Informal learning, the 95% solution

Informal learning is not better than formal training; there is just a whole lot more of it. It’s 95% of workplace learning, according to the research behind this graphic, by Gary Wise.

 Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have gone through a period where training departments have been directed to control organizational learning. It was part of the Taylorist, industrial model that also compartmentalized work and ensured that only managers were allowed to make decisions. In this context, only training professionals were allowed to talk about learning. But formal training, usually in the guise of courses, is like a hammer that sees all problems as nails. Unfortunately, these nails only account for 5% of organizational learning.

A significant percentage of workplace learning professionals are solidly grounded in that 5% of workplace learning that is formal training. They know the systems approach to training (SAT), instructional systems design (ISD) and the ADDIE model (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation), among some less useful things like learning styles and Bloom’s taxonomy. There are plenty of hammer-wielders in corporate training departments, supported by an entire industry, including institutions and professional associations, all addressing that 5 percent.

Supporting informal learning at work is not as clear-cut as something like ISD. It requires tools, processes and methodologies from a variety of disciplines. There are methods from knowledge management, organizational development and human performance technology, for example, that are quite useful in supporting informal learning. The modern workplace is a complex adaptive system. There is no single approach that can be used all the time.

We  should not constrain our approach with a single methodological lens when looking at organizational performance. While all models are flawed, some may be useful, and any analysis requires an understanding of the situational context and then the selection of the most useful models. Today there is no agreed-upon informal learning design methodology. I doubt that a single one would be useful anyway.

An industrial age mindset would require a unified approach for informal learning, but the network age demands an acceptance of perpetual Beta. We have many methods and frameworks that can better inform us how to design work systems. When learning is the work, the support systems have to enable both. Integrating the best of what we know from multiple disciplines, in an evidence-based fashion, is the way to proceed and support complex, creative, collaborative work. Several of these next practices have been discussed here or amongst my colleagues.

To create real learning organizations, there is a choice. We can keep bolting on bits of informal learning to the formal training structure, or we can take a systemic approach and figure out how learning can be integrated into the workflow – 95% of the time.

17 Responses to “Informal learning, the 95% solution”

  1. Dave Ferguson

    As you already know, not that many learning professionals are familiar with Geary Rummler, who with coauthor Alan Brache wrote:

    Most training attempts to improve organization and process performance by addressing only one level (the Job Level) and only one dimension of the Job Level (skills and knowledge). As a result, the training has no significant long-term impact, training dollars are wasted, and trainees are frustrated and confused.

    Elsewhere in Improving Performance they said:

    We have found that about 80 percent of performance improvement opportunities reside in the environment. Usually, 15 to 20 percent of the opportunities are in the Skills and Knowledge area. We have found that fewer than 1 percent of performance problems result from Individual Capacity deficiencies.

    I don’t think all that many people in the workplace learning field ask themselves, “Do I want to improve performance, or do I want to work on skill and knowledge gaps?”

    • Harold Jarche

      The work of human performance technologists (HPT) like Geary Rummler have made great strides in pulling the training & development function out of the weeds to become more business focused, as you show Dave. My experience is that developing performance consulting skills is a good first step in getting beyond “training as a solution looking for a problem”.

  2. chris saeger

    Harold, your articles are always thought provoking. Thank you for your efforts.

    Building upon Dave’s comment, If moving from classroom to a more work-centered approach is the desired outcome. Who should be pushing that change? What are the 15-20 percent knowledge and skills? and what are the environmental variables.

    My first grad school text was Improving Performance. I learned alternatives to classroom training. Many years later as a training department director I often struggled with clients who insisted on a formal training approach. They went so far as to create “classes” out of job aids that were created to directly support the worker. I got comments like “we have to make sure they get this”. Meaning that I tell them in a powerpoint. The training department actions reflects overall company management approaches.

    The other driver of the classroom is the compliance mindset (at least in the united states). After a (you fill in the name) lawsuit, the court may mandate training. Other regulatory systems often require some kind of formal training.

