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Informal learning: The implementation challenge

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In his next article, Francis Marshall looks in-depth at the emerging L&D trends and ask the vital question: "How can informal training be effectively implemented in the workplace?"

Management consultancy, Accenture estimates that formal training only accounts for 20% of what employees need to know to do their jobs, with the remaining 80% coming from more informal methods. Helping to facilitate and embed such informal methods within an L&D environment can therefore provide a huge pay off to organisations.

Yet, how can we embed such methods without putting at risk the informality which defines them?
Firstly, no matter how ‘informal’ the learning may be, it is essential to set goals and rigorously explore the merits of each tool, as I briefly mentioned in my first column.
Probably the worst thing an L&D department can do is to chase after and uncritically embrace each passing fad. We all remember the mistakes that were made in the early 2000’s when training methods, such as Learning Management Systems and elearning, guided decision-making with next to no focus on the needs of the end user.
When looking at how training can be incorporated into mediums such as Facebook and Twitter, it is therefore vital to establish a framework and set goals as to what you want to achieve from it.

A flexible approach

While goals and structure are important, however, there also needs to be a degree of flexibility in these new training practices and L&D must play a ‘hands-off’ role. By its very nature, just in time and informal learning doesn’t have the time to wait for the discipline and rigour of more traditional training interventions. Instead, it fosters decentralised decision-making and a collaborative culture.
This leads into the growing emergence of Do it Yourself Learning where employees can, to a certain extent, design their own learning experiences. This bottom-up approach sees the initiative coming from the learner - self-managed and community-based.
Marjorie Derven, managing partner for HUDSON Research & Consulting, points to IBM as an example of a global organisation which is benefitting from flexibility in its social networking tools. Here, emerging market employees can share their experiences with other field offices and individuals can turn to colleagues with relevant expertise. No L&D department will be able to manage and control this decentralised decision-making process.
It’s also important to be clear about the dividing line between more informal and formal training. Formal training, for example, remains ideal when very specific skills need to be learned, such as financial compliance issues, sales training, or health & safety – areas where rightly the L&D department should have a degree of control to ensure that the right practices are adhered to. Induction training is another area which falls into this category where there needs to be some control over the training to reflect corporate priorities.
However, just as there should be a clear dividing line between formal and informal training, it is also important that they complement each other.

Getting the right mix

Informal learning can have a role to play prior to the formal training, for example, where a particular level of common knowledge needs to be established or where it would be deemed useful to know your fellow participants. This will free up time for a more applications-focused approach during the actual formal training session.
Traditional classroom training can also be reinforced through social networking where learners can apply their new skills in the workplace and share with colleagues the results and examples of best practices. Links can be provided to videos, articles or podcasts – all reinforcing the learning experience.
Take Twitter which allows a maximum of 140 characters. Jeanne C. Meister, founding editor of the New Learning Playbook, a blog tracking innovation in learning, outlines a number of different ways in which Twitter can be used to reinforce training. Twitter can provide an archive of team progress, provide links to articles, webinars, and other resources related to training, create follow-up webcasts, send reminders about key learning points, and allow different points of view to be shared among training participants. And the fact that Twitter is so short and sharp can work well in terms of reinforcement.
Finally, it is essential that such new learning tools are not driven primarily by the L&D department and the line manager but by the end user. Users must be able to generate content easily and share learning and workplace experiences, as well as be recognised for their contributions.
According to Accenture, it is also important that the informal learning is modular so that it is relevant to specific users and so that it can be easy to source information of relevance to each individual.
Relevance is the byword here. A recent study by Texas-based research firm, Pear Analytics, found that more than 50% of Twitter traffic is pointless babble, spam and self-promotion. In order to use Twitter as an effective training medium, constraints need to be put on the unfettered use of time consuming, unnecessary information.
There’s no doubt that the development of informal, technology-led learning is an inexact science. Just as it should be goal-driven, it also needs to be flexible and not controlled by the L&D department. Just as there should be a dividing line between formal and informal learning, these methods should also complement one another. And just as social and informal learning has the potential to yield significant benefits for the organisation, so there will be risks as with any experimental type of learning.
What is clear, however, is that the times and user needs are changing and it’s up to the L&D profession to make sure it keeps pace with these changes. In the third column, I will profile one of the most innovative forms of informal and DIY learning taking place today – the Shibuya University network.
Read the other article in Francis' series: Learning and development: The final frontier.
Like what you've read? Follow this and other discussions in the Social Media & Learning group.

Francis Marshall is the managing director of Cegos UK part of Europe’s largest learning and development organisation.  Francis is an NLP practitioner and is active as a senior level consultant within the fields of management, leadership and executive coaching.

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