Formalizing the Informal: Training alone is not enough

In our second eCollab blog carnival, I asked if we could formalize the informal:

Are there ways of “formalizing” some or all of this without losing out on the personal relationships we have with our friends and colleagues, those who we turn to help us solve a problem. Can we formalize the informal?

Jay Cross, in my subsequent interview on the subject, said:

… it’s the wrong question. It would be like asking if we should “informalize” formal training. A key understanding that Jay wants to get across to everyone in the workplace learning arena is that it’s not an either/or proposition, but rather how much informal and how much formal learning should we support and who is determining what’s to be done. All learning is a bit of both. His promotion of informal learning is not to replace formal training but to open up the possibilities of supporting the other 80% of learning that has been ignored for far too long.

My own perspective is that supporting informal learning is mission critical for knowledge-intensive organizations:

A key difference between formal training and informal learning is that the former is designed (push) while the latter is enabled (pull). As far as formal training goes, we have several models and many examples of good practices. But training alone is not enough. The best training programs can only address a maximum of 20% of the work performance issues in an organization. Training can only help to develop skills and knowledge if we know in advance what these are. In many cases, we don’t know what our future performance needs will be.

Dennis Callahan provided several examples of “creating conditions to help informal learning thrive”:

  • Providing tools (e.g., wiki, blog, microblog) for people to share knowledge
  • Provide learning for how to use these tools for sharing
  • Creating an OJT [on job training] guide that describes events that someone must experience as part of their learning (e.g., going on a sales call with a sales representative)
  • Developing a mentoring program
  • Facilitating a working session on helping customers solve a real business problem

Tom Haskins submitted a very thoughtful response and showed that “…formal learning poses the opposite requirements from those of formalized informal learning”:

  • Instead of encouraging useful mistakes, formal learning penalizes mistakes …
  • Instead of scattering what needs to be learned, formal learning delivers required content in centralized locations like classrooms and books …
  • Instead of assisting students in unlearning their misconceptions, formal learning assumes errors will get obliterated by providing more content …

Dave Ferguson looked at the importance of aligning goals and balancing organizational and individual learning goals:

Those phrases got me thinking about how, if you work within a large organization, you need to find ways to align your personal goals with the organization’s in a way that’s authentic for you and helpful to the organization.  In part, it’s the old concept of the king’s shilling: if you’re accepting the paycheck, you’re granting the organization’s right to set and pursue its goals and to ask you to help achieve them.

When you can’t ethically do that, it’s time to get out.

Donald Clark (USA) takes a slightly contrarian view :

I think this 80/20 informal/formal thingy is kind of going in the wrong way. We should be spending the majority of our time on 20% of the learning taking place within our organization — remember the Pareto principle? Thus you should be asking:

What processes are critical for delivering our product/service and do we need to ensure that our workers learn them correctly?
What tasks are so vital to a processes that we have to ensure we educate someone to be a backup?
How can we best develop our workers so that we continue to grow as a company? What we think of as the “informal” will most often fall into this category.

Thanks to all the contributors to this blog carnival and please feel free to weigh in, as there’s no time limit here (it’s the web & it’s informal):

Jay Cross

Dave Ferguson

Tom Haskins

Dennis Callahan

Donald Clark

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