    All of this is to say, that the learning profession’s job may be to demonstrate how the workflow approach provides reliable and low cost results that support the organizations desired way of working.

    • Harold Jarche

      Progress definitely lies outside the training department, though some members may be able to make the transition. Integrating learning into the workflow is the core focus I share with my colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance. As I mentioned in another forum, one of our Fortune 500 clients has decided to outsource all course development, once training has been selected as the appropriate solution. The (much smaller) corporate university is now focusing on supporting the lines of business with performance consulting, knowledge-sharing tools and enabling self-directed learning.

  3. Conor Neill

    I was reflecting on this idea. No kid has ever failed to learn the language of the society in which they live, yet we “fail” kids in language courses in school. Surely it should be the “teaching” that gets the fail.

    Almost all real language learning occurs in “informal” mode. The class gives a little bit of structure, the diploma keeps the student working a little more than they might without this carrot – but the actual learning is happening more outside of the classroom than inside.

    For student-led learning – the challenge then is finding ways of structuring the environment + incentives to encourage greater productivity, creativity, innovation.

  4. Rich Shadrin

    Couldn’t agree more with the need for an emphasis on informal learning –even something as simple as one colleague demonstrating a particular skill to another is more powerful than courseware full of scenarios.
    The difficulty is — as yu say — informal learning is incongruent with the corporate model — still one of command and control. And with the infrastructure built, and political/financial fiefdoms in place, how do you propose to make informal learning well…formalized to find it’s way onto the dais?
    I see and believe in the argument and the concept, but I can’t find anyone who has made a serious attempt at adopting informal learning as a mainstay or even a real adjunct to formal instruction.
    How about some examples? Or is this another piece of research of interest leaving people around shaking their heads in paralysis by analysis?

    • Harold Jarche

      Jay Cross’s book Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance has many examples, so I would highly recommend it, Rich.

      Here’s a recent example, mentioned previously. One of our clients (a Fortune 500 company), has outsourced all formal course development and now its (reduced) corporate university staff act as performance consultants to the lines of business, focusing on knowledge-sharing, collaboration and fostering self-directed learning. They understand the importance of integrating learning into the workflow. This has been enabled by using social software, like Jive, and document sharing, like Sharepoint, to promote transparency and narration of work, essential components of social learning in the workplace.

      There are a few hundred posts on Informal Learning here on this blog as well.

  5. Chris Osborn

    I agree with your post! However, you beg the question – HOW do we integrate learning into everyday workflows? It’s certainly not easy, and it’s not about – using your term – “bolting on bits” of informal learning to a formal training structure.

    What we are beginning to see emerge is some really new and really interesting thinking about how learning professionals must learn to function. We simply have to quit thinking of ourselves as the providers of training. Instead, we must learn to think and act like the facilitators of knowledge sharing or learning.

    It’s an exciting time to be in the industry, and I sincerely appreciate your excellent contributions.

  6. Mahesh Ram

    Dear Harold, Just found your blog and glad I did! I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with some of your colleagues at the ITA, and it’s always provocative. With regard to your post, one key to unlocking the potential of informal learning is to bring the technology to the place where work is done, ie. for knowledge workers in the desktop applications NOT in the learning portal, learning catalog or LMS. At GlobalEnglish we did this in a humble way a couple of years back and last year our subscribers did 13MM performance support transactions in the workflow. This was unexpected but a pivotal moment for our thinking – we now invest tremendous effort in meeting subscribers (aka learners or users) where they already are, infusing existing workflows (email, documents, CRM) with performance support and embedded expertise. Every customer that has seen this gets the transformational potential, but until they see it, they don’t ‘get’ it. I liken it to the way Google made everyone a ‘researcher’ overnight. Why not the same for learning and knowledge??? Looking forward to reading your blog regularly, as you are foretelling an exciting future that is unfolding before our eyes!

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Mahesh, your case is most interesting. Have you written it up in more detail anywhere? I’d like to highlight it as a case study, if you’re willing.


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