[The following post was originally published as an article in the August 2010 edition of Chief Learning Officer magazine.]
The terms “formal” and “informal” learning have become a part of the language of the learning industry. But if you ask learning industry folks what these terms mean, you get an interesting array of answers that suggest we don’t really know. Or at least we don’t completely agree.
Here’s an example. The lrnchat community is a group of learning industry professionals who use Twitter to host weekly online “chats” around learning industry topics. Recently, one of the topics was What distinguishes formal learning from informal learning? Here are some of the descriptors used by participants. 1
|Formal Learning||Informal Learning|
1From the transcript of the April 22, 2010 session of lrnchat.
These descriptors won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been around the learning industry recently. They may be inconsistent and vague, but to borrow a term from political comedian Stephen Colbert, they have a certain “truthiness” to them. They seem self-evident in a way that keeps us from delving into the concept with more rigor.
Certainly the recognition that learning takes place outside the classroom has been both valuable and influential in thinking about enterprise learning. But unfortunately, when you try to use formal versus informal learning as a construct for organizing learning efforts in the real world, the distinction breaks down.
The Problem with Formal vs Informal
Many common learning activities can’t easily be categorized with the formal/informal dichotomy.
- If you provide knowledge bases or job aides for employees that they use on an ad hoc basis to meet their own work objectives, is that formal or informal learning?
- If learners decide to take an eLearning course on their own initiative for their own reasons does that make it informal learning?
- If you create a forum manager role to facilitate the conversation, provide knowledgeable answers and oversee users’ behavior in a “community of practice” discussion forum, does that make it formal learning?
- If you create a job shadowing program or assign mentors to employees is that formal or informal learning?
At one level, the answer to the question of formal versus informal learning doesn’t matter. If it works, then who cares what you call it? But the implicit challenge that underlies the notion of informal learning is that it is better or at least that it provides significant opportunities for organizations. For instance, informal learning may reduce the time and expense of classroom training, motivate employees to learn more and help in recruiting and developing millennial generation workers who have come to expect informal, social learning opportunities.
Popular folk wisdom says that 70-80% of what people learn in the workplace is informal. Advocates of informal learning point out that enterprises traditionally invest nearly all of their training resources in formal learning programs. This potential disconnect brings up its own set of questions:
- Should you change your enterprise learning strategy and reallocate your learning investments to favor informal learning?
- If you wanted more informal learning, how would you get it? And how would you know you got it?
- If informal learning happens naturally anyway without any investment, can you simply take it as a given and go back to focusing on more traditional learning approaches?
A New Taxonomy of Organizational Learning
One of the key problems with the informal learning paradigm is that common definitions of informal learning actually blend two distinct attributes of learning:
- Whose objectives are driving the learning?
- Is the content developed or ad hoc?
By conflating these attributes, informal learning becomes less powerful as an organizing concept for thinking about training in the real world. Rather than formal versus informal, we propose a taxonomy that addresses these dimensions independently.
Note that the axes in the diagram are really continuums. Some types of learning fall at the extremes and others toward the middle. However, for simplicity, we have just listed examples of learning activities that might fall in the respective cells.
A Taxonomy of Organizational Learning
What characterizes the Developed column of the taxonomy is that the content of the learning is created in advance by the organization. There isn’t any emergent learning or network effect to provide a multiplier. Without effort and investment on the organization’s part, none of these things happen. The list of learning needs you can address with a Developed approach is finite and limited to what you can afford to pay for. And the amount of learning from these activities is directly correlated to the proficiency and capacity of the small group of people who create the content.
Activities in the Ad Hoc column are the opposite of Developed. The organization may create the opportunity and even put in place learning objectives, but there is no way to know in advance exactly what learners will experience. Harnessing the knowledge of employees scales a lot better than traditional learning programs and allows you to address a nearly infinite spectrum of learning needs in an immediate, cost-effective way. But it is hard to track and hard to monitor for quality or effectiveness.
Organization-Driven learning aligns with specific organizational objectives. A company wants to adopt a new sales technique, provide customer service representatives with more product knowledge or prepare the next generation of leaders. Even if the actual learning experience can’t be entirely predicted, as is the case with mentoring programs, the goals are pre-determined and often measured.
Learner-Driven learning is driven by the everyday needs of doing a particular job. The organization may provide generalized tools where learners can look for answers. But the learner must formulate the question, locate an answer and determine whether it resolves the learning need.
By disentangling the Organization-Driven/Learner-Driven dimension from the Developed/Ad Hoc dimension, the new taxonomy creates categories that are directly relevant to enterprise learning strategy. As can be seen in the table below, each cell in the taxonomy can be tied to specific types of organizational learning needs.
Matching Types of Learning to Organizational Needs
There is no sense in this taxonomy that Ad Hoc or Learner-Driven learning is better than other types of learning. It works well for some things; not so well for others. All four types of learning are required for an organization to perform at its best. Because of this, the taxonomy makes a useful organizational structure for analyzing learning investments. Many organizations over-invest in some categories and under-invest in others. This taxonomy of learning can help you decide if that’s the case in your organization.
How to Deal with Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc Learning
Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning (“D”) is the category that most closely aligns with what people commonly refer to as informal learning. Since many organizations have less experience with this type of learning than with the other three, it’s worthwhile to explore the organizational implications of this category.
Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning happens spontaneously when employees encounter things they need to know to do their job. It doesn’t inherently require technology. It might be as simple as asking the person in the next cubicle how to do something (sometimes referred to as “prairie dogging”). Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning will happen whether you invest in it or not. But it will happen inefficiently.
Locating an expert who can solve a problem can be a huge productivity killer. In most cases, an employee’s search will be limited by department boundaries, geography and personal connections. It’s not unusual for employees to find answers that aren’t correct or don’t reflect best practices, which can create costly errors. Furthermore, unless systems are set up specifically to capture these types of interactions, Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning typically happens privately. This means users with similar questions have to duplicate the effort of locating and evaluating answers.
One key to fostering Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning is to make exchanges public, searchable and editable. In this case, editable doesn’t mean that you go back and change the original exchange, but that you provide a mechanism to extend the conversation. This allows you to enlist your entire employee base in the process of evaluating, clarifying and correcting responses. Among other things, public, searchable conversations mean that knowledgeable employees spend less time answering the same questions over and over again.
Making informal exchanges public, searchable and editable typically means implementing one or more technology platforms. In fact, many discussions about informal learning devolve into discussions of tools such as social networks, blogs and wikis. However, making Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning more efficient and systematic is not primarily about technology. Any organizational change that fosters lateral communication and collaboration can be thought of as increasing Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc learning. And tools are never enough. The learning world is littered with online community tools that never garnered a critical mass of users.
Examples of Social Learning
Ad Hoc learning, whether Organization-Driven or Learner-Driven, is sometimes referred to as “social learning” because it relies primarily on the expertise of participants. Here are three real world examples that illustrate some of the elements that make social learning efforts successful.
When Raytheon used social network analysis to see who was talking to whom in the organization, the company discovered that the vast majority of conversations occurred within a team and particularly between managers and their reports. There was very little crosstalk across organizational silos. Departments that clearly would have benefited from collaborating with each other were going it alone. Concerned about the implications for enterprise performance and innovation as well as for employee development, Raytheon leaders put tools, policies and incentives in place to spur broader conversations.
Raytheon’s approach was unusual. The company used social network analysis to identify key relationship brokers in different parts of the organization. It then placed these highly connected people in specific assignments where they worked as project leaders, mentors and facilitators to build deeper capability and performance for critical business initiatives. A social network analysis after the changes shows a very different picture of communication patterns within the company. Now communication across organizational divisions is routine and frequent.
Intel’s celebrated “Intelpedia,” a Wikipedia-style collection of articles contributed by Intel employees, is another example of social learning. Like Wikipedia, Intelpedia is moderated by its community of contributors. It currently has over 15,000 articles contributed by Intel employees. Josh Bancroft, who created Intelpedia for Intel in 2005, has posted screenshots of the interface that give a sense of what the system is like.
According to Bryan Rhoads, a social media specialist at Intel, part of the key to the success of social technologies such as Intelpedia at Intel is a deep, grassroots culture of sharing expertise. In his blog, Bryan writes:
Internally, grassroots employee blogging started as early as 2003 consisting mainly of self-maintained servers under desks. These internal employee blogs gained a tremendous following. Intel CEO Paul Otellini launched his employee blog in 2004. Other top execs and leaders followed throughout 2005 culminating in a fully IT-supported platform that same year.
Note that Intel’s social media success emerged naturally from grassroots efforts of employees. The culture of information sharing came first. The value of these initiatives was recognized by company executives, who led by example, participating in the online conversations themselves. This eventually led to high profile investments in technology to make these efforts broader, more systematic and more robust.
Not all enterprise uses of social media fall into the Learner-Driven/Ad Hoc category. Organizations also use social media to push employees toward specific enterprise goals. For instance, United Way used a social media approach to completely rework its model for achieving positive change in the communities it supports.
The old model was to mobilize volunteers to raise money to fund social service agencies. The new model is to mobilize communities to create sustained changes in community conditions and improve lives.
The process involved putting staff and volunteers into different groups to discuss what they felt they could accomplish, share stories of how they were doing it, bring in experts for help and advice, synthesize concepts and ideas, and build new metrics around intended results. Key executives were assigned to support and mentor teams in this new process.
These “performance conversations,” as they became known, changed how the agency worked. Conversations were not so much manager-to-individual, as had traditionally been the case. Now conversations were among groups of people who were focused on specific goals and outcomes. This led to ongoing discovery, debate, challenge, synthesis, and socialization around desired goals and outcomes. The process proved very motivating as well, helping retain and build the network of volunteers needed to carry out the agency’s newly updated mission.
These examples represent three very different approaches to social learning. What they have in common is a clear vision, effective leadership, bold action and targeted efforts to create a culture of collaboration. One key to the success of these initiatives is that social learning was thought of as a means to solve real organizational needs rather than a set of tools to be deployed. The goal should never be to create opportunities for some vague notion of “informal learning. ” The goal is to solve real organizational needs using the right approach for each problem or objective.
Our proposed Taxonomy of Organizational Learning creates a framework that is specific enough to build programs around. Looking at the organizational affordances of each category of learning can help shape your learning investment strategy and can help you identify specific organizational needs that social learning can uniquely address. By putting the goals first and tools second, learning leaders can create social learning initiatives that have real power to fundamentally improve enterprise performance.