Informal learning, the 95% solution

Informal learning is not better than formal training; there is just a whole lot more of it. It’s 95% of workplace learning, according to the research behind this graphic, by Gary Wise.

 Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have gone through a period where training departments have been directed to control organizational learning. It was part of the Taylorist, industrial model that also compartmentalized work and ensured that only managers were allowed to make decisions. In this context, only training professionals were allowed to talk about learning. But formal training, usually in the guise of courses, is like a hammer that sees all problems as nails. Unfortunately, these nails only account for 5% of organizational learning.

A significant percentage of workplace learning professionals are solidly grounded in that 5% of workplace learning that is formal training. They know the systems approach to training (SAT), instructional systems design (ISD) and the ADDIE model (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation), among some less useful things like learning styles and Bloom’s taxonomy. There are plenty of hammer-wielders in corporate training departments, supported by an entire industry, including institutions and professional associations, all addressing that 5 percent.

Supporting informal learning at work is not as clear-cut as something like ISD. It requires tools, processes and methodologies from a variety of disciplines. There are methods from knowledge management, organizational development and human performance technology, for example, that are quite useful in supporting informal learning. The modern workplace is a complex adaptive system. There is no single approach that can be used all the time.

We  should not constrain our approach with a single methodological lens when looking at workplace performance in an organization. While all models are flawed, some may be useful, and any analysis requires an understanding of the situational context and then the selection of the most useful models. Today there is no agreed-upon informal learning design methodology. I doubt that a single one would be useful anyway.

An industrial age mindset would require a unified approach for informal learning, but the network age demands an acceptance of perpetual Beta. We have many methods and frameworks that can better inform us how to design work systems. When learning is the work, the support systems have to enable both. Integrating the best of what we know from multiple disciplines, in an evidence-based fashion, is the way to proceed and support complex, creative, knowledge work. Several of these next practices have been discussed here or amongst my colleagues.

To create real learning organizations, there is a choice. We can keep bolting on bits of informal learning to the formal training structure, or we can take a systemic approach and figure out how learning can be integrated into the workflow – 95% of the time.

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