Getting Formal About Informal Learning

My Internet Time Alliance colleague, Charles Jennings, pointed me to this interesting article by Andries De Grip, titled “The importance of informal learning at work” that has interesting implications for the design of learning experiences, particularly when employees are not desk-bound, and/or in high-turnover situations. The key is to get clear about what informal learning is, and more importantly how to (and not to) leverage it.

An initial premise is that research suggests that “much of the performance of newly hired workers is driven by learning by doing or learning from peers or supervisors in the workplace.” That isn’t necessarily a surprising outcome, but compared to the heavy investment in onboarding and new hire training, it suggests that these approaches could stand to have a review.

Status quo

So what does typical new-hire preparation look like now? This is anecdotal, but it tends to be an onboarding program that includes introduction to the organization and initial training. There may also be mandatory ongoing formal learning (e.g. eLearning at some specified rate), and some coaching. And while it’s easy to understand, it’s not necessarily reflective of the reality of how we learn.

What the report points out is that most of the valuable learning we get is from new challenges, interacting with experienced colleagues, and some reading. Other elements like meetings, cooperating with less experienced colleagues, and routine work doesn’t lead to learning. Yet, we typically don’t control how these learnings happen.

Learning & Development is used to control the learning experience, and typical training sessions accomplish that. But what this report, and increasing research on informal learning shows, is that much of what’s learned comes on the job. This includes what managers and supervisors do, what colleagues have created as the local mythology, and more.

Getting Social

When employees are away from their desks, whether in meetings, out dealing with customers, or repair work, their learning is informal. Conversations are the primary factor. As Jay Cross said, “conversations are the stem cells of learning”. And if these aren’t in line with what’s been officially decreed, the local learning is more likely to be the received wisdom.

We learn from others, it’s how we learned before we developed training! We had apprenticeships as an earlier model. It’s natural to understand that we learn more working and getting feedback. And, as the article suggests, when working you’re doing tasks most of the time, whereas in training tasks may be 35% or less of the time.

Conversational value depends on who the conversation is with. Conversations with more experienced performers are more valuable than conversations with less experienced performers. The value of getting feedback is accelerated when it’s from someone who has more knowledge.

What’s conveyed by conversation is affected by context. Is this challenge within the employee’s current range? There’s a sweet spot between where the individual isn’t capable even with support, and where they’re already competent, and that’s where learning happens. It can be hard to drive that, but that’s when the right conversation is optimum.

The learning culture matters too. In environments where it’s not safe to ask questions, as they might be held against you, learning will be stunted. Similarly, if sharing knowledge is viewed as reducing your value to the organization, sharing won’t happen.

What works

So how do you begin to take advantage of informal learning? It’s not about abandoning the formal learning, but instead creating a relationship that elegantly connects the two to accelerate learning. What’s needed is to understand how training and work relate, and design to it.

The first element is to ensure a segue from training to work. Too often, it’s assumed that there’s a connection, but it’s better if it’s designed in. A proper design includes not only training managers/supervisors to be coaches, but also to design in that coaching activity explicitly into the initial time actually performing.

Don’t assume that managers are good coaches. Increasingly, management isn’t about “managing” people, in terms of telling them what to do. There is the administration role, but you can’t be watching them all the time. So, giving limited responsibilities initially, and gradually increasing tasks is important. Regular coaching, to start, then with more observation the interventions can gradually be reduced.

Don’t forget to help employees learn how to learn as you go. Models about how to learn should be used in conversations to reinforce what comes from training (another reason for supervisor/manager training). And providing support to understand the learning resources available, from the computer in the back room to any mobile devices provided.

The manager/supervisor also has to make sure that it’s safe to ask questions, that not knowing the answer is ok, and how to escalate questions appropriately. As employees start being asked questions, they need to know they know the answer, or be willing to look further. The faster knowledge spreads, the less time situations won’t be answered in the long term.

The training itself has to be relevant to work as well. The models that guide performance, and examples, are critical, as well as chances to practice before it counts. Remove the “nice to know”; it’ll be forgotten by the time they’re overwhelmed on the job anyway. Instead, make that available as needed.

And, remove the detailed stuff. Get some basics down, and get the employees performing, with coaching. Then, dribble in more over time. If it can’t be done with face-to-face training, use eLearning. Even if you have to take time out of the schedule to make it happen, it’s going to be balanced by what you don’t have to cover in onboarding, and more effective.

The point is to move from a front-loaded formal training, to a more staggered experience. This matches how our brain actually works, and is closer to the apprenticeship model. Our shift to formal learning was for efficiency, not effectiveness. We now have the background to take the best parts of both and put them together. And we should. It makes happier and more effective employees, and better outcomes for all involved.