Increased complexity needs simplified design

In the book Informal Learning: rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance, Jay Cross draws a parallel between the development of:

1) Bands, 2) Kingdoms, and 3) Democracies


1) Small, local businesses, 2) Large, central corporations, and 3) Loosely coupled networks.

bands to democracy

The learning analogy Jay provides is

1) One on One, 2) Classes & Workshops, and 3) Informal learning. I’d like to expand on this.

Most learning of skills was based on an apprenticeship model until quite recently and this model still exists in some fields. One of the limitations of apprenticeship is that it does not scale. Each master is limited in how many personal relationships can be managed.


With better communications, the course model enabled expertise to be collected, first with books and later with other storage media such as video and audio. However, the limiting factors were lack of access to the resources and the shortage of connections between expertise and need.

training pyramid

The course model is an artifact of a time when information was scarce and connections were few. Now that many of us live in messy democracies and work in loose networks, learning has become complex with more connections to influence us. According to the authors of Getting to Maybe, in complex environments:

  • Rigid protocols are counter-productive
  • There is an uncertainty of outcomes in much of our work
  • We cannot separate parts from the whole
  • Success is not a fixed address

As Jay has said, informal learning is a better approach for more complex environments. Given the above, here are some guidelines for what informal learning development could look like:

  1. Spend less time on design and more on ongoing evaluation to allow emergent practices to be developed.
  2. Build learning resources so that they can be easily changed or modified by anyone (allow for a hacker mentality)
  3. Allow everything to be connected, so that the work environment is the learning environment (but look for safe places to fail)
  4. There is no clearly defined start or finish so enable connections from multiple access points.

Information is no longer scarce and our connections are now many. If an organizational informal learning effort lets people connect more easily and communicate more effectively, then it will have a chance of success. Connecting & Communicating are central roles for organizational leaders whose workplaces are becoming more complex, either in terms of evolving practices, changing markets or advances in technology. Enabling the integration of collaborative learning with work is a more flexible model than designing courses that are outdated as soon as they’re published.

emergent learning

Related posts:

Informal Learning & Performance Technology

Analysis for Informal Learning

Note: this will be the theme of my Trading Post session on 20 October at the CSTD Conference.

7 Responses to “Increased complexity needs simplified design”

  1. Janshs

    Very thought provoking and a good read. Thanks. Moving towards a collaborative approach across age groups is likely to be the way forward in a range of contexts, I agree.

  2. Ken Allan

    Kia ora e Harold!

    I agree with this approach. It’s appropriate for selecting effective learning methods and associated practices in today’s world.

    I am also cautious of the idea that, in viewing complexity it’s important not to oversimplify the view one has of it all. In addressing complexity there’s always the danger that’s illustrated by shaving too closely with Occam’s Razor. This can impact on the selection of a learning method and render a result that short-changes the learner.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

    • Harold Jarche

      Good point, Ken. Even though I propose a simplified process, I agree that we need to understand complexity and take it into account in our decisions. There are no simple answers.


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