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Share examples of informal learning, perhaps win a prize.
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Coming to Training Directors Forum next week?

Talk with me. I'm seeking examples of informal learning at work for my forthcoming book. I am looking for stories of how organizations have facilitated informal learning and what they got out of it. I'm also looking for individual "learning hacks," i.e. short cuts, hints, and techniques you've found personally beneficial.

Here's more on the book, although you don't need to read it very closely to get the idea.


Informal Learning


A Fieldbook for Free-Range Learners and Frustrated Training Directors


Ask adults what comes to mind when they hear the word learning, and they respond with words like school, class, course, workshop, and teacher. These words describe formal learning.

Only rarely do they mention conversation, experimentation, the corporate grapevine, or Googling. These are means of informal learning.

Informal learning, “learning out of school,” is how people acquire most of the knowledge they use in their work. It’s vitally important, yet it’s often overlooked or left to chance. Corporations pour buckets of money into workshops and training departments, but employees generally learn more from gossip in the hallway.

Informal learning tends to be unauthorized, spontaneous, practical, and natural. Learners aren’t graded. Certificates and diplomas aren’t awarded. This lack of credentialing enables informal learning to fly under the corporate radar. As a result, it's often treated as a second-class corporate citizen.

In our fast-paced knowledge economy, it has become commonplace to observe that learning is the only lasting competitive advantage. Isn’t it astounding that most organizations leave informal learning almost entirely to chance? Why treat something so vital to corporate success so haphazardly?

This book explores the dimensions of informal learning, tells stories of how it works, and describes its payback to both organizations and individuals. My objective is to persuade business people, from the executive suite to the point of customer contact, that informal learning is a profit strategy. To neglect it is to leave money on the table and risk being marginalized.

Fifty “learning hacks” (shortcuts, cheatsheets, and tips) are sprinkled throughout the text to help individuals learn how to learn informally and understand “What’s in it for me?”

Informal Learning will not spend much time on schools and education: that’s the formal part, and I have few suggestions on how to improve it. Nor will we discuss how children and adolescents learn; that’s not my expertise. Our primary focus will be on adults at work.

What is learning?

Learning is how people adapt to their environment. Successful learners find fulfilment in work and happiness in life.

Our understanding of how people learn has advanced significantly since Pavlov rang bells to make dogs salivate, and behaviorists clocked rats navigating a maze. What put people atop of the food chain instead of dogs and rats is that humans can transmit culture and discoveries from one generation to another.

Unless a child was raised by wolves, acculturation is omnipresent. Trying to describe learning without taking context into account is a fool’s errand because every human is enmeshed in a web of culture, relationships, and traditions close to his or her core.

Ours is the age of connectivity. Social networks have been around as long as society. Trade networks flourished in the Rennaissance. What's new is the ubiquity of connections. The internet, communications, entertainment, and financial networks gird the globe. Interoperability fostered by common standards is linking company to company, supplier to provider, provider to customer, worker to work, and so forth.

People are nodes of social networks and are increasingly coupled to information networks. Pervasive computing is right around the corner, making all of life’s trials an open-book exam. The value of a network increases geometrically with the size of its membership. At this very moment, the network snowball is rolling down the mountainside, ever larger and picking up speed.

No man (or woman) is an island. Learning in the 21st century means improving the performance of one’s connections to people, to machines, and to communities that matter. Learners in search of best fit with their ecosystems strive to improve bandwidth, signal-to-noise ratio, and the impact of their output.

Then comes the tricky part: melding incoming signals with existing patterns to make meaning. This can't be described in words. It's not logical. For now it's best to think of it as ju-ju magic at the intersection of emotion, familiarity, interest, self-interest and other things....

Informal Learning in the Organization

A dozen or more chapters that recount big wins with informal learning, e.g.:

Communities of practice. Company X seeding and nurturing communities, information/not instruction, VoD & v-search, Correlation, calculate revenue attributable to program.

Environment. Not cubes! Montessori school. A good environment for learning encourages collaboration. Buy a pool table. John Akers “Get back to work.” Smokers. Sofas. Interview Bill Matthews at MIT, UC New Media group, Steelcase. Museum, library. IDEO.

Corporate Visualization. Case study of Gil Amelio entering National Semi with unintelligible strategy, David Sibbett creating group graphics. Impact of technique. Do cost/benefit.

Learning Hacks

Instructional designers map out optimal corporate training interventions. They analyze what people need to be able to do and come up with the best means of equipping them to do it. Today, all of us need to become our own instructional designers.

Example of one of the fifty learning hacks to come:

Reading on Afterburner

My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hobson, branded me a cut-up and a slow reader. She moved her desk to the side of the room by the windows, inserted a short bookcase between the desk and the wall, and kept me penned up there away from my classmates. And my reading? I cared nothing for Dick and Jane. My mother gave me a book on helicopters to read. I would sit there behind Mrs. Hobson's desk, staring at a page for days. I'd been told I was slow, so I figured that meant about a page a week.

One day Mrs. Hobson commented that she thought I would have finished the book by now. I went into high gear and read the whole thing the next day. I'd been living down to her expectations. Mom bought me Classics Illustrated comics. Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Henry Dana, Jack London, James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I devoured them. Then I read Landmark Books on Lewis & Clark, the Wright Brothers, and Daniel Boone. Reading hasn't been a problem since second grade.

What did I learn from this? I learned that you control the speed at which you read a book. Sometimes I'll have been lolling through a book on learning or philosophy or travel in Italy, and I'll say to myself, this book only warrants at most an hour more of my attention. I skim, highlight, check things in the index, jump around in the text, spot-read, and when the hour's up, I'm generally satified that I've sucked most of the value out of that book. It's as if I've been driving along at 25 miles a hour enjoying the scenery and realize I have an important appointment in an hour that's another 75 miles down the road. Good-bye, putt-putt; hello, after-burner. My reading's so intense, the g-forces press my back against the seat. Try it some time. And Mrs. Hobson, thanks for the lesson. Bitch.

A friend told me his grad school imposed an impossible reading load, so they split up the reading and gave one another a compressed view. They called this "gutting a book."

How Brains Work

Measuring Performance

Please do not reproduce this post.


© 2005, Jay Cross, Berkeley, California

4 Comments:

Blogger jay said...

I've updated the original post here with suggestions from Terry Flynn

10:14 PM  
Blogger rayhana lisa said...

hi there,

i was just browsing the net for articles on self-interest / self-driven learning, and I came across your site. interesting insights!

in all honesty, i have been sorta given the 'challenge' to come up with a different sort of education system from the one practised in my country at the moment (i.e. Malaysia). am trying to come up with a draft framework, where students must not be put in such rigid conditions of learning, it will surely stunt their intended growth and learning curve in the first place.

9:49 PM  
Blogger jay said...

That's a big assignment. Who gave you the challenge? Do they have deep enough pockets to actually do something?

9:06 PM  
Blogger rayhana lisa said...

Yes it is. It was my boss. Well, we don't have financial support at the moment, but we are just looking to see if anything can be done about it. We are thinking of starting out with a small school, and slowly infiltrate into the current 'stunting' system.
I was a product of this terrible system, and I was just so depressed at school, not knowing why people studied just to pass exams and to get all the A's and nothing else! It's very sad. No one learns for the sake of learning and knowledge.
We plan to come up with something, but it is still at the planning stage. We've got a L-O-N-G way ahead of us, but who knows we might be able to come up with something viable enough.

5:38 PM  

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