Forces of change

I’m conducting a workshop on informal learning on Tuesday, January 30th. In preparation for the workshop and hopefully to foster some early conversations, I’ll be posting my thoughts on informal learning here for the next week.

My initial reaction, when asked to present a full day workshop on informal learning, was to ensure that what I was going to talk about was not just a bunch of hype on the latest Web 2.0 tools that are being tested by the early adopters in the educational technology field. I didn’t want to be selling a new brand of silicon snake oil, so I tried to look at what forces are actually changing the way we work and learn.

First of all, the ubiquitous connectivity that over a billion people now have has had a significant impact. Search (or Google as a verb) is an integral part of most of our lives. Today, we can publish something online as soon as we feel like it – whether in the form of blogs, wikis, social spaces like MySpace or FaceBook, as well as pictures or videos. We can find almost anything online and we can share our digital creations with the world. We can also connect with individuals.

The main force of the Web is that you don’t need anyone else (postman, broadcaster, photo developer, social convener) to help you reach out to the world and find others who may be interested in the same thing you are. Until recently, we needed an organisation (company, union, association, school) to help us connect with others. Now we can pretty well do it on our own.

One of the main forces of change that will affect how we learn is the weakening of the industrial command & control organisation. We don’t need a third party to mediate our learning because we can find interesting stuff and interesting people (interesting to us, at least) on the Web. I see those workers, who one could call the “Cluetrained’, as already dropping out of the bottom of the industrial organisation’s pyramid and doing it on their own. “It” meaning working, learning, creating and collaborating.

We’re seeing signs of this weakening of the industrial hierarchical model (see Wirearchy for more details), with workers dropping out of the “Corporation” and becoming free agents. Will this trend continue? I don’t know; but it sure appears that a job for life is a thing of the past and learning how learn for yourself, or at least with your own online network, might not be a bad skill-set. Unfortunately, many of us have come through school and training programs where we’ve been told what the learning objectives are and that we will be tested at the end of the course. On completion, we get a certificate to hang on the wall to simulate some kind of actual competence.

The figure below is my first attempt to synthesize these thoughts into a graphic. I’m not an artist, but I’m learning informally 😉


In a less structured and networked world, we all will need to learn in unstructured and networked ways. More to follow …

11 Responses to “Forces of change”

  1. Karyn Romeis

    “Now we can pretty well do it on our own.” and “I see those workers, who one could call the “Cluetrained’, as already dropping out of the bottom of the industrial organisation’s pyramid and doing it on their own.” Rats! Now I’ve got “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves” running through my head – I’ll be singing it all day, driving my colleagues nuts.

    But you’re so right. The traditional way of booking onto a course, waiting for 3 months, only to have it cancelled due to lack of bums on seats for whatever reason… no – can’t be doing with that. When I need to know something, I usually need to know it now, and I have the resources – both human and electronic – to access much of that information. While I prefer being in a workshop environment for larger undertaking – having the opportunity to discuss things with other people, under the watchful ear of an expert – I haven’t always got the luxury of time to wait for all the bits to come together.

    When designing learning solutions, I work on the premise that my users are subject to the same constraints.

    We haven’t quite attained ubiquitous learning, but we’re getting there.

  2. Harold

    Speaking personally, I find that many tools – high-speed internet, cheap computers & other office equipment, VoIP, web services – are already here for the self-employed.

    As for numbers, we are seeing a general increase in the self-employed in Canada; from 1.7 million in 1986 to 2.1 million in 1996 and now 2.5 million in 2006. Not a great increases, but an increase. The US data show about 20 million people as self-employed, which has also been an upward trend.

  3. Dave F.

    Harold —

    The U.S. Census shows here that in 2002 there were 17.6 million “nonemployer” firms (mainly self-employed people) and 5.7 million employer firms (i.e., organizations with a payroll).

    The nonemployers accounted for only about 3.4% of all business receipts, though. The class includes mainly entities with at least $1,000 in revenue (so in theory not those with no income in a given year).

