In recent posts I have talked about the power of informal learning, and wondered why learning professionals conspicuously ignore the potential for performance improvement that it offers. Now that the kind of human interactions that make informal learning so effective are being facilitated by the Internet, the relevance and impact of formal training may diminish even further. Do we as learning professionals stand by and watch our empires get sidelined, or do we try to take a leading role in defining and refining emerging learning paradigms?
Naturally, there will always be a need for formal training and diligent learning management, especially where compliance or certification are concerned. But according to various recent studies, corporate employees, particularly knowledge workers, learn three times more from informal experiences than they do in formal courses. Those informal learning experiences include interacting with co-workers, modelling peer behaviour, trial and error, self-directed learning, social support structures, networking, ad-hoc mentoring, and so on. If so little that is valued by employees comes from structured activities, either we are not teaching what people need to know or the way we teach is inadequate. Or the world can get by just fine without us.
Anthropologists and particle physicists agree that there are things in this world that we cannot observe without changing them in the process. Can those whose frame of reference is formality understand how informal learning takes place in their own organisations, and engage that process without breaking it? Can training departments, with all of their post-industrial-revolution baggage, rise to the challenge and affect the kind of post-knowledge-revolution changes that are both necessary and inevitable?
The challenge is to facilitate, not dictate, and to nurture and focus those aspects of an informal learning environment that can leverage what people do naturally. We need to start teaching employees how to learn. We need to create the culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, socialising, and networking. We need to make time for talking, and for dissecting failure without punishing it. And we need to start a movement, top-down, to dissolve organisational silos and the myopic tunnel-vision they produce, and to provide the facilities that make it easier for employees to engage with each other. And, for those who fear that the growing competencies of individual employees might not get recorded as they do in a formal training environment, perhaps we need to foster a renaissance in testing or measurement.
What about control, and planning, budgeting and evaluation? What about ROI? What about structure in our own jobs as trainers? - That’s the reaction that holds us back.
As the Internet barrelled its way into our corporate lives a decade ago, I hoped it would have a liberating effect on how we go about our work of performance improvement. For the most part, it has not.
Instead of cultivating and liberating corporate knowledge, we use the Internet to reinforce our ivory towers; instead of opening people’s eyes, we put them to sleep; instead of personalising learning, we deliver generic packaged courses. Instead of teaching people to catch fish, we force-feed them on Spam till their expectation of anything better fades away.
But that’s OK, because the canned-learning supply chain is easy to manage and control, which is more important than any ultimate impact on business performance. After all, we are judged on measurable results, so we shoot for measurable goals. And that learning supply chain, with which we are now all so comfortable, is just loaded with measurability – especially now that we have an LMS to automate the work for us.
Perhaps we are afraid to embark on any initiatives where the ROI cannot be readily measured or guesstimated. Or perhaps we live in a business world where projects that stray too far from conventional thinking will not be funded. Exploring and experimentation are frowned upon in the world of corporate learning, because it is not only financially risky, it threatens to rock the boat if successful. Rock the boat? Christopher Columbus found the cash to take three small boats over the edge of the world, and you can bet that his PowerPoint presentation to the Queen of Spain had really fuzzy ROI calculations in it.
Three and a half centuries later, change is so ubiquitous it has become a cliché. Yet corporate trainers don’t want to go there. To us, “innovation” is about boldly trying to get more Socratic methods into some of our classes, or converting our clickable links into animated 3D icons.
The recording industry discovered the power of informal networked collaboration when music consumers did things a radically new and – to them – eminently sensible and efficient way, using peer-to-peer file sharing. But it was not simply music files that got shared – the web facilitated a boom in knowledge sharing, with discussion forums, gossip boards, fan blogs, newsgroups, and specialised communities of interest that are doing more to promote the musicians than the marketing budgets of the record companies could ever have accomplished.
Record companies are left looking silly and marginalised, having to resort to legal actions in the courts to maintain their business model. Let’s not allow the recording industry to be a model of what is to become of training, which has typically been positioned as the “middleman” between SMEs and learners. We need to maintain some influence over the evolution of learning, because what crystallises from the informal bottom-up flux, while it will be “right” for the personal objectives of individual employees, may not be “right” for the business objectives of the corporation.
Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 11 March 2005