The business environment of informal learning

by Jay Cross on September 4, 2006

Informal learning is not some new option to toy with. Rather, it’s a response to a new world of business, a new contract with workers, a new definition of knowledge, and an incredible philosophy and technological conglomerate known as the internet. Here’s a view from a non-training silo.

“I’m fascinated by Enterprise 2.0. It’s what has kept my life going for the past five years as I’ve learned to get out of the way of a control IT environment and start creating environments that enable people to work collaboratively,” says J.P. Rangaswami, former global CIO at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort in London, in this interview with Optimize magazine.

Asked if business doesn’t need rules and structure, J.P. responds, “There’s always structure, but structure that’s imposed up front tends to create anchors and frames that reduce the value of what’s going to come. And these new tools didn’t seem to come with those predefined structures.”

As I’ve been pointing out, “The graduates of tomorrow are more used to the tools I was looking at than the enterprise was. So training cost, which used to be a huge barrier to entry for the people who were weaned on the mother’s milk of Microsoft, just wasn’t there.”

Harvard B-School prof Andrew McAfee chimes in, “The opposite of an imposed structure is not chaos. With these tools, the opposite of an imposed structure is an emergent structure, one that forms over time based on the interactions of a lot of people.”

McAfee comes up with another approach we mention in Informal Learning: “There’s a demographic shift coming, and people who are entering the workforce these days find it kind of quaint to work in the IT environment we’re used to working in, where there’s a huge amount of structure. They’re used to working on the Web in this very unstructured, free, easy-to-use, a couple-of-clicks-away environment. They’re going to want to work in places where they have that same flexibility and power behind the firewall.”

J.P. could well be talking about informal learning here instead of IT:

  1. One, get out of the way before somebody else gets you out of the way.
  2. Two, understand that adopting these things will yield better returns for you and your firm in the short run, not the long run.
  3. And three, it’s actually a lot of fun. I don’t want people to forget that this isn’t an environment that requires you to be in military-fashion, funereal, undertaker mode. It’s an environment where you’re giving people tools to be creative and every day you can walk in and be surprised at what somebody did for which you couldn’t possibly have created a business justification or ROI case.”

Networks are erasing the lines between disciplines. We all have lessons to learn from what’s going on in other realms.

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