Corporate Learning’s focus

Inspired by Jay Cross, Amanda Fenton asks how her Corporate Learning department could better meet the needs of employees. I think these are excellent questions and the answers form the basis of addressing how to integrate work and learning in the enterprise.

Q1) Close to 80% of learning happens informally and 20% formally, yet we spend most of our time and money on the 20%. How could we better support this and shift our time and money?

There are a few ways to address this imbalance.

The organization can adopt a performance improvement perspective and ensure that all formal training meets a need. HPT (human performance technology) is a broader design approach and should be seen as an enabler to get to instructional systems design (ISD). Without the proper analysis of the organizational needs, constraints and performance factors, a “learning” project may be doomed from the onset, because too often, training is a solution looking for a problem. By doing a performance analysis, it becomes obvious that many performance problems do not require training. I have developed a performance analysis job aid which is available for non-commercial use.

Another approach would be to divert or expand training funds to support informal learning. This could start small but would show that informal learning is important to the organization.  Starting small makes sense because the essence of implementing informal learning is giving up control. This can be scary for managers used to tight command and control. Start with the message that training  addresses less than ten percent of workplace performance. That might get somebody’s attention. Then look at ways to help with the other 90% of work.
One final note, don’t try to formalize informal learning.

Q2) Novices and experts have very different needs (curve from formal to informal). What needs to be in place to better support those differences? How can we support these differences across diverse business units (sales, service and specialized functions)?

Jay Cross and Clark Quinn have used this to explain the formal/informal mix by level of experience:
The above graphic is a good rule of thumb but should not be adhered to slavishly, as there are cases where informal learning works for new hires. I would look at ways to support do-it-yourself learning at all levels.

Q3) How can we shift from teaching content to developing search & find skills, critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, analytical skills, networking skills, people skills, and reasoning and argument skills?

Organizations should start with Dan Pink’s advice – create an environment where workers have autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. A key factor in innovation is to allow people to do meaningful work, in their own way.  The skills listed in this question directly relate to critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking skills may take some time for people used to getting content served on a platter and then being tested on short-term mastery of that content. I don’t see these changes happening overnight.

There are web tools that can be used for critical thinking skills, but tools are not enough. Good informal learning skills are directly linked to critical theory – to question authority, seek the truth and question our own perceptions of reality. All workers need to be good learners but learning cannot be controlled externally, only supported. I like this quote from an unlikely source, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood: “I was going to Martha Graham [College] partly to get away from Lucerne, but also I had to do something so I might as well get an education. That’s how they talked about it, as if an education was a thing you got, like a dress.
Start by giving up total control of the training process and focus instead on connecting & communicating.

Q4) What training programs do we need to provide, at minimum,  for legal compliance purposes?

Compliance training is a symptom of the current disconnect between learning and working. Meeting compliance training objectives is usually not a worthwhile goal for the organization, though it may keep executives out of jail. Ray Jimenez summed up the issues with this type of training when he commented on my post, compliance of an industry:

“This is bold, cut and dry and thanks for the exposition.

I see debilitating effects across the training industry when many of our training colleagues accept “compliance” as the norm for training. a good example is the blind loyalty to testing for retention with little concern for applications in real-job situations.

Why not fight this culture? I might be wrong, but our industry might be too “onion-skinned” to accept self-reflections and self-criticisms that we rather continue to hide the dirty linens than confront them.

How do we lift ourselves out of this mindset?”

In subsequent posts, I look at Amanda’s other questions on:

7 Responses to “Corporate Learning’s focus”

    • Harold Jarche

      Almost all of it is already on this blog. I’ve just curated it. This is some of the explicit knowledge that informs our tacit (contextual) consulting services 🙂

  1. Greg Waddell


    you warn us not to try to formalize informal learning. Isn’t Action Learning an effort to, in some sense, “formalize” this dynamic process, or at least to harness it in a more proactive way? What are your thoughts on Action Learning?

  2. Harold Jarche

    I haven’t mentioned action learning, so I’m not sure why you bring it up specifically, Greg. A quick review of action learning puts it in a similar category as what my colleague Jane Hart calls “group directed learning” or “intra-organisational learning” and I would consider it part of the interdependent learning continuum:

    I can see how AL would be a useful alternative to certain types of workplace training:

  3. Greg Waddell

    I’m sorry. I brought up Action Learning because one of it’s foundational principles has to do with informal learning or tacit learning. I made the jump in my mind because your article dealt with informal learning.


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