I’ve never liked the term “informal learning.” Unlike formal learning, which we qualified well with modalities such as the classroom and e-learning, informal learning seems to be the catchall for anything not formal. Everything from coffee breaks, to emails, to parking lot conversations falls under the informal domain based on this definition. We as learning professionals need to better qualify the non-formal technologies and approaches that we can control and should measure.
This relatively loose definition has made it difficult to create, justify and take responsibility for an incredibly powerful discipline, one often more impactful than other formal programs we’ve released to date. We can do a better job of understanding all that is involved in formalizing non-formal learning and support activities.
First, let’s stop calling it informal learning. Years ago Gloria Gery helped us better define the phrase “electronic performance support,” and we should continue to build on her work. Her definition was first published in her book Electronic Performance Support Systems in 1991, but it’s even more applicable to today’s world.
Gery defined electronic performance support as: An orchestrated set of technology-enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.
This challenges our efforts to enable many of these learning technologies; we can’t assume our learners know how to use them effectively. This is one of the leading causes of unsuccessful performance support initiatives such as social learning. These technologies need to be woven into the learners’ workflow, and they should be taught how to use them effectively.
During the past several years, I’ve seen many efforts to establish performance support technologies and initiatives that attempted to support learners in the workplace. A type of maturity model appeared. Like adopting any other new training approach, learning organizations have evolved their understanding of how to effectively apply it. Here are four levels I have observed emerging from these approaches.
Scattered task-based support: This is the most immature effort. It is built on the premise that simply supplying technologies and resources to a learner, and in many cases too many resources, is enough. This is where powerful tools such as learning management systems and Microsoft SharePoint have been misused and misrepresented. Performance support is a discipline where more is not better, and simply supplying choices is not enough. When a learner is trying to survive in the workflow, brevity, focus and clarity are key. This approach has significantly damaged the success of these potentially powerful tools.
Specific information support: This is where a single modality emerges regarding supporting one specific topic. Mobile learning is emerging as a powerful approach in this area. The benefit of this approach is that it’s not far-reaching and tends to remain fairly simple and specific.
Targeted contextual support: This approach takes a significant step forward in that it typically involves contextualizing workflows, job roles and circumstances. It is a highly enabling approach found most frequently in IT applications, but can bridge into soft skills as well. Like specific information support, it is focused on one application or discipline, but goes much deeper in its ability to broker a host of related resources relative to learner context.
Enterprise-wide workflow support: Since most learners use multiple applications, as well as many non-system tasks, to do their work, mature learning organizations recognize that the ultimate goal is an overarching performance support framework that not only guides a learner in a specific area, it supports him or her across the entire workflow. These frameworks are embedded across applications, while simultaneously supporting non-system tasks.
If we are to optimize the power of informal learning, we need to move beyond understanding today’s applications. Like formal instruction, which has had years of analysis and design, performance support deserves equal time and, when done well, it can strengthen our formal efforts.