There are dozens of different ways to dispense learning and development opportunities to teach, encourage use of learning tools and otherwise foster acquisition of the skills and knowledge required to enhance performance and create the bottom line impact that all organizations want. But informal learning, the kind that happens between co-workers outside the classroom, should not be discounted. Studies have shown that when Bob asks Sally one desk over to show him how to conduct X or Y procedure, that learning is just as effective and often more long-lasting than learning derived from another source. Further, there are many ways to encourage this type of just-in-time knowledge sharing, and capture the knowledge for future use.
Joe Hnilo, vice president at ViewCentral said that for managers to create a work environment that encourages informal learning they must get comfortable with the idea that some of your employees will be brighter than you are. “To facilitate learning, a good manager has to be able to delegate and give people independence to make decisions on their own. You can’t make all the decisions, and you shouldn’t be making all the decisions—because if you are, you’re not growing your people. If you’re doing a really good job of recruiting and hiring you’re going to get people who really want to stretch themselves, who want to learn, want to become independent and want to grow their careers.”
This makes sense. According to an article, Strong Value of Self-Directed Learning in the Workplace: How Supervisors and Learners Gain Leaps in Learning, on www.managementhelp.org, most learning is informal or self-directed, and learning becomes even more powerful when the learner decides what areas of knowledge and skills are needed to get something done and then decides how to gain those areas of knowledge and skills.
Hnilo said if you, the manager or leader, believe in granting independence and leeway, your next task is to coach and help remove your subordinates impediments to becoming successful. “For example, say you have a product manager who is interacting with an engineering organization. He is unable to get his engineering counterparts to deliver to him credible completion dates for the next release of a consumer product. I think it’s the managers’ responsibility to talk to the peer engineer and say look, if we slip a release date for a consumer product there are a lot of promotions and expenditures that hinge on a particular date. You’ve got to smooth out communication issues and organizational interactions for your people so that they can be successful in their responsibilities.”
Hnilo said that conferences also are a good way to facilitate informal learning because they offer opportunities for interaction and idea sharing with peers. Cultivating and maintaining networks of people you’ve worked with in the past are important as well, since you never know what insights may come up in general, but work-related conversation. “I gave someone who used to work for me 10 years ago a call just to catch up, and we were talking about direct marketing. She mentioned something to me that I thought was really interesting about very cheap and effective direct response promotions, and that was a useful principle for me to organize my own thinking. I went to my team and said let’s investigate every aspect of electronic direct mail to see if we’re doing it as effectively as we can because there are some very compelling cost efficiencies associated with it. If I had not contacted this woman I wouldn’t have been thinking that way. That was not only an interesting data point, it’s going to become a factor as we go into my planning for next year.”
William Hoover, president and CEO of ICV Technical Learning Center said that he works to create an informal learning environment using applied learning techniques or applied learning sciences where students use their personal interests, hobbies and future plans to create a holistic foundation for the technical information taught in class. The applied learning techniques or applied learning sciences techniques include information about student’s history of using technology, the equipment they use at home, even what type of movies they like to watch. “When we apply these two techniques we are asking students to take what we are about to teach them and use it in addition to what they already know. What we will teach them formally is an extension of what they’ve done in the past informally. For instance, at home they may use what’s called an RCA connector. We explain what the RCA connectors are, why they’re different colors and what the colors mean and how they can be used in projection and audio equipment, as well as sound reinforcement. We add on to what individuals already know and we try to create an environment where they are always communicating with one another. I try to encourage our students to exemplify their knowledge or their interest in the industry, then encourage them to look for certain things, to watch movies or TV with a critical eye, and to listen with a critical ear.”
Similar to Hnilo’s advocacy of conference attendance, Hoover said his instructors try to create an environment where students can interact with their peers during designated study times, or while watching tapes in the studio. During these screenings they discuss techniques being used in the videos and then go through a Q&A. “We ask our students to also be a part of any events or fairs where we produce or act as the technical directors so they can work and learn together outside the studio,” Hoover said.
Mark Eaton, director of learning solutions for Cerner Virtual University (CVU) at Cerner Corporation uses a specifically designed information technology infrastructure to encourage informal learning. “We have an approach that we call the Cerner Learning Framework. We recognize that a lot of the formal education training that we do is the foundational aspect of that framework, and for the informal learning that goes on we provide the infrastructure to facilitate that using things like Microsoft’s SharePoint collaborative environments. Any of the groups within the company can set up a SharePoint site so they can collaborate and work together, and a lot of learning takes place there. We also have communities of interest through the Cerner Knowledge Network that we initiated out of Cerner Virtual University. Some of its infrastructure-related, but from the people side of it we’re asking our curriculum management teams within learning solutions to take an active role in the first few years of a Cerner associates career at Cerner. The first year is all formal training and education, but beyond that we create learning opportunities. For example, within our sales organization we host an all sales conference call every two weeks or more, or we have Deep Solutions events where we pick a particular topic and go deep into it. Managers put those events on individual development plans of their associates, and we help manage, track, motivate and encourage them to participate in those kinds of activities for knowledge sharing.”
In addition to using their IT infrastructure to create an informal or collaborative learning environment, Cerner also has plans to create an intellectual capital systems team so that when best practices or experiences are discovered that people can learn from, CVU can turn that information around and disseminate it as quickly as possible. How is your organization reaping the value of informal learning?