All or nothing

by Jay Cross on February 9, 2007

At ASTD TechKnowledge, people either loved our message or hated it. They were as firm in their position as they are on abortion or the O.J. verdict. Informal learning is a devisive issue!

How can people be so opposed to something that, if added to the status quo, results in better performance?

Upon reflection, I realized that this parallels the introduction of eLearning. Many people had oversimplified what eLearning meant; they defined it as replacing instructors with computers. This appealed to greedy venture capitalists and bottom-line-fixated executives, even if it was dead wrong from the start. Geez. (All learning occurs through a combination of different activites. Why should eLearning be different?)

The formal-versus-informal debate shouldn’t be happening at all. Extremists on both sides miss the point that this is not either/or. It’s shades of gray. Few human issues are binary, or, as I kid people, “bi-polar.” The world doesn’t work like this:


Permit me to borrow an analogy from a recording studio. You never hear what the musicians play. Someone at an audio mixer ups the volume of the Bono feed and downplays the drums. The result is much more pleasing to the ear. Making recordings is akin to taking photographs: a combination of what’s there and how one manipulates it.


Imagine, if you will, a learning mixer. You could slide the switches to give the learners a little more control here while shaving development time there. And so on. Here’s a hypothetical learning mixer.

learning mixer

You don’t achieve the best mix by moving all of the sliders to the top or all to the bottom.

The Delivery slider moves from courses and push (formal) to conversations and pull (informal). The Duration slider goes from hours (formal) to minutes (informal). The Subject matter ranges from curriculum (what the organization says, formal) to discovery (what the individual needs, informal) Timing goes from outside of work to during work. Development time ranges from months (events, formal) to minutes (connections, informal).

Learning professionals who are in favor of using any methodology exclusively deny themselves the opportunity to create the best mix. What’s not to like?

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