Controversy over Informal Learning

When the book on informal learning came out, nay-sayers attacked me as some kind of loony. Some still do. I’ve got a thick skin.

QUESTION: How do you know that informal learning works?
ANSWER: How did you learn to walk and talk? How did you learn to kiss?

QUESTION: How can you measure what people learn?
ANSWER: By judging what they do. Has their performance improved?

QUESTION: How can we assess the ROI of informal learning?
ANSWER: Cost-benefit analysis. But hold it, how to you assess the ROI of formal learning?

QUESTION: How do you know learning on the job is 80% informal?
ANSWER: Study after study arrives at that figure but it’s a generality. It depends on the context: what’s to be learned, who’s learning it, and where’s the learner starting from. The important thing is that informal learning is too important to overlook.

QUESTION: Do you want a doctor or pilot who learned informally?
ANSWER: Informal learning is only part of the solution. I want my doctors and pilots to have learned both formally and through experience. Yes, I want them to engage in frequent conversation with their peers.

QUESTION: How do you know if people really learn this way?
ANSWER: You ask them how they learned to do what they’re doing. Studies find that only 15% of what’s learning in formal workshops shows up as changed behavior on the job. Can informal learning do any worse?

Despite the criticism, many readers were very supportive. I expected managers and executives to flock to informal learning. Corporations leave money on the table — lots of it — by not investing in the combination of working and learning that really works.

What happened? Not much. Companies continued to put almost all of the training budget into schooling novices. They acted as if the natural way of informal learning didn’t exist. Or was someone else’s responsibility. They largely squandered the opportunity to increase their effectiveness by becoming networked learning organizations. I think I’ve figured out why.


Business people confuse learning with schooling.

For the better part of twenty years, school indoctrinated us that formal learning was the legitimate way to learn, that teachers and books provided the knowledge one needed to master, and that grades were the measure of accomplishment.

It’s easy to poke fun at the foibles of schooling. Learning is active and most schooling is passive. What’s taught in school is often superficial, boring, and irrelevant. Since school learning isn’t reinforced in real life, most of what’s learned is forgotten before it can be put to use. Could you pass your college’s final exams? Grades that once seemed so important turn out to be meaningless outside of school systems.

Nonetheless, most corporate training departments are modeled on schools. They deal with learners who are enrolled. They provide top-down classes and rigid content. They take attendance, administer tests, and certify participation. They let non-training learning fall between the cracks.

The Road Not Taken

Nick Shackleton-Jones commented on a post on Jane Hart’s blog about this topic:

From Jay’s ‘engineering’ perspective the lack of investment in informal learning does seem perplexing, I agree. But unless learning professionals can demonstrate that they can really add to informal learning it is hard to justify this investment – I suppose that if you are successfully running a bakery, why would the business fund you to start up a newspaper?

I replied:

Nick, you nailed. When it comes to learning, some of the bakers already have expertise in running newspapers: they understand how people learn. They know that traditional training is ineffective. They appreciate that learning entails more than exposing people to content. They mouth the words that most learning is informal, social, and experiential. I guess I’m calling for chief learning officers to put what’s good for the company ahead of what’s good for their traditional department.

David Price followed up:

It feels counter-intuitive in command-and-control systems to trust that people will not veer off, if left to pursue their own learning…. So, the biggest challenge was convincing teachers that they still had a vital role to play in supporting (but not directing) informal learning. Feeling irrelevant is no doubt the challenge too for CLOs!

Trust is at the heart of this. If you don’t trust people to do what’s right, you can’t support informal learning. We’ll return to this subject.

In the next couple of posts, I’m going to point out how the world has changed since the book came out and things I’d do differently were I writing the book today.