I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of “formalizing” informal learning. We all seem to be trying to figure out how to use informal learning to support our workplace learning agendas.
If informal learning is unstructured, and unscheduled, and learner-driven, then what are we doing mucking around in it anyway? While it’s true that we could just open up the internet connection and let employees consult with whoever is closest, a more prudent approach would be to give employees a vetted set of resources as a starting point.
I think that creating an informal learning strategy in support of business learning needs is mostly about aggregating, organizing, and making available a variety of resources that can support learning on a specific topic, similar to how I’ve talked about learning environments in the past. The strategic part is making decisions about what resources we’ll deliberately support – we can’t possibly corral all possible informal learning resources, and we need to figure out where to start.
After reviewing a lot of material from last week’s eLearning Guild Annual Gathering (pause for a happy memory of sunny Florida), I came up with a brief list of possible approaches to strategizing informal learning.
A course enrichment strategy starts (a bit counter-intuitively) with the important courses we already have in our curriculums. Using this strategy, the idea would be to identify additional resources that can help learners to learn and develop outside of the course event. Putting ourselves in the learners’ shoes, we’d endeavor to make available preview and follow-up materials for the course topic. These resources could be as simple as articles and support tools, or as complex as a complete learning environment (below).
Learning Environment Design
Learning environment design is more topic- or learner-driven. Marc Rosenberg describes this as a “knowledge-centric” view of informal learning. This strategy would lead us to identify important topic areas – perhaps related to