    In 2003, there were 113.4 million employees, or roughly 17 employees for every self-employed person.

    37% of them work at firms with 2,500 or more employees; another 12% work at firms between 500 and 2,500. That’s half of all workers, with 14% more in the 100-500 employee group.

    I agree with the idea that the number of self-employed people is growing (and some of them become employers, most often in the under-10-employees slot). At the same time, large organizations will continue and will even flourish.

    “Informal learning” has a place in everyone’s toolkit, though I think it can be counterproductive to call it “informal” if your client employs 100 or more people. (I know you know this!)

    Another element to support the self-employed down here, alas, is a health care (or at least a catastrophe-avoidance) system…

  4. Harold

    “though I think it can be counterproductive to call it “informal” if your client employs 100 or more people.”

    This is an interesting point you raise, Dave. There is definitely a tension between mandated training and individual, informal learning. I think that this is one of the big challenges for large organisations. You have to give up central control in order to create an environment that supports informal learning. Less control will be better for learning, and I believe for innovation, but those in charge won’t be able to micro-manage it. As the need for continuous learning becomes a business necessity, we may actually see more democratic workplaces.

    Of course, this will not happen overnight and it will be resisted. I’m betting that this loosening of control is inevitable with global, networked markets and competitors. But then I could be wrong.

  5. Jennifer Nicol

    The way I see it, internet communications are the perfect learning vehicle (informal OR formal) for free agents. Free agent-types like using the internet to find out stuff and talk to each other.

    But free agents are just one very small subset of the world. Perhaps they are growing in number, but surely that number will be limited to people who posses a) a stand-alone, transferable, and marketable skill; b) the right personality for the peculiarities of this way of life and c) ideally a spouse with a steady pay cheque.

    Frankly, I’m not so interested in the free agents. I think they will take care of themselves. I am interested in the people within organizations, because that is likely where my work will be.

    Stuff changes when you try to organize what has been free-flowing. That’s what I wonder about… the irony and the challenge of formalizing the informal.

    Some questions:
    a) How/Can “the organization” set up informal learning structures that are vital and full of life and fed by genuine interest. Examples please?

    b) What we’re calling ‘informal learning’ (what I call exploring or finding out)comes for me in bursts. When I want to learn something more thouroughly, I sign up for a course because I need the external structure.

    So (assuming for the moment that other people share this attribute), what role do the informal learning structures play within the organization?

    c) What about the people who are not natural researchers/networkers/web users? (Lead a horse to water and all that). Is there anything in a web-mediated interaction that is so compelling for them?

    d)Facebook? I just don’t get it. What human needs/qualities are feeding that? Can we convert whatever it is into a more learning-ful interaction?

  6. Harold

    Good questions. My (partial) answers:

    a) Blogs inside the firewall are examples, as well as enterprise wikis (Socialtext).

    b) I’ve seen blogs used to provide feedback on courses from actual participants. Wikis work too. Each training coordinator can keep a blog to update on next courses and get requests for more training. Internal social networking software (Elgg) can be used to create affinity groups around issues or fields. Tag clouds can show emerging conversations around particular issues. This happens when blogs replace mass e-mail.

    c) Facebook? I don’t get it either. Linked-In works for many people for business networking.

  7. Dave F.

    Some organizations will manage to encourage and to benefit from both informal and organized learning, just as they can profit from both informal and structured communication channels (say, ad hoc inter-group teams on the one hand, and scheduled forums with upper management).

    In those organizations, my hunch is that you get the leadership to give up control when you have some reasonable prospect of a return to the organization. I talked with a woman who helped the procurement group at an oil company set up an internal wiki to record successes and setbacks in contract negotiations. The idea was to enhance institutional memory — e.g., if you hadn’t been involved in the XYZ deal, you could find out what Sam and Sheila did to close it.

    The moral to me is not “hey, everybody, set up a wiki!” It’s more defining a problem (nobody outside the deal knows what made it work) or an opportunity (new procurement folks get better faster with details of what’s worked and what hasn’t).

