Formalized informal learning: a blend we don’t need

Telling people that we can “formalize informal learning” is a not so subtle way of saying, “it’s OK, you don’t have to make any fundamental changes to the way you’ve been been doing training & development for the past half century”.

I asked the question in February’s eCollab Blog Carnival, with tongue very close to my cheek, because I knew it would stimulate discussion on the role of informal learning in workplace performance. I never thought anyone would seriously adopt it, but on viewing Jay Cross’s slides yesterday, it seems many have.

Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with Jay on the subject:

When asked if we should try to formalize informal learning, Jay responded by saying that 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.

Two core themes in supporting informal learning are control and trust. Managers and supervisors need to give up some control and organizations must learn to trust their people, says Jay. Embracing, encouraging and supporting informal learning is part of a greater workplace cultural change.

Aye, there’s the rub – our organizations actually need to change.

We need to change from this:

To this:

This kind of change is not just adding another “blend” to the training bar-mix. It is a fundamental change required to move from a command & control pyramid to a network. It means a very different training department, if it’s even called that any more, as well as a new framework for informal, social learning in the enterprise. The required role for supporting workers is connecting, communicating & collaborating.

Jim McGee summed up the difference in yesterday’s conversation on a world without KM, the “best argument for Social Networks over Knowledge Management is shift in perspective from static content to dynamic interaction“.

It’s the same for training. Informal learning is dynamic and social (on the fly, just-in-time, self-directed, group-directed, serendipitous) while formal training is static (designed, directed, evaluated). What about a world without ISD (instructional systems design)? The best argument favouring informal learning over formal training is a shift in perspective from static content to dynamic interaction. It also means a loss of control for training departments everywhere. Tough.

Don’t try to formalize informal learning. Just help people do their jobs.

Here’s some final advice from @mneff during yesterday’s KM conversation: “Focus on connection & collaboration. The management of assets is mostly obsolete by the time it is stored.”

13 Responses to “Formalized informal learning: a blend we don’t need”

  1. Frank

    I do agree with this, Harold and I’ve attended webinars and seminars listening to you, Jay and others on the subject which I’ve enjoyed. You can’t formalize informal learning, simple as.

    Still, I can see why training departments and HR managers “worry” though. Their workers’ skill is, more often than not, the companies core competitive advantage in a global market. It’s hard to accept the loss of control, perhaps.

    Good post, thanks.


    • Harold Jarche

      Training Depts and HR managers can still support workers, they just need to do it differently in a networked environment. Giving up control; listening more & improving communications are some of the ways to start.

  2. Jon Husband

    “@Frank .. I think “control” will come to be viewed very differently in progressive, intelligently lead-and-managed organizations.

    Why would you ever want to leave an organization that values what you had to offer and had to say ? Why would you not enjoy making your best contributions at a company that actually worked at helping you understand that you are valued and that your (hard) work and desire to learn (so that you can keep on doing things better .. i.e. work is learning, learning is work) are a fundamental part of its success?

    I’d want to work there. There have been examples of such organizations in the past .. and there’s sort-off a nod to these ideas in the annual “10 (or 100) Best Companies to Work For” surveys. The Hay Group does one each year for Fortune magazine, and there’s one out here in BC carried out by BC Business magazine.

    Anyway .. I am pretty sure the social contract re; working and why and how we work will keep changing, and smart organizations will, I think, begin to understand that helping employees keep learning (mostly from each other) is nothing but in those organizations’ best interests .. wjether or not they ‘feel’ a bit less in control.

  3. Guy Boulet

    Formalizing means establishing a framework and procedures. Formalizing informal learning would therefore imply regulating informal channels and everybody knows what happens when you impose rules on individuals: they immediately find ways to circumvent them.

    So formalizing the way people learn informally will just force individuals to find new ways of learning informally, outside the regulated channels and therefore this is and endless loop doomed to failure.

    Rather than trying to formalize informal learning we should seek to support it by providing time and opportunities to do share and exchange. We should act on the environment, not on the process itself.

  4. Jay Cross

    Harold, thanks for this. You expressed my thoughts better than I would have. Why is this so hard for people to understand? Indeed, I attribute it to fears of losing control. It’s the age-old war of bottom-up versus top-down. Vendors are telling people top-down is still okay. There by dragons.


  5. Simon Bostock

    it depends on what’s meant by ‘formalise’.

