Everyday experience is not the same as it was

The learning and development field has a lot of good research on how to support workplace performance. Tom Gram has some excellent posts and resources that discuss performance by design. His most recent post, Everyday Experience is Not Enough, summarizes what it takes to support workplace learning. It’s definitely worth reading and following the links to other resources.

Some of the best learning approaches that work well in helping people challenge their current skill levels fall into that fuzzy middle ground between formal and informal learning (see this post for a continuum of learning experiences) and can include the following:

Designing, fostering and supporting work experiences that develop expertise is an emerging role for the learning professional. That role is to assure that people are working in a setting where they can challenge and develop their knowledge and skills. You can’t make them learn but you can help surround them with the resources they need to learn. This approach to learning is truly a partnership between the individual, their managers and you as a learning professional. In doing that work you are practicing and developing your own expertise.

I agree with Tom. But I have a sense that things are changing and our interconnectedness is shifting the ground rules, without being so kind to inform our institutions or professional associations. Tom starts his post with his own admonishment of those “social” folks:

A core tenet of informal and social learning is that we learn through experience. It’s the elephant in the 70-20-10 room. It’s often used as an admonishment to formal learning. Advocates of the most laissez-faire approaches informal learning suggest that given the right tools (social anyone?) employees will do just fine without all the interference by the learning department, thank you very much.

Like I said, I agree with Tom, and highly respect his work. But there’s stuff happening that isn’t following all our best practices based on years of research. Cases like children learning at the Hole-in-the-Wall (HiW), without any guidance. Peter Isackson has described the subversive nature of social learning in the HiW experiments:

It seems to me that the fundamental key to the success of HiW is the notion of “self-organized groups” who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, as Jay suggests, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to reach them, entrusting the groups with this task. If educational gurus (authorities) notice that a group is neglecting what is considered “essential” in the curriculum (for whatever reason, whether it’s basic security, survival or inculcating an existing set of values), the group could be challenged to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it. Respecting the self-organizing group and its decision-making capacity is the sine qua non of success. It also happens to be the absolute opposite of the organizational principles of traditional education and training.

John Seely Brown (JSB) often tells the story of a group of young surfers, The Grommets, who learn by watching videos of those who are better and constantly improve their skills through practice and collaboration. This Singapore Educational Consultants’ review sums it up [more links at bottom of the article]:

According to JSBThe Grommets underwent these stages in their pursuit of excellence:

a) Deep collaborative learning with/from each other;
b) A passion to achieve extreme performance and a willingness to fail, fail, fail on the way;
c) Accessing and learning frame by frame the best surfers around the world via videos of the pros;
d) Use of video tools to capture and analyze each of their own improvisations;
e) Pulling the best of ideas from adjacencies: wind surfing, skate boarding, mountain biking, motor-cross and others;
f) Accessing spikes of capabilities around the world – leveraging networks of practice around the world; and
g) Attracting others to help them around the world

The Grommets are a case of self-directed learning done collaboratively. Cognitive apprenticeship is now available for the taking because many experts are narrating their work, or are being captured by video while doing their work. This phenomenon will continue to pervade our society. We’ve all gone mobile now. We’re getting continuous feedback from our networks, as The Grommets and even the kids at HiW did. It’s not uncommon today for a 12 year old to have an international network. These can often act as learning networks. More and more people will be coming to your workplace with their own feedback systems already in place.

I think the game has changed. I’m not a social learning, laissez-faire, utopian but I am seeing fundamental changes with networked learning. The learners now own their networks. Workplace learning will change as well, and it will change how work gets done. People are creating their own narratives. Today, content capture and creation tools let people tell their own stories. Weaving their stories together enables serendipitous learning at the adjacencies. Gamers, hackers, The Grommets and HiW learn by:

  • Sharing their stories.
  • Knowing there is no user manual.
  • Embracing the flow.
Some day, perhaps very soon, everyday experience for networked workers may be much broader, deeper and richer than any workplace learning professional could ever design. Perhaps I’m thinking too far ahead of the curve, but I get the sneaking suspicion that things are changing faster than we suspect.

