The new workplace

Six years ago few people believed that informal learning made much of a difference. Today’s common wisdom is that most workplace learning is experiential, unplanned, social, and informal.

Informal learning tops many training department agendas. Companies are attracted by the low price tag. However, few of them are doing much systematically. They’ve converted a few programs but they’ve failed to improve their learning ecosystems.

We’ve shifted how we think about learning since the Informal Learning book came out. It’s a new ball game and we need to play by new rules. Consider what’s changed:

  • We used to think that communities of practice could only sprout up organically. Now we know we create them via artificial insemination.
  • The information explosion has hit. We create as much new information in a day as we once created in a millennium, and it’s growing exponentially. People trying to figure everything out all out by themselves are whizzing their way to overload and breakdown; collective wisdom and social filters are the only way to keep up.
  • Companies are connecting people with social network technology. Some have so embraced in-house social networking, microblogging, and discussion forums that they define themselves as “social businesses.” The merged workflow/learning that flow through these networks makes or breaks the enterprise’s sustainability.
  • Time continues to go faster. New businesses are created in a week and are acquired in less than a year. Competitors are faster on their feet.
  • Complexity theory used to be a riddle for scientists to tinker with. Today we all grapple with complexity’s outpouring of unpredictability, volatility, emergence, and uncertainty.
  • The tools for building and sustaining networks are at hand and are dirt cheap.
  • We used to think that knowledge resided in people heads. Today most of us believe the knowledge resides in networks.
  • Web 2.0 has become mainstream. People communicate with texts, Tweets, iPhones, email, and blogs in their personal lives, and expect to be able to do so at work.
  • People have become savvy web consumers. Young people who grew up with Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, and Google are entering the workforce. New hires ask “Where’s the network? Where do I post my profile?”
  • Internet Culture is proliferating. Openness and sharing are default behaviors.
  • The web gives unprecedented free access to college courses, how-to videos, advice columns, and experts.
  • Network access has gone mobile. Desktop PCs have given way to laptops and laptops are losing ground to smartphones and tablets.
  • Connectivity has undoubtedly shifted the 80%/20% ratio of informal to formal learning; it’s probably closer to 95%/5% these days.

I’m convinced that working smarter by boosting informal performance is a key to survival in today’s topsy-turvy business climate. I’ve resolved to show organizations how to increase the effectiveness and depth of informal learning — in the larger context of working smarter in the digital enterprise. Working Smarter is not education for intellectual enrichment; it is how people get better at doing their jobs over time.

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