An example of informal learning from Europe

by Jay Cross on January 26, 2010


Three years ago I talked with a former KPPG consultant, Harm Wegstra, at Online Educa Berlin. Harm told me about his team’s experience with informal learning in an engagement with Sara Lee. Here’s an extract of an email Harm sent me.

Hi Jay,

As promised, I send you some details about the research I’ve done at Sara Lee, being then a senior manager at KPMG Consulting.

Sara Lee wanted to invest in technology in the domain of learning.

At the beginning of this century, learning management systems were quite dominant, and therefore dominant on the radar screen of Sara Lee. But I had doubts if a LMS would be the proper solution for Sara Lee.

That’s why we suggested to set up a meeting, in which we would explore where the learning takes place within the organisation, more specific, within the sales and marketing department, for which the technology was meant.

About 20 employees attended the meeting: sales and marketing representatives, and representatives of the management and the HR department. We asked them to write down (individually) all their work-related learning experiences. When finished this individual brainstorm, we plenary discussed the results, what resulted in the following list of learning activities:

– Experiences on the job
– Refer to manuals and instructions
– Training programs
– Networking
– Mentoring & coaching
– Special assignments (e.g. temporary job rotations)
– Workshops

After we agreed that this was the correct list, I asked them to individually estimate how much time they spend on an average a week on each of these activities. After plenary discussing and negotiating the outcomes, we concluded the following relative importance of each of the learning activities:

– Experiences on the job 45%
– Manuals and instructions 2%
– Training programs 8%
– Networking 30%
– Mentoring & coaching 3%
– Special assignments 2%
– Workshops 10%

Having a closer look, I concluded that the list of activities could be divided into more formal and more informal learning activities.

– Training programs
– Special assignments
– Workshops
– Mentoring & coaching

– Experiences on the job
– Manuals and instructions
– Networking

Given their relative importance, this means that 77% of the activities can be labelled as highly informal and 23% as highly formal.

We summarized the findings in this pie chart:

Sara Lee was quite surprised. More precisely: the majority in the meeting thought that they made a mistake and suggested to reconsider the time they initially thought they spend on an average on each of the activities. I suggested to first benchmark these findings to research at other companies. After a desk research we found an astonishing amount of evidence that these employees at Sara Lee probably collectively made a quite adequate estimation of the time spent on the distinct learning activities. This knowledge since then is at Sara Lee leading in the decisions about investing in learning within the organization.

I hope you like the story and can use the results.

Using the pie chart is no problem.

Please refer to the research I’ve done at Sara Lee, with my team at KPMG Consulting. The research was conducted in 2002.

Again, it was a pleasure meeting.

Hope to meet you an other time.

Kind regards,

Harm Weistra

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