed a strategy for integrating my different “feeds.”

From a learning perspective, social networks are extremely powerful.  I have felt for many years that “event-based” training should not be the only means for developing your employees.  The marketplace and is too fluid for that model and learning is far more dynamic.  In the article linked above, the author notes “at almost no cost we can connect with like minded tribes globally at scale and speed. We can share ideas and knowledge in words, images and with the virtual face to face technologies of online video that transcends time and place.  Knowledge transfer is almost instantaneous.” [emphasis mine]

Social networks (and networking) adds value to learning but the author also cites characteristics of companies that will benefit the most from social technologies.

  • High percentage of knowledge workers
  • Business success is dependent on brand recognition and consumer perception
  • Need to build credibility and trust to sell their products and services
  • Digital distribution of products and services
  • Experiential or inspirational products and services

If that weren’t enough he cites research that found 10 ways social networking can add value within and across and enterprise.  Check it out!

Next Page »