Via Luis Suarez is this story on CNEWS [dead link: see comment below] about a cultural anthropologist, Anne Irwin, who has been studying soldiers in the field and how they learn and bond through storytelling. The soldiers of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battle group are in Afghanistan and Prof. Irwin is there to watch and understand:
When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – Irwin calls them “nesting circles” – and recount the events of the day or the mission.
Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.
The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.
Having served in the same regiment and having been active in training and learning for many years now, I can say that this is the perfect example of the importance of informal learning. It’s a fact that these soldiers have all been formally trained in the skills of the infantry. However, the unit is not an effective fighting force until individuals have worked together. Informal learning is the glue that helps keep them together during the tough times. Support for these “nesting circles” and other ways to facilitate group learning is essential.
Let’s take a similar, but much less dangerous situation. Imagine a company that has a project team that has had a difficult client with tight deadlines and then managed to pull it off. Immediately after the last deliverable, the team is redistributed across the organisation to get to the next project, because “time is money”. There has been no time to talk or to swap stories or to find out what Bob was doing while Mary was dealing with a certain crisis. There are no “nesting circles” here to develop the group’s learning.
Civilian organisations might not be able to devote down time to informal learning, but they can ease the way for other kinds of communication that may help informal learning. Storytelling through blogs is possible for those who want to write. Sharing pictures on the Intranet can evoke memories and encourage people to revisit an event and learn from it. The key is to create environments that support these types of communication and learning — just as a dozen soldiers in a tent are going to tell stories, bond, and learn.