Don’t drink the informal learning snake oil

The Tragedy of eLearning

We’ve seen this movie before.

The 1999 Online Learning conference in Los Angeles was ground zero for eLearning. CBT Systems told the world it was being reincarnated as SmartForce, the eLearning Company. When we unveiled signs at the SmartForce booth, we were the only vendor who mentioned eLearning in the crowded exhibition area. Yet at the ASTD Conference six months later, dozens of vendors claimed to have eLearning. Most of them had changed nothing but their brochures and signage. The ā€œeā€? Perhaps you could ask for help via email.

Soon thereafter, most eLearning morphed into deadly dull shovelware. The bad crowded out the good. Our dream of personalized, modular, always-on learning was dashed. eLearning, no matter how feeble, enabled training departments to check the boxes that they’d reduced costs and still covered the important topics. What they couldn’t claim is that it was working. The term eLearning is now meaningless.

I fear that charlatans and dummies are taking informal learning down the same road.

An Informal Learning Sequel?

While it took six years to arrive, informal learning has become L&D’s flavor of the day. Put on your crap detectors.

  • Numerous consultants are offering to help manage informal learning. (It doesn’t work that way. You nurture informal learning; micro-managing chokes it off.)
  • A brief quiz tells you whether your organization needs to adopt formal or informal approaches. (That varies by what’s being learned, who’s doing the learning, and a lot of other factors. It’s not an organization-wide choice.)
  • On Facebook, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether I’m an informal learner. (We are all informal learners.)
  • Some LMS vendors tell me they are measuring informal learning. (This is BS — unless they’ve incorporated business metrics.)
  • Other vendors claim to support informal learning with blogs and discussion groups. (No, no, no. We don’t need something else tacked onto work. Informal learning needs to be embedded in existing workflow, not heaped on top of it.)
  • Some people are trying to “formalize informal learning”; that’s a semantic fallacy — an oxymoron. (What they are really after is recognizing that informal learning is important and should be baked into the organization’s routine. Yes, of course, but the informal learning is already going on; the challenge is to make it better.)
  • And so it goes.


Informal Learning Center

Learn Informal Learning Informally

Bringing Informal Learning Up To Date

The New Workplace

Controversy Over Informal Learning

Informal Learning Revisited