Informal Learning becomes Formal

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informallearningIt's now official. After surveying our entire research membership and having more than 30 conversations with leading HR and learning leaders (including with Xerox, Accenture, British Telecom, Edward Jones, Department of Defense, and Network Appliance), I am now 100% convinced that "informal learning" has become "formal." That is, if you want to build a high-impact, cost-effective, modern training organization you must "formally adopt" informal learning.

So what does this all mean? A few statistics:

  • 78% of corporate managers believe that "rapid rate of information change" is one of their top learning challenges (800+ HR and L&D managers surveyed in 2008).
  • 80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts, and managers (estimated data collected from over 1,100 L&D managers late in 2008).
  • Over 30% of all corporate training programs (ie. classroom or other formal programs) are not delivering any measurable value (data provided through the same survey).
  • Nearly all Millenial employees (under the age of 25) expect to find an on-demand learning portal (similar to Google and YouTube) within their employer's environment.

When we asked our research members to tell us their top research needs for 2009, the top request was "how do I build a learning culture which promotes informal and manager-driven learning in our organization?"

Clearly we have reached an inflection point. Where "e-learning" was the big craze in corporate training in the early 2000's, and "blended learning" was the craze in 2003 and 2004, today, thanks to the slowing economy and the widespread availability of social networking and online wikis and portals, "informal learning" is the next big thing.

And best of all, an informal learning strategy saves money. By empowering people to publish their expertise and learn from each other, you can cut spending on content development, external content, and formal training – focusing your energies on the "upper right" training programs in your organization.

So how do you make Informal Learning Formal?

That is to say how do you make it real and valuable? Today we see organizations going through three major steps:

1. First, redefine your role.

Corporate training managers are no longer only "developers and deliverers" of training, but rather the facilitators and champions. Informal learning content is owned and delivered by everyone else in your organization, not you. Your role is to create the systems and processes to enable it to happen, and then monitor its success.

At British Telecom, for example, the corporate learning leader created an internal "YouTube" system called "Dare2Share" – which enables line employees and managers to post any "how-to" information through podcasts or videos online. The usage is exploding. (Peter Butler from BT will be presenting this strategy at our research conference, IMPACT 2009®, in April).

2. Select a technology platform.

You do not need, nor should you expect, an LMS to solve this problem. People need a place to "put their informal learning assets" – which may include documents, slides, podcasts, videos, spreadsheets, and everything else. BT uses Microsoft Sharepoint. Other companies build these systems with inexpensive wiki and social networking software. Today you can build these systems without heavy investment, and unfortunately most of the LMS vendors still do not have much to offer in this areas. (Mzinga, Saba and CornerstoneOnDemand are moving quickly in this direction.)

3. Create Context, promote, market, and monitor success.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must now become a champion. You must go to the line managers in your organization, show them how to share information, and start promoting the use of peer-to-peer learning. Don't be afraid to let people share whatever they want.

At BT, for example, the health and safety organization has become one of the biggest proponents of their informal learning solution. Why? Because now they can see what people are really doing, and they can help improve health and safety procedures by fixing problems they see every day.  Rather than "control" learning and processes, we can now monitor and promote them.

NetworkAppliance allows engineers to post videos of their inventions and best-practices on an internal "You-Tube" type of application. They then enabled rating of the videos and started to track usage. Now the company allows employees to sort and rank the "top ranked" and "most frequently viewed" informal learning objects, and gives employee rewards to the engineers which rank the highest each quarter. What they are doing is creating a self-reinforcing culture of knowledge sharing – the most powerful organizational learning we could every create.

We have a lot of research on this topic, including case studies, our upcoming new Enterprise Learning Framework and two major research studies on this topic. Come to IMPACT 2009® on April 14-16, 2009 in beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida and you will see informal learning in action, learn from industry leaders, and see many of the underlying technologies in the flesh.

Yes, it has really happened. Informal Learning is now formally here.

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin writes on the ever-changing landscape of business-driven learning, HR and talent management. His favorite topics include strategic talent management, creating high-impact learning organizations, and how organizations drive business change and competitive advantage through talent strategy and technology.

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