Informal Learning – CLO April 06

The Low-Hanging Fruit Is Tasty

The higher you go, the farther you see. Recent research finds that CLOs work on short-term efficiency while other C-level officers look beyond to long-term prosperity. The CEOs, CFOs, CIOs and other longer-tenured C-level officers look to learning to build the capacity to transform the business. Their goals are long-term, qualitative and aspirational. CLOs are more focused on short-term improvements in how learning takes place. They work with business units to make training more efficient. They introduce technology and innovation to streamline the delivery of learning.

Go forward a few years, and our current notion of learning grows obsolete. The pace of change itself is accelerating. In the past, workers learned how to do something. In the future, they will need to learn what changed last night. In the past, execution required knowledge and skill. Future execution will require ingenuity, alacrity and innovation.

From now on, it might be more productive to think of learning as adaptation to change than as acquisition of knowledge. Learning enables you to participate successfully in life, at work and in the groups that matter to you. The faster the world changes, the more adaptation is required.

Formal training programs are not the only learning game in town. CLOs who spend the bulk of their time improving the development and delivery of training might be optimizing the insignificant. Consider this:

  • According to Tom Gilbert and Peter Dean, training only accounts for 10.5 percent of the total potential change in worker behavior. Clarity of objectives, working conditions and other factors are more important.
  • According to the Institute for Research on Learning, at most, formal training only accounts for 20 percent of how people learn their jobs. Most workers learn their jobs from observing others, asking questions, trial and error, calling the help desk and other unscheduled, largely independent activities.
  • According to Robert Brinkerhoff and Stephen Gill, people who do attend formal training never apply 80 to 90 percent of what they learn back on the job. They forget the bulk of what they’re exposed to in a matter of days.

So, formal training accounts for 20 percent x 20 percent x 10 percent of the possible improvements you can make to worker performance. That’s 0.4 percent. To account for potential double-counting and other quirks, let’s say training might influence 1 percent of worker potential. C-level officers who want the human capacity to thrive over the long haul are looking for more.

Over the past year, I’ve talked with dozens of organizations about informal alternatives to formal training, particularly what I call “free-range learning.” The workplace is becoming increasingly democratized as knowledge work becomes the norm and workers become more independent. Knowledge workers want you to state your expectations and then leave them alone. Knowledge workers resent it when you try to connect the dots for them.

Free-range learning entails workers taking part in meaningful conversations, listening to and telling stories, building personal trust networks that yield advice quickly and learning things in small chunks as needed. Workers shoulder responsibility not only for learning, but also for instructional design.

Informal and formal learning are ranges along a continuum. Formal learning is like riding a bus: The driver decides where the bus is going, and the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: The rider chooses the destination, the speed and the route.

Free-range learning is purposeful activity. Experience finds that most workers are more exacting instructors than the trainers who once filled the role. Informal learning is effective because it is personal. The individual calls the shots. It’s real. It’s self-service.

Frequently, the best way to take advantage of informal learning is to get out of its way. Less is more. Informal learning has no need for the busywork, chrome and bureaucracy that accompany typical corporate training. Informal learning is the low-hanging fruit of worker development. Shouldn’t taking advantage of it be part of every CLO’s mission?