The 7 stages of effective management of informal learning
Robin is the author of Informal Learning in Organizations: How to Create a Continuous Learning Culture. In this article he explains how his research for the book convinced him that these 7 stages are critical if organizations are to derive the benefits that informal learning has to offer.
People have learned on the job since time immemorial and picked up habits, good and bad, along the way. Now there is renewed interest in how the potential of informal learning can be harnessed. This is hardly a surprise. Technology which provides greater connectivity, new opportunities for collaboration over time and distance and easy access to great minds, was always going to impact the way we learn.
It’s not all plain sailing. We’re awash with information. We could float serenely on this pool of knowledge, but more often we feel we are being buffeted by tidal waves of fact and fallacy.
In developing a guide to help organizations manage informal learning, it became clear that navigating the infinite amount of information available to anyone with a smartphone or internet connection was vital. I concluded that there are seven stages to effective management that organizations need to embrace if their people are to apply what they have seen online.
- Signpost: As a minimum, the organization should point those requiring additional skills and knowledge to reliable sources of advice. This may include maintaining a resource platform and facilitating search activities by those wishing to find out more. This does not preclude the use of Google or other search engines, but the organization gains no competitive advantage from its personnel merely accessing the information that others have chosen to make freely available.
- Resource: Learning requires action. If individual employees are to take the risk of trying something new, the organization needs to encourage a process of trial and error. This may be as simple as providing an opportunity to use the new idea, knowledge or process before it is forgotten. Enterprises also need to allow occasional failures in real live situations. In a manufacturing operation, for example, junior staff trying out new manufacturing approaches may create additional waste. Customer service teams may take slightly longer to deal with customer queries. Average performance scores may dip. The short-term costs of doing things more slowly and learning from mistakes must be weighed against the longer term benefits of increased capability.
- Support: Often we see new skills and approaches abandoned in favour of the tried and tested simply because a little encouragement is lacking at the lowest moments. Enabling peers to come together who may all be struggling with the same issues can remove that sense of isolation. If everyone is feeling the strain, sharing the sense of frustration can be cathartic and energizing for the next push towards the mastery of new skills.
Of course in a networked world this does not need to be face to face. Bringing people together in facilitated online groups can be a great alternative to racking up the air miles or even negotiating the room booking calendar in the corporate HQ. The pre-existing connection seems to make a difference. Where a connection exists in the real world this reduces performative posturing in the online space. To share real learning and to discuss areas of difficulties openly requires a degree of authenticity which ‘making a good impression’ sometimes strips from our exclusively online interactions.
- Respond: As new skills and knowledge are being used with increasing expertise the first response is to acknowledge the new found capability and let people get on with things. Too often informally gained skills are not recognized and team members denied the opportunities and responsibilities which will enable them to grow in their role. Organizations which provide the freedom to learners to work in new ways in a supportive environment garner significant benefits. Creativity is not only valuable to the organization in terms of improving performance or saving time and costs. Having the opportunity to use their creativity increases job satisfaction and employee engagement.
- Enlist: An individual’s confidence with technology, including a degree of media literacy to ensure that not every tweet, blog and online article is uncritically accepted, should also be a factor. Subsequently, learners may transfer from learner to learned and we also need them to have the skills to share their knowledge.
There is a significant quality control question here. Jaron Lanier, in his book ‘You are not a Gadget’, takes issue with the prevailing idea that if we have enough contributors, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ will smooth out any lack of quality. It is, as Lanier points out, wholly bogus to suggest there is a crowdsourced alternative to ‘garbage in; garbage out’. “Collectives can be just as stupid as any individual – and, in important cases, stupider. Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals.” By enlisting those well-meaning individuals, the organization is attempting to reduce the amount of ill-informed opinion in favour of a discussion anchored in real experience and founded on sound principles.
- Validate: I was unsure about including validation in this list of organizational activities until I met the team at insurance company LV=. Their Resolv= platform enables customer service representatives to ask questions which could be answered by anyone in the business. Being a regulated industry, it also relied on experts endorsing or correcting the answers given. Validation of contributions enables individuals to be recognized for developing their expertise and being prepared to share their learning. This also leads to further learning needs being identified. If a question posted in a forum generates several misleading or straight-out wrong answers, that’s data which needs to be acted upon.
- Publicize: Finally, the process requires a certain concentration of resources around telling people what is there. Get this right and it’s part of the recognition and reward strategy for those who have contributed. It also promotes a solution which is designed to speed time to competence.
One of the things I found most often while researching Informal Learning in Organizations was that workers are expected to take more and more responsibility for their own capability with less and less guidance about how to do so. Where social networks are allowed or enabled, often it is left to a 20-something with an Instagram account and knowledge of hashtags to decipher the world of social media. As this checklist shows, navigating 21st Century information requires a more strategic approach.
Informal Learning in Organizations is published in September 2015. You can order a copy at 20% discount by using the code INFORM720 at the checkout on this website.