    Whichever way you look at it, there’s a chasm to cross; wirearchy is a new technology subject to the Technology Adoption LifeCycle. It’s a non-incremental change.

    I think we often, subconsciously perhaps, see this transitional period (and, like you, I see this change as both inevitable and desirable – NB a lethal combination when it comes to rationality and avoiding cognitive bias) as a bit like melting. The command and control structures will ‘unfreeze’ and knowledge, engagement and value will flow.

    But it’s far more likely that non-incremental change feels more like detonation than melting. Wirearchy is explosive and ‘disruptive innovation’ is as messy as it sounds.

    Counter-intuitively, ‘formalisation’ can help – a CEO can, for example, formalise a new social contract. As a few already have. Explosion then, hopefully, becomes propellant.

    As another example, consider Social Media in the enterprise. It’s difficult for this to ‘happen’ without a ‘formalisation’ of the process. The benefits of Social Media occur mainly at scale following Metcalfe’s Law (though this ‘law’ works better as metaphor – Metcalfe’s Metaphor?). So, it’s easier for a leader to announce it as a new direction by ‘ordering’ its adoption than for it to happen.

    (I should note here that I’m sounding a little like an evolution-denialist. How could something as complex and useful as a banana evolve? I’m not saying it can’t, but natural evolution has an advantage that business doesn’t – time).

    So, as usual, I’m violently agreeing with you. But ‘formalising’ the informal is more of a paradox than an absurdity.

  6. Josh

    I do use the phrase “formalize” – although I use it to mean getting support in terms of training (how to use social tools and be aware of privacy (PII) info and client info/risk exposure, etc)), a sensible home for the budget to keep the lights on, and some reporting. The money piece is key – some formal piece of the organization has to pay for this (e.g. sharepoint or a Yammer or SocialCast rollout) to have it work in my org – KM, learning and IT have all funded skunk works version – but full enterprise will require “formalizing” – so….what phrase do I use?

  7. Dennis Callahan

    I try not to label terms and just do as you’ve said, “Just help people do their jobs”
    I like the Social Networks comparison.

    From my perspective, I don’t see control as the issue. The Training Department doesn’t control training – the business controls training and workers control the learning.

    I think the challenge for the Training Department is trying to influence and support workers that need to make the “shift” or are in the “shift”.

  8. Virginia Yonkers

    Doesn’t it really come down to the organization being able to evaluate what skills and knowledge (knowledge resources) that they have and being able to access them?

    The easiest way to do that is through formal training and evaluation tools. This identifies the core competencies of the organization and identifies where there may be knowledge gaps.

    However, this is a production model of an organization, upon which most of our organizations have depended for at least a century. The service model that many knowledge organizations should be adopting looks like the wirearchy diagram with a flat management model. What needs to happen is a new way to analyze the core competencies (which is dynamic) along with organizational potential (looking at skills that may not have been identified as a competency but would add to the organization). In other words, we don’t need to formalize informal learning but rather find new ways to measure it and reward workers for it.

  9. Frank

    @Jon I think you’re right when you say smart organisations will see that employees learning from eachother is in it’s best interest and will strengthen its competitive advantage. I truly hope so!

    My previous comment was poorly phrased, maybe. I am not one of those that share the fear of “loss” of control, I’m merely stating that this is my impression from talking to HR managers and Training departments in various businesses.

    Also, in my experience, a difference between various industry. I work with/for heavy industry like paper mills, metal industry(extractive metallurgy) etc, it might be expected that these industries are more traditional in their way of thinking (not always, mind you), than say a tech company like IBM. ‘Top down’ is a common practice, I’m sad to say.

    @Jay Thanks for the example of an american business that stated they save large expenses in implementing Yammer as a communication tool on a global scale. That example seem to go down well with companies I talk to. It’s learning “hidden” behind communication and it makes my picth easier to some extent.

    @Virginia Being Norwegian, we truly have some of the best potential in the world of making wirearchy a central part of any model. Our management model is as flat as they come 🙂
    A challenge for many organisations is documenting/identifying skills and competency of employees. I couldn’t agree more, we need a new way of analyzing the core competencies.

    Also, being Norwegian, my apologies for any wrongdoing to the english language through my posts 🙂

    Great debate here and some brilliant replies to a great post. Hope it doesn’t end here.



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