Want Results? Champion the Informal

First published in Chief Learning Officer magazine, February 2013

cloFormal gets all the money, but today more learning happens outside the classroom

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 training departments — and that’s where the budgets are cut.

We need to pay more attention to experiential learning, We need to look at peer-to-peer learning. A lot of the courses out there are absolute crap. If you look at behavior on the job, you’d be lucky if you find 15% of the results of courses.

So get rid of lots of the structure, which by the way mimics school and that’s not a good model for learning. Look at ways people can really accelerate their learning — by having managers who encourage people by setting stretch goals and by encouraging individual initiative. It’s important to have a lot more of these.

And I have to comment on eLearning. eLearning covers all manner of sins. There’s great stuff out there and you can take part in in at 2:00 am if you want. But there’s also some absolute garbage shovel-ware that nobody should have to endure. All it is is “e” — electronic, and that’s not enough for quality.

I first heard about informal learning was at a conference in Orlando, Florida, a dozen years ago. Peter Henschel from the Institute on Learning described how sent anthropologists to an insurance company to investigate how people learned their jobs. The scientists discovered than over 80% of the way people learned their jobs 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.” Maybe I’m going to read something at night on my own.

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

When I say informal, I mean that the person who is learning is in control of the learning. They are choosing the learning experience they want to get into. 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 the formal training and almost all of the learning was going on in the informal side. This mismatch didn’t set right with my soul.

The explanation for the anomaly is that 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.”

CLOs tell me the stuff that keeps them awake at night is that now the realization that learning is social, mobile, and collaborative. Learning happens in social networks. It happens in the course of work. This is brand new turf for the profession. 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 fifties, that you have four tiers — how happy are they, can they repeat it back, can they actually do anything, and did it doing 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 the workers did this and they’re performing better as a result, I’ll buy it. It’s never going to be 3-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.