    Tangentially, I don’t think I want the procurement folks learning informally about legal and ethical requirements for contracts. Maybe I just see lawsuits as so very formal…

    At present, if you can overcome the logistical barriers, organized learning (like an in-person workshop) offers the potential for person-to-person networking while increasing the common denominator. At GE, for example, once 25% or so of your peers had completed Six Sigma training, you’d use related terms as shorthand and would find yourself and others thinking about problems with a similar analytical framework.

    (This isn’t a Six Sigma endorsement so much as a cultural-practice one.)

    Social software and other tools offer similar potential once people start putting them to work, and I think there’s some law of the unexpected at work. GE had standardized on some Lotus tools like LearningSpace, and so even for a one-to-one phone call I could open a virtual classroom to demonstrate software on my computer and even let you try it out. Informal, focused, effective.

  8. Jon Husband

    Stephen (and all)

    re: your “

    As no doubt you know, there have been a number, if not many, half-baked attempts at this. One I remeber well, because it seemed sensible and just “right” tom, was Britt Blaser’s XpertWeb (the web site is till up, tho’ I don’t think there’s been any activity for about three years).

    I am hoping that a quick cursory glance at just the first page of the site will give you a sense of how ell thought-out it was.

    I think it is inevitable that the linkages and connections we all form will lead to more and more effective ways to support free or at least semi-independent agency. I think there’s more of a zeitbuzz about holding hands and helping each other through these large transitions than there was a year or two ago .. but it’s just a felt sense / intuition on my part.

    It had better happen 😉 Any more darwinian than it has become and it will indeed be a jungle out there 😉

  9. Ed Konczal


    The Internet has become an important business tool for frontline managers all the way to C-Level managers. However, using the Internet is becoming increasingly frustrating. There is too much Fluff, Spam and clutter in the results you get.

    Just take a look at some studies

     Managers spend up to two hours a day searching for information, and more than 50 percent of the information they obtain has no value to them. In addition, only half of all managers believe their companies do a good job in governing information distribution or have established adequate processes to determine what data each part of an organization needs. Accenture

     IDC estimates that an enterprise employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes at least $2.5 to $3.5 million per year searching for nonexistent information, failing to find existing information, or recreating information that can’t be found. The opportunity cost to the enterprise is even greater, with potential additional
    revenue exceeding $15 million annually.

     “The major obstacle with the Internet is assimilating the vast amount of information available. Approximately half of the responses indicated frustration at too much information on the Internet and that it is hard to find just what they need. As one executive commented, “The Internet can be good but the veracity of much of the information is questionable. Content from trusted sources is more valuable to executives than random web content from unknown sources.”
    Bersin & Associates in their survey “How Executives Stay Informed”

    The problem is that the rapid increase in information, more spam sites linked to keywords on the internet, major search engines do not have effective business search capabilities and their inability to filter out clutter and irrelevant results all lead to massive information overload. The result is wasted time and costs in the search for useful information.

    I have experienced this myself when conducting my own research. My personal partial solution was to develop my own business search engine based on quality and useful resources that I reviewed and then added to the search engine( While this has been valuable to me and individual researchers, it only scratches the surface of what corporations need.

    Organizations are facing unprecedented rapid change and an every increasing demand for faster decision making.

    The Great Transformation

    “We humans today are experiencing the most rapid social and technological change in all human history. All aspects of our lives are changing radically–the ways we work, the ways we play, the ways we learn, and the ways we do business.
    This extraordinary metamorphosis of human life has no accepted name so let’s call it simply the Great Transformation.”
    Edward Cornish Remarks prepared for presentation to the 2005 AACSB International Deans Conference, Monday, February 7, 2005.

    These developments affect all corporate functions and most profoundly the way learning budgets and resources are deployed.

