Informal Snake Oil

by Jay Cross on March 1, 2010

“As soon as the software vendors and marketers get hold of a good idea, they pretty well destroy it,” writes my colleague Harold Jarche in his post on Social Snake Oil. (That’s his graphic above.) Jane Hart chimed in, reinforcing Harold’s point that “social learning is being picked up by software vendors and marketers as the next solution-in-a-box, when it’s more of an approach and a cultural mind-set”.

I watched vendors hi-jack the term eLearning, and I don’t want to see it happen to social or informal learning. At the 1999 Online Learning conference in Los Angeles, CBT Systems announced it was “Smartforce, the eLearning Company.” This was ground zero. No one else on the exhibit floor even mentioned eLearning. Yet at the ASTD Conference six months later, dozens of vendors claimed to have eLearning. Most of them had changed nothing but their brochures and their signs. The “e”? Perhaps you could ask for help via email.

This old story is playing out again. In additional to social learning, vendors are claiming to provide informal learning. Instead of email, you get blogs and wikis tacked on. This is akin to saying that word processors write novels: it’s hardly the whole story.

informal learning book

Informal Learning in a Nutshell gives my definition of informal learning.

    WORKERS LEARN MORE in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning—classes and workshops—is the source of only 10 to 20 percent of what people learn at work. Corporations overinvest in formal training programs while neglecting natural, simpler informal processes.

    LEARNING is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn on the job. Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom. Most of the time, novices ride the bus; seasoned performers ride their bikes. Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, to learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks.

When you see “informal learning” on an LMS vendor’s brochure, you might inquire if they’re using Jay’s definition. And how they do that.

Sleight of hand

In the last ten days, I’ve been invited to attend three different webinars on formalizing informal learning. The topic arises from faulty semantics, a word trick.

None of the speakers really call for formalizing informal learning; that would kill it. What they mean to say is that informal learning is too important to leave to chance. The formalizing means giving an official blessing to building an environment that encourages informal learning. Thus, it’s generally a good practice to provide comfy nooks that foster conversations; it’s malpractice to tell people what they should talk about in those nooks.

The Informal Learning Page
Social Snake Oil (Harold)
The State of Social Learning Today (Jane)

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