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Want Results? Champion the Informal

Learning is more important than ever. We have an information explosion. The world is becoming more complex. We have to learn more just to keep living our lives. That doesn’t mean we need more from training departments, however.

We need to pay more attention to experiential learning, and we need to look at peer-to-peer learning. A lot of the courses out there are absolute garbage. Worse, if you look at behavior on the job, you’d be lucky to find 15 percent of outcomes are based on something learned in a course.

A formal learning structure is not a good model for learning today. Instead, look at ways people can accelerate learning. Have managers set stretch goals for employees and encourage individual initiative.

And I have to comment on e-learning. E-learning covers all manner of sins. There’s great stuff out there, and you can take part in it at 2 a.m. if you want. But there’s also some absolute garbage shovel-ware that nobody should have to endure. When the “e” is for electronic, that says nothing about quality.

I first heard about informal learning a dozen years ago at a conference in Orlando, Fla. Peter Henschel from the Institute on Learning described how they sent anthropologists to an insurance company to investigate how people learned their jobs. The scientists discovered that more than 80 percent of the way people learned was informal. There was no control. It was, “Hey, I’m going to watch you. You’re good at this. I’m going to mimic your behavior.” Or, I try something, make a mistake, and say, “Whoops, I’m not going to do that again.”

Most of this doesn’t happen in training classes. Research in Canada, Massachusetts and a number of other places, usually with government funding, found generally 80 percent of the way people learn their jobs is informally.

When I say informal, I mean learners are in control of the learning. They choose the learning experience they want. Maybe the boss said, “It would be good for you to speak French; I’m sending you on an assignment in France.” It’s a lot different from a top-down structure.

That’s what got me into informal learning, but what got me writing about it — because deep down I’m a business guy at heart — is that all the money was going into formal training and almost all of the learning was happening informally. This mismatch didn’t sit right with my soul.

The explanation for the anomaly is often training departments work only with novices, and training novices takes a sort of school focus. You have an empty vessel and you try to fill it. Training departments seem to overlook employees who are further along in their profession, figuring they’re not going to go for it.

Knowing that learning is now social, mobile and collaborative is keeping CLOs up at night. They tell me so. Learning happens in social networks. It happens during the course of work. This is brand new turf for the profession, and they have scant experience with it.

As for metrics, the appropriate metrics for learning are, “Are they doing the job better?” The intermediate part I don’t care about. The fiction that’s been going around since the ’50s, that you have four tiers — How happy are they? Can they repeat it back? Can they actually do anything? and Did it do anything for the business? — I say to hell with the first three. All that matters is whether it did anything for the business.

The person who makes a difference in metrics is the person who has checkbook power. If that person is convinced that workers did this, and they’re performing better as a result, I’ll buy it. It’s never going to be three-point accuracy. It’s like in marketing, where we can’t tell which part of the advertising leads to sales. We’re never going to be very precise, but if we’re believed, that’s all it takes to get the budget and make things happen.

Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.