Social and Informal Learning : Pt 3 of the Four Greatest Challenges Series

There is a very funny scene in the Molière’s play: Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme. In it, the eponymous hero, Mr.Jourdain, is conned by a cash strapped hanger on, Dourante, who convinces the snobbish, rather stupid, central character that he can improve his chances of moving up the social scale. At one point he attempts to teach the master of the house French grammar. Mr Jourdain, responds to this new knowledge in amazement: “To think, I have been speaking prose for over forty years and I didn’t know it!”

In some ways, social and informal learning can almost be seen like that. It has been going on since human beings learnt anything. It is a fundamental part of what differentiates human beings from all other species, and yet if you went to a corporate learning conference, you would think that it had been invented two years ago and everyone was just about to implement it!

Social and informal learning is not the greatest challenge facing learning leaders because they now have to implement it, it is the greatest challenge because leveraging social and informal learning massively increases the impact of any formal programs and is a fundamental building block to developing a learning culture and a learning organisation. If you seriously want learning to be seen as the domain and responsibility of everyone. If you want learning to explode all over your organisation and not just occur on courses you happen to have organised, then, the key to success, is harnessing social and informal learning, and making it more efficient, more conscious, and more effective.

This challenges the assumptions around the nature of role of the learning leader, and implies that the entire learning team needs to focus on the context in which learning takes place. This opens up the possibility of exploiting opportunities for learning all over the organisation that are embedded into the experience of work, in order to maximise the opportunities for skill development and behaviour change. It therefore shifts the emphasis away from the development and deployment of courses, to the building of a work/learn environment within the workplace. This is very challenging but ultimately opens the door to realigning the role, scope and concept of learning at work.

So what is wrong with deploying a course catalogue and having people sign up to? There are four compelling reasons to shift focus.

The pace of change in most organisations far outstrips the ability of the learning team to develop and deliver new courses. This traditional process is fundamentally broken.

Neuroscience tells us in ever more strident terms, that the course, on its own, will not deliver the behaviour change necessary to embed the learning into practice. Without this behavioural change, staff will not be able to keep pace with the emerging needs and demands placed on them by their organisations. As organisations change, the nature of work changes as well. This requires not just new knowledge and new skills but sometimes entirely new approaches and certainly new behaviours.

If your overall vision, is to generate learning everywhere and at the point of need, the dotting of courses randomly throughout the calendar year will create insufficient opportunity to learn what is necessary. It also creates a sense of dependence, and a feeling that learning is not the responsibility of the learner but someone else’s problem. This separates out the need to share knowledge from the learning process, and builds a dependency culture. We need new ways of thinking about learning, and new models to apply learning within organisations.

The provision of a course programme absolves virtually everybody from any responsibility for the success of new learning, apart from the learning team. This means that no one else takes any kind of responsibility for encouraging and supporting the learning process. To build a “learning everywhere” culture you need the active involvement of the executive decision-makers, line managers and individuals.

We Knew All About This a Long Time Ago

A lot of the research around adult informal learning dates back to the late 1960s and the pioneering work of the Canadian academic Allen Tough. He based his conclusions, on hundreds of interviews with adults that were conducted in the Toronto area. What he found was that the vast majority of adult learning is self-directed rather than aligned with formal learning programmes. Contrary to the received wisdom; that most adults stop learning as soon as they leave formal learning environments such as universities or apprenticeship schemes, Tough found that adults from all walks of life have usually,at least two learning projects on the go, and many had six or seven. They can be simple, functional projects, or more complex ones. He concluded that learning informally is an inherent part of adult survival and enjoyment of life.

The extrapolation into the workplace is obvious. If you can make it easy for the workforce to take on their own learning projects, however small, and begin to share not just the results that their consequent expertise, you create a genuine excitement around learning and build a hub of of learning activity. Why it has taken 50 years for these simple truths to be explored may link with the timing of the research that Gagné and others were undertaking. They were unpacking and exploring formal structures of learning and building the new science of instructional design at exactly the same time. The fascination with getting the formal learning right, seems to have pushed informal learning into the background. What is now pushing it out from the shadows, is the pace of change, and the need to accelerate learning.

You can couple this, with the advent of Google and YouTube. If you want to learn about almost anything, the chances of you signing up for a formal course are miniscule. There are enough “How to” YouTube videos available at the minute you need to learn. This has destroyed many markets for formal programmes. Ask any adult how they start to learn something new, the vast majority will say “Google” or if it is specific the their work; a friend or colleague. This has changed our attitude to learning and made us far more impatient about getting what we want, the minute we want it.

What should the learning team do with these insights? The first thing is that any learning team needs to embrace a number of key activities that might have previously been out of scope. These include informal learning, performance support, and learning through stretch assignments short-term projects. These all work in harmony with formal learning events and help embed the learning.

The focus has to be on helping individuals and teams in the workforce become more flexible and resilient and take charge of their own learning destinies. They can best do this if tools are set up that enable them to learn from each other regardless of geography. This is an output model not an input model. The focus is not on content but on enablement.

Thirdly, the learning team has a role in not only facilitating and organising access to courses and learning programmes, but also access to resources, people and knowledge as it is churned and created on a day-to-day basis. This is about continuous learning based on developing high-performance workforce in a high performance culture.

There are significant implications for the whole learning ecosystem. Is not just members of the learning team but the suppliers of courses, programmes and LMS that need to adapt. Building great learning environments is not the same as developing a huge course catalogue!

Amongst the papers that Charles Jennings has prepared as background material for his 70:20:10 Forum are a number of suggestions for practical application of informal learning, he suggests:

• Providing the chance to work as a member of a small team
•Identifying opportunities to reflect and learn from projects
• Directly intervening after a formal learning programme to create opportunities to immediately apply new learning and new skills in real situations.
• Specifically building a new role or adding to an existing role in a systematic way.
Build assignments that provide broad, holistic experience.

I would add to these:

• Develop a job role in stages, so that the individual can build on each learning experience to create a more complex and holistic role.
• In the early stages of undertaking a new job, expect and even demand that learning is built into the process.
• Expect less performance in the early stages of undertaking a new job and encourage more conscious reflection on how the job works.
• Create opportunities for access to performance support resources .
• Gradually extend the range of autonomy given to an individual as they take on more responsibility and gain competence.
• Offer plenty of feedback so that the learning on the job has clear outcomes and the performance levels expected are clearly identified.
Build in time for discussion on a regular basis, so that the individual can work out what has been achieved and what still needs to be undertaken.

I think this is a pretty good agenda for action.

This article is based on a forthcoming book entitled The Learning Challenge which will be published next year.

2 Responses to “Social and Informal Learning : Pt 3 of the Four Greatest Challenges Series” - Leave a Comment

  1. I love the idea of harnessing social and informal techniques to make learning explode all over your organisation – what a great way of putting it. Social learning is not about businesses adopting and implementating something, it’s about rolling up our sleeves and getting involved with what’s already happening.

  2. Technology and delivery mechanisms are only just catching up with the natural way people learn. The biggest challenge is not getting people to be self-directed learners at work – as you point out – this is what they have already done – rather it is changing company culture where individuals, managers and leaders all expect (despite their different use of learning tools like Google) to have to be taught in order to learn. Nigel, how do you think we’ll best be able to change the mindset and learning culture in organizations? Is it even possible?

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