Informal learning - the next big thing?

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Rise learningRichard Straub explores the rise of informal learning in a culture of change, and considers the new tools and attitudes that will shape the future of learning.

IBM has a tradition of taking the pulse of many CEOs worldwide every other year. Earlier in 2008, more than 1,100 CEOs were interviewed about key challenges of the present and future. This study provides important insights into what keeps them awake at night.

Bombarded by change?
A key finding from this study was that the CEOs feel their organisations are bombarded by change and their ability to keep up is diminishing. The gap between expected change and the capacity to manage it has tripled since the 2006 CEO survey. On the other hand, the CEOs view more demanding and informed customers as an opportunity.

Photo of Richard Straub"Informal learning is currently at a tipping point – not of being 'formalised' but of becoming more effective, through the use of new ICT tools and capabilities."

Nearly all CEOs are changing and adapting their business models: two-thirds are implementing extensive innovations. The CEOs pinpoint market factors, people skills and technological factors as key drivers of change. More than 40% are changing their enterprise models to be more open and collaborative.

Challenges ahead
This tells us something about the challenges that the learning function is currently facing. L&D professionals are coping with change and enabling change by helping management and employees to learn in 'real time'. As we've known for a long time, most learning doesn't take place in formal settings (traditional education activities) but informally, on the job. This is happening at the level of individuals, teams and communities.

Learning in this context means dealing with new challenges, such as finding new answers to emerging customer requirements, adapting existing plans to new opportunities, improving process implementation based on real-time feedback from stakeholders, and exploring innovative business models.

Conscious v incidental learning
Some of this informal learning occurs between employees, and between employees and business partners, as well as clients. Some of it is incidental, so that those involved don't even notice they are learning, but an increasing amount of it is becoming conscious and deliberate, through embedding an active reflection element into the process.

"The new generation coming to the workplace (Generation Y) seem to have this 'learning mindset' in their DNA. Others will have to make a deliberate effort to overcome the protective and possessive attitudes of the past."

Informal learning is currently at a tipping point – not of being 'formalised' but of becoming more effective, through the use of new ICT tools and capabilities. The development of Web 2.0 has given us a set of tools and applications with the potential to radically increase the productivity of knowledge workers in our organisations by enhancing informal learning.

Web 2.0 has given us new ways to find experts who may help in particular situations, allowing us to tap their knowledge and experience. It provides new ways to create operational content in global virtual teams; share experiences from recent projects; and access knowledge from outside the enterprise through vertical peer-networks.

New openess required
But we need more than the mere tools to take advantage of these new opportunities. A new openness and an active learning mindset is required from management and employees. It is not enough to solve issues on a case-by-case basis and leave it there. It is becoming essential to reflect on what has been learned and what might be reused, added to and shared with others.

The new generation coming to the workplace (Generation Y) seem to have this 'learning mindset' in their DNA. Others will have to make a deliberate effort to overcome the protective and possessive attitudes of the past, where the aim was to keep knowledge to yourself because knowledge is power.

"We are on the threshold of a paradigm shift in learning. We have new learning environments and tools that enable us to access knowledge more effectively and to share and collaborate in better ways."

We are on the threshold of a paradigm shift in learning. We have new learning environments and tools that enable us to access knowledge more effectively and to share and collaborate in better ways. With these things, and an open mind that is keen to learn every day, we are starting to address the challenge that Peter F Drucker has set out for 21st century management: achieving a quantum leap in the productivity of knowledge work, similar to the productivity increase in manual work achieved in the 20th century.

Although I firmly believe that informal learning is becoming the 'next big thing' - enabled by Web 2.0 and new personal learning environments and fuelled by a new lifelong learning culture - traditional formal learning will continue to have its importance and will by no means disappear.

We will still need to learn concepts, methods, knowledge required for our profession, regulations for compliance, etc. This will be provided through formal approaches, some of it in the classroom, though the share of classroom work will further decrease. Meanwhile, the 'dark side of learning' (i.e., the less visible one) will become more apparent and will propel the productivity of knowledge to new levels.

Richard Straub is senior advisor to the chairman of IBM Europe, Middle East and Africa and secretary general of the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG). He will be presenting the closing address at the World of Learning Conference 2008, taking place at the NEC, Birmingham on 19 and 20 November 2008. For more information about the conference, visit www.learnevents.com or call +44 (0)20 8394 5171

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