    One emerging trend is that companies are starting to use Informal (Just-In-Time) Learning methods. Simply put Informal Learning takes place at the company’s workplace, where people do their work. It is learning that can place anywhere, anytime anyplace. Some estimates indicate that 80% of what people learn is through Informal Learning on the job.

    “The best learning happens in real life, with real problems and real people, and not in the classrooms.” Charles Handy
    Informal Learning can be as simple as using my business based search engine, taking a course from the robust inventory offered by open source networks. It can also be as comprehensive as a corporate wide network making full use of technology such as such as regular internet search, specialized databases, Wikipedia, Social software (blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, instant messaging, web based video, podcasts). As consultant Peter Senge puts it, “…informal learning is that which allows the tacit knowledge resident in a group to emerge and be exchanged, sometimes by serendipity, sometimes in the course of accomplishing a specific project, through the construction of spaces that support learning.
    The following diagram outlines Formal compared to Informal learning –

    Source – The Learning Circuits Blog

    Two additional key benefits of Informal Learning are that it has a significant positive impact on the corporate culture and it contributes to the transfer of tacit knowledge which is vital to corporate performance
    Informal learning is not meant to completely replace formal learning. Rather the two are blended into a composite approach that increases the return for the company’s investment in employee learning.
    Informal Learning Advantages
    A well executed corporate Informal Learning process has a number of benefits –
     Cost savings
     Increased employee productivity
     Improved customer relationships
     Fast new product development
    Informal Learning Corporate Example

    According to Jeanne C. Meister, writing in Chief Learning Officer Magazine, one company using informal learning in an innovative way is Intel Corp. They have created an in-house wiki called Intelpedia. This is a way for Intel employees to share knowledge, collaborate with employees and post need-to-know company information in a safe, behind-the-firewall space. Within the first six months, more than 10,000 page lookups were tracked and Intelpedia has quickly become the go-to place for new recruits who need to know what an Intel acronym means or want the latest update on a project.

    Examples of Financial Benefits

     Accenture receives a 353% return on investment in learning. The Communities of Practice are an excellent approach for Accenture professionals to exchange information and learn from one another.

     IBM employees learn 5 times as much at 1/3 the cost of classroom instruction. “Basic Blue,” was developed as a new, worldwide management training program. IBM uses Basic Blue to deliver critical leadership information to new IBM managers via a combination of e-learning, simulations, in-field experiences, face-to-face, experience based workshops, and coaching.

    Building The Case For Informal Learning

    While Informal Learning has been established, only an estimated 10% of companies are using it.

    If you are senior level manager with the authority to take action, you can have your team develop an implementation plan. Otherwise you will need to do some selling

    First, expect resistance. Any new venture that will impact the company will disrupt some entrenched practices. For example as Dr Peter Honey, writing in the Training Journal puts it –
     the tendency to keep doing what you’ve always done – in this case, peddling courses
     following the herd – ‘if all the big organizations offer formal courses, then we’d better too’ (I will explain how this aspect can also be used to support Informal Learning)
     the fact that it is relatively easier for managers to send people off on courses than to bother with providing staff with work-based learning opportunities
     the recreational aspect – many people like attending formal courses as a welcome respite from the stresses and strains of their normal workplace

    Next plant the seed. The “follow the herd” aspect I call benchmarking. I would organize examples of what other companies are doing such as Intel, Accenture and IBM. Be sure to highlight the business benefits they are realizing. Put this in a short, well written memo to your boss.

    If you get an OK to proceed you will need to build the business case. Fortunately there are some good resources available.

     Start with Jay Cross’s (the Informal Learning Guru) article “ at –

     An excellent view of informal learning from a corporate perspective–

     Visit The Ageless Learner site for lots of information —

     At this site also visit Informal Learning website by Marcia L. Conner for additional useful information –
     A must read is The e-Learning Strategy Workbook
    These resources will get you up to speed the build the Informal Learning case for your organization.
    Finally, there is another benefit, if don’t already know about Web 2.0, you will learn enough to have an interesting conversation with the Millenials generation in your organization.


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