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Ask Techno Fred


Dawn Smith examines the role of technology in informal learning, and asks whether employers should take initiatives to encourage it in the workplace, or just leave well-enough alone.

There are several debates raging around the topic of informal learning. While most people in the training world agree that it’s important, there is far from a clear consensus over what employers can do to encourage it (if anything), the value of the different technologies which play a role, and how far the results of any initiatives can be measured.

There isn’t even a hard consensus over what constitutes informal learning. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s say informal learning is something unplanned and spontaneous, perhaps also incidental or even unconscious, but not necessarily so. Doubtless, someone out there will have a different definition. Feel free to share…

The technologies that count
The most significant informal learning tool “by at least three orders of magnitude” is Google, says David Wilson, MD of Elearnity, a corporate analyst specialising in e-learning. After web browsers and search engines, the most important technologies are discussion forums and blogs, comments Alex Welsh, MD of Head Light Communications and a committee member at the E-learning Network (ELN), which recently ran a conference on the subject of technology and informal learning. Other Web 2.0 phenomenon such as wikis are also playing a role.

Many companies have put initiatives in place to encourage and facilitate informal learning through these technologies - and some of the results have been disappointing, says Welsh. “A lot of companies made an initial attempt - for example, setting up discussion forums - but they were over-mediated by trainers,” he says. “Companies spent a lot of money trying to get things going and were frustrated with the lack of interest.” He cites the example of a company which admitted to spending the price of a new Aston Martin to set up a forum that was barely used.

At the opposite end of the scale, the same company saw eight of its graduate intake set up a forum on their own initiative, using freeware, which grew to 8,000 members very quickly by word-of-mouth. The forum is now supported by the company, but is not moderated. Employees are using it as a peer support network.

Keeping it informal
The example above highlights one of the dilemmas for companies who want to encourage informal learning. As David Wilson puts it, “in large organisations they try to invest in technology and have a strategy to increase informal learning - and in effect they formalise it.”

Mark Harrison, at informal learning specialists Kineo, points out that employers can only encourage informal learning through the channels that people naturally use. “You can’t invent the channels,” he says. “You have to get out there and find out how people communicate. If that method is technology-based then you are lucky, because there are certain ways you can improve it - but it has to be done with a light hand, so you don’t kill the golden goose.”

While over-moderating a forum can kill it, not every informal learning tool created by a company need be wash-out just because it’s a company creature. At the ELN’s recent conference, one case study featured a company where senior managers are the chief bloggers on the company blog, but the content is widely read by staff. “The content is distinctive because it gives an insight into the rationale behind decisions,” says Alex Welsh. “People are reading it to get a personal view that they don’t get from other forms of writing.”

Knowing the limitations
While identifying the channels people use, companies need to understand how technology is being used, in order to avoid making costly mistakes, says Neil Lasher, MD of e-learning specialists Trainer1. Companies need to understand what people will do and what they are not prepared to do. Most people won’t go more than four clicks online, which is why most people never get past the first two pages of Google.”

He adds a caution for companies who may be buying knowledge management or learning management systems in the hope that they will facilitate informal learning. “The vendors are saying ‘this system does informal learning’, because that’s the current buzzword,” he says. “Last year they were saying it does formal learning. I haven’t even found an LMS owner who can say how it helps with informal learning. I haven’t found anything e-learning can do for informal learning, except in the area of performance support. If performance support systems can deliver information context-sensitively, then they can be useful.”

One of the limitations of learning management systems in the informal learning arena is that the content is not generally searchable through the company’s intranet, says David Wilson. “The LMS and learning content has tended to be an island. Companies need to connect it all together so that employees can conduct a single connected search in the company intranet.” He adds that employers should improve the searchability of their intranets in general if they want to facilitate informal learning - a view shared by many commentators.

For e-learning content to be any use for informal learning, it needs to be more granular, adds Wilson - although Mark Harrison comments that granularity can easily add up to bittiness, which isn’t necessarily what people want. Harrison believes that the key ingredients of any informal learning technology are that people can wander freely around in the techno-space, and that it’s all their own world. This is particularly true for the younger generation. “I’m not convinced that these people would ever really accept e-learning content that has been clearly generated by some central L&D department,” he says. “They are more likely to be learning from blogs, forums etc.” (Provided, of course, that these are not heavily moderated.)

The problem of provenance
If initiatives controlled by employers are likely to fail, then perhaps the best thing they can do is make technology available that allows employees to travel freely and briskly in whatever online worlds they choose. But of course blogs, wikis and other creatures in the Web 2.0 world have their own drawbacks - a big one being provenance.

Neil Lasher doesn’t mince his words when describing wikis as “the biggest load of rubbish” because anyone can add content, however misleading, or edit the perfectly accurate content you have created simply because they don’t like it. “Are you happy to allow your staff to use tools of this sort to get information that they’ll use to run your company?” he asks.

There is little companies can do to prevent employees from choosing their own online worlds. But they could provide their staff with some guidance, says David Wilson. This could include search skills for example, as well as making staff more aware of the provenance issue. “People tend to believe that online skills are absorbed by osmosis, and are so intuitive that there is no need for training,” he says. “But there are strategies and tips that can help people to learn informally - for example, strategies for finding someone’s email address online, discerning provenance, and what’s worth reading. People are not taught these, and they could be.”

Outside the techno-zone
Another point to bear in mind when considering informal learning technologies, is that the workplace is not yet populated by “digital natives”. The up and coming generation may be Web 2.0 naturals, who would rather go into a chat room than chat to the person next to them, but many employees still inhabit a world where face-to-face communication is the thing. And for them, “asking Fred round the corner” how to do something comes more naturally than going online, says Mark Harrison.

“We are missing the point if we think Web 2.0 equals informal learning,” he says. “A vast amount of informal learning still takes place by talking to people 3 metres from your desk. People can easily email IT with a problem, but still prefer to ask Fred, even if his knowledge is only 5% better than theirs. We are kidding ourselves if we think large numbers of people are going us use virtual knowledge sharing areas just because they’re there.”

For now, companies could invest in some training for the “Freds” in the organisation, to help them impart their knowledge. Harrison cites the example of a bank that provided e-learning for a group of specialists who were informally sharing their knowledge with other staff. The training was designed to help them provide better help.

In the long run however, as the digital generation matures, expertise is more likely to be exchanged in the virtual world. Fred round the corner will increasingly become techno-Fred. A difficulty for companies wanting to invest in this future is predicting how technologies will be used. “People are using technology differently to how we expected,” says Neil Lasher. “To plan for it is almost impossible.”

Perhaps all that can be done is to provide systems that people will use, avoid imposing systems that people won’t use, and to acquire the wisdom to know the difference. “Employers need to do more market research,” says Mark Harrison. “They need to treat the trainee as the customer and listen to what they want, not what senior management wants - which we tend to do too much of at present.”


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