Given all the attention paid lately to informal learning, you’ve probably seen pie charts like the one on the right. Formal learning’s a sliver of most workers’ lives, so it makes sense to devote time and resources to supporting informal learning opportunities.
Sources of informal learning
In a workplace where learning developers pretty much stick to the training rooms, it’s useful to consider the varied sources of information, templates, and thinking models learners tap into when not in formal training. For example learners may learn:
- From their own managers
- From co-workers who’ve been assigned to mentor them or who naturally share information within their own department
- From workers and managers in other departments during team meetings and when information is needed from these departments to complete projects
- From internal documents on company servers or accessed via LMS/CMS platforms
- From external resources – search engines, databases, social networks (wikis, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc)
Internal documents can include:
- Documents that are identified as templates or as “good examples” of a project (e.g., by managers or co-workers)
- Documents that learners have identified as templates and which they’ve discovered through random searches
- Documents from team meetings
- Executive summaries (not widely distributed in most cases)
- Competitive intelligence reports (also, generally not widely distributed throughout the company)
- Company patents and patent applications (access to non-published patent applications may be quite limited)
- Summaries of branding messages (again, these may not be widely distributed)
Workers may actually go to external resources first for a variety of reasons:
- Internal files are stored using inconsistent naming conventions and search engines in LMS/CMS systems are inefficient or absent
- They don’t have access to documents outside of their immediate communities of practice
- When files are found, it’s not clear that these represent best practices
- The parameters of a problem just aren’t addressed by any legacy documents; there’s a sense that competitors are “doing it better” or that the answers can be found in analogous but somewhat divergent fields
- External sources record and/or share more about ways of thinking and “how-to” information associated with a problem (arguably, if these sources are professionals who use social networks, by definition, they have a “sharing” mindset)
I’m taking the somewhat cynical view here that this hypothetical company is one where people have every good intention of sharing information but that time constraints and work pressures make this process inefficient.
Where the learning developer fits in
Invariably, when you hear about informal learning, you hear about social networks, communities of practice, and performance support. None of these avenues to informal learning are particularly new. A challenge is to create a culture where workers are excited about sharing information and feel comfortable reaching across their immediate communities of practice (and the silos which these can become) to the communities represented by their teams and the organization as a whole. By “sharing information” I don’t just mean sharing content, but sharing divergent ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving. It’s also a challenge to make opportunities for sharing part of the natural work flow of increasingly busy workers.
What can learning developers do to help when the environment is not quite optimized in this way? What can learning developers do to help create an environment to become more optimal?
Learning developers are certainly facilitators here (though I submit this is their proper role even in formal learning environments). There are opportunities for:
- Teaching managers how to train (this includes teaching managers to provide feedback and to use performance evaluations as actual learning opportunities)
- Creating dynamic performance support tools when it makes more sense to provide these than to train
- Developing a learning environment that fits the organization’s needs (You wouldn’t conduct training without needs assessment, why would you implement a LMS/CMS without assessing how your learners will optimally use it? This effort implicates learning developers, the IT department, and those in the trenches who will be using the LMS/CMS. )
- Becoming a community leader who makes learners aware of internal company resources (both documents and human resources) and models best practices for using these through internal social networks (e.g., microblogging networks, forums, and wikis)
- Helping learners develop best practices for using a LMS/CMS and facilitating the creation of dynamic communities of practice around projects/larger team efforts
- Using learning environments to foster innovation (more about this in another post)
- Involving workers who are often viewed in an adversarial light as part of a positive community of learners (e.g., providing a forum for company attorneys to blog about best practices for handling company communications and to interact with other employees on a more social level)
- Helping workers use external technologies and platforms (This means more than merely providing workers with a performance support tool that outlines the company’s social media policies, but demonstrating positive examples of social interactions and modeling how to bring information obtained from external networks back into the company.)
In other words, the role of learning developers expands rather than contracts when we view the opportunities for informal learning. An “if-you-build-it-they-will-use-it-effectively” approach to an informal learning environment just won’t do unless you want informal learning to be just “business as usual.” Informal learning is not new at all; what we do to optimize it and assess it can be quite innovative.