Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Learning: Make it Informal

I have a question for leaders who recognize that learning is a critical element of a team's success. "What can leaders do to cultivate learning across their teams?"

It is a broad question with a complex answer. As I wrote in a previous post, the space is vast and multi-dimensional. This is illustrated in my exploratory mindmap.

I can't pretend that I understand the entirety of this space. However, I discovered a single learning concept that resonated with me. Relative to my question, I found Informal Learning a compelling, thought-provoking and amazingly accessible concept. Simply stated, leaders should build and cultivate informal learning on their teams.

What is Informal Learning?
As Jay Cross writes on his Informal Learning blog, "People acquire the skills they use at work informally — talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know."

Informal learning can characterized as learning that:
  • Takes place outside educational establishments.
  • Does not follow a specified curriculum.
  • Will likely be sporadic, incidental, and problem-related.
  • Experienced directly as a function of everyday life.
Cross goes on to say that "informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs." If you'd like to hear Jay describe informal learning, here is a video he supplied in 2007.

Informal learning is the Rodney Dangerfield of learning. It just doesn't get respect. In fact, Allen Tough in his paper, The Iceberg of Informal Adult Learning suggests that about 80% of learning is informal and quite invisible like the iceberg. However, the other 20%, this is learning that is formal, and institutionally organized, get the lion's share of the attention and the largest share of most organization's training budget.

Some even go so far as to suggest that organizations are spending 80% of their training budget to accomplish a mere 20% of their learning. There is clearly some debate about the validity of this comparison. Despite this, in my experience, organizations don't give much attention to the power and potential of informal learning.

The question for leaders is, "How can you support the growth of informal learning in your team?

In a Lead Quietly manner, I decided to look for common threads and identify a handful of principles where leaders could focus their attention in their effort to build informal learning.

Here are the Lead Quietly Principles of Building Informal Learning:

It's Personal

We've always known that different people have different learning styles. My approach to learning; as much as I attempt to build this skill, is not necessarily the optimal approach for anyone else on my team. First and foremost, a leader trying to expand team learning should recognize that any program or learning initiative should account for differences in learning style.

Secondly, leaders should look to understand how their colleagues learn. Although numerous learning style theories exist, I'd encourage leaders to pick a single framework like Fleming's VARK model which divides leaders into four groups:
  1. visual learners
  2. auditory learners
  3. reading/writing-preference learners
  4. kinesthetic learners or tactile learners

Recently, I've started asking applicants during hiring interviews, "How did you learn what you know?" The varied responses led me to believe that you can simply ask and observe in order to build understanding.

With information about personal learning styles, you are in a better position to build informal learning opportunities across your team.

It's Social, It's Networked, It's Collaborative, It's about Community
A paradox of the study of informal learning is that despite the fact that learning style is personal, informal learning is more likely to flourish in an environment based on strong community. Teams easily form communities of practice where they share a passion for a topic or solution. Teams will build community to help each other, share, and learn from each other.

The Lead Quietly blog has focused extensively on approaches to building community and collaboration across teams. And the not-so-surprising finding about community is that the identical community-building approaches apply to both collaboration and learning. Teams that excel at learning, collaboration, and community are teams with a foundation on personal relationships, gratitude, trust, passion, and sharing. The recommendation for leaders, build a strong community for active learning.

It's about Sharing and Conversation
Jay Cross says in his video, "The most powerful instructional technology ever invented is human conversation." In his book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance (Essential Knowledge Resource), he defines conversation as the "stem cells for learning." Through conversation, learning is created and shared in a single process.

As a leader, you simply want to encourage sharing and conversation. As Catherine Lombardozzi writes in Breathing Life into an Informal Learning Strategy,

Sharing expertise and collaborating with others needs to be encouraged, recognized, and rewarded. Reaching out to others for support of learning needs to be viewed as a savvy strategy for getting up to speed and getting ahead. There has to be some room for informal conversation and sharing experiences. In an economic environment where time is increasingly scarce, interpersonal interactions my be undervalued and underutilized, and that will have serious consequences on learning in our organizations.
Leaders should not only participate in the conversation but should mentor, model, and coach with those conversations. I now recognize that when I sit with a co-worker and spend time discussing and exploring, I am creating an informal learning opportunity for both of us. I need to do more of this.

Support Informal Learning with Tools
and a PLE
Almost any discussion of modern trends in learning, be it defined as informal learning, social learning, network learning, or e-learning will end up talking about the tools. As a leader, we should encourage the use of tools that support the discovery, sharing and conversation about learning.

When I propose this, I am not suggesting that your team needs to purchase a sophisticated learning management system. I'm really saying, use the common and readily available tools that are already at your disposal. Jane Hart on her Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies site surveys both learners and learning professionals to identify "Top Tools". Hart's top ten list for learning tools includes common and popular tools like:
  • Google Search
  • YouTube
  • FireFox
  • Twitter
  • Wikepedia
  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Google Reader
  • Gmail

The list is likely familiar. As you use these tools they collectively evolve into a Personal Learning Environment (PLE), a set of tools that you can use to support and manage your learning. Your encouragement and modeling will grow the tool and PLE concept across your team. My PLE is based on tools like FireFox, Google Reader, YouTube, ScribeFire, Twitter, BigTweet, and iGoogle.

Final Thoughts
Informal learning doesn't require big investments, a budget, or even a formal plan. With awareness, modeling, strong community, and support of a team's leader, informal learning can become viral. It's all about learning. A team of learners can tackle any challenge.

Thanks for reading. Learning? Make it informal.

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