How to support informal learning

by Jay Cross on July 12, 2010


by Robert Morris, Dallas Business Commentary Examiner

Cross is a champion of informal learning, Web 2.0, and systems thinking. His calling is to help business people improve their performance on the job and satisfaction in life. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix three decades ago. He chairs the Internet Time Alliance, a brain trust of six thought leaders who help companies boost their collective intelligence and profitability through networks. They are currently refining informal/web 2.0 learning management approaches that accelerate performance.

Moreover, Cross has keynoted such conferences as Online Educa (Berlin), I-KNOW (Austria), Research Innovations in Learning (U.S.), Emerging eLearning (Abu Dhabi), Training (U.S.), Quality in eLearning (Bogota), LearnX (Melbourne), and Learning Technology (London). His published works include Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance as well as other books and countless articles. Every day, thousands of people read his blogs, Internet Time and Informal Learning Blog. Cross is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

“I’m the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. I believe in sharing; take what you find. Seeking a sponsor for developing a meta-view of what’s transpiring at the nexus of learning, cognitive science, and business.”

Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, Informal Learning, a few general questions. First, how do you explain the fact that many (most?) organizations spend so much money on formal learning but spend little (if any) in support of informal learning?

Cross: Formal learning can be somewhat effective when things don’t change much and the world is predictable. That’s what we saw in the command-and-control corporate world of the mid-twentieth century. Frederick Taylor told workers they weren’t paid to think, and efficiency resulted. You don’t want people getting out of line if they job is to do the same thing again and again.

Today’s world is the opposite in every way imaginable. Command-and-control is giving way to bottom-up organizations where everyone shoulders responsibility. Things are changing amazingly fast. Job know-how used to last a lifetime; now what you learn in freshman year in college may be obsolete by the time you graduate. People once had one career their entire lives; now the norm is six or seven. There’s so much to learn: more information was produced in 2009 than in all previous human history. Today’s work is all about dealing with novel situations. These days, you are paid to think.

Formal learning is patterned after schools. It’s factory approach to filling people’s heads with content. School doesn’t prepare people for life; training doesn’t prepare them for work.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what specifically can – and should — an organization do to support informal learning?

Cross: Informal learning is a means to an end. What organizations must do is trust and inspire their people to take responsibility and make decisions. When executives have high expectations of their people, they generally live up to them. Conversely, when they have low expectations, you get what we have now: half the workforce is not engaged in their work.

Once people are trusted, there are all manner of ways to encourage informal learning. Foremost, make it easy for people to converse and collaborate. We can encourage collaboration, problem-solving, and continuous improvement in a variety of ways:

•  Focus on helping high performers and old hands work smarter; novices aren’t the only workers who need to learn
•  Set up conversation nooks and put wi-fi in the cafeteria
•  Do not punish people for failed experiments (if you never fail, you’re not innovating)
•  Create a network that enables people to locate who knows what
•  Apply the 80/20 rule to critical functions and seed communities of practice around them
•  Make mentoring and coaching part of everyone’s job
•  Use information technology to pull knowledge out of individuals and file cabinets, making it available to all
•  Encourage people to narrate their work, documenting what they do to share with others
•  Root out information hoarding; make sharing the norm (Some companies fire hoarders)
•  Use social network analysis to locate and break bottlenecks
•  Provide workers with smart phones, modern PCs, and internet access
•  Seek opportunities to help customers, partners, temporary workers, alumni, and everyone else who works with the company work smarter
•  Set up wikis and collaborative documents to avoid the proliferation of versions and confusion over what’s current
•  Look for opportunities to reduce cycle time: the world’s not going any slower. Instant messenger, Twitter clones, podcasts
•  Avoid duplication of effort in keeping up with news and research by providing shared information flows
•  Reduce costs and increase relevance by replacing formal training programs with user-generated content
•  Where possible, substitute self-service and peer learning for workshops
•  Timeliness trumps perfection. Use amateur video and blogs to distribute information while it’s still fresh

Morris: In Return on Learning, Donald Vanthournout and his associates on Accenture’s Capability Development team claim that their firm achieved an ROI of 353% on its commitment to enterprise learning. Here are two separate but related questions: Although almost anything is possible, is this ROI plausible? Also, what is the most accurate and reliable to measure the ROI of enterprise learning?

Cross: Is 353% ROI plausible? Sure. We’re accustomed to ROI numbers from projects that have already been rationalized, systematized, re-engineered, and so forth. There’s not much slack left, so you can only pull out a limited ROI. Informal Learning is for the most part unplowed ground. The value of linking people to knowledge and expertise is immense. I’ve seen companies make millions from five-figure investments.

Enterprise learning isn’t what you need to measure. The only thing that counts is business results. The arbiter of business results is the executive who’s footing the bill. You can learn a lot about cause and effect by interviewing a sample of workers in depth. Given an adequate sample size, you can reliably generalize about the whole group.

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