6 Responses to “Everyday experience is not the same as it was”

  1. Tom Gram

    Hey Harold. Thanks for picking up on the post. We may just have to agree to agree then! My main point is that the learning needed to build expertise in an increasingly skilled workplace requires deep and effortfull practice embedded in the work we do. I’d also argue that rich feedback is the main vehicle by which that happens (wherever it may come from). Our organizations are atrocious at providing the kind of feedback needed to truly develop expertise and this is the environment most people work in. Thus everyday experience is not enough.

    Expert performers seek out the feedback they need to improve using whatever tools they have at their disposal to do so. (which i think is your argument above) Of course that includes social tools and networks. But perhaps where we differ a bit is that I don’t think the those tools themselves provide the environment that can replace the rich feedback people need to learn. I’m also concerned that sometimes informal learning gets equated to simply letting people gain “experience” (70%!) whatever form it takes. People learn their mistakes in the same way they learn from their mistakes. Models of excellent performance and great feedback is the difference between the two.

    If I’m reading you right, your issue is that learning units or institutions are not or should not be relevant in an individuals learning process because superior guidance, feedback and collaboration are available through their own network. This can certainly be true for those 30% of the workforce that are knowledge workers. But the majority of over worked employees will welcome (are in fact desperate) for any effective assistance to helping them do their work better, and it’s also in the best interests of the organization to do provide it. God knows it could be done better.

    A while ago many of us thought self-regulating teams, was a shift away from authority based organizations to more engaged organizations. Team structure which is now prevalent, have increased engagement but did not replace authority. I recognize social media is a tangibly different vehicle, but we attribute the same hopes for it. I think we’ll see again that organizational structures won’t overturned by it, but that social media will find its way to be useful to organizations, like teams and communities. Maybe it’s main result will be that we start to see organizational structure not as unmoving monolith, but can something that evolves, change and adapts to innovations like social learning and use it in very effective ways to engage people in their own learning and performance.

    BTW, i thought the The John Seely Brown and Peter Isackson examples you provide are great examples that it’s the rich feedback so desperately needed for real learning. So important that people create for themselves.

    • Harold Jarche

      We definitely agree to agree, Tom. Your post got my thinking going off on a tangent, and I wanted to get my half-baked thoughts out before I forgot them. I see that in the education system it’s getting easier to connect and learn outside the institution then it is inside. The same in the workplace, as you mention our atrocious feedback systems. So what happens to workplace learning? I think L&D professionals are going to have to go through a major metamorphosis to stay relevant. They are going to have take into account these extended learning networks that are outside the organizational boundaries. Learning units will have to show their relevance in this inter-networked world. I think it’s more than providing the supports and resources you mention, it’s also understanding there are outside resources that they don’t control and accepting that is part of the mix too.

  2. Jon Husband

    This post sparked the following thought in me head.

    Whether formal or informally available, it seems to me that any intelligent effort spent in helping people WANT to learn about whatever will be repaid in spades. If people really WANT to learn something, they’ll get hungry for and use whatever is on offer .. and may also find or develop work-arounds that let them get to what they want to understand or know faster and better.

    It’s like that answer to the age-old dilemma to how to herd cats .. let ’em go hungry for a day, and then put out milk. Even the cats not in the vicinity at the time of the putting out will come running.

    Apologies in advance if this comment isn’t directly OT or is seen to be too frivolous by half.

  3. Matt Kinsella

    I have always said the steepest learning curves I have had in my life have not occured in any formal education setting. However as your article points out people need to be in the situation and have access to tools that enable that kind of self education to occur. Also as the previous comment points out : people need to WANT to learn for any education to be truly worthwhile.

  4. Jon Husband

    When people WANT to learn, they hurry ! to do so … there’s a hunger for it.

    Harold & I were discussing yesterday (and many yrs ago) how much change, and how fast, before critical masses) of people start to experience & understand that the ways things are done and work (and jobs) has changed / is changing forever.

    It’s gonna be messy however it unfolds .. I vote for the faster the better, but I suspect there’s certain to be collateral damage along the way. Some of the people I know who have or want regular jobs will be amongst that damage, I’m sure.

    • Harold Jarche

      I noted last week this quote from Paul Saffo, “Figuring out what will replace the job is the great challenge of the next 30 years.” It’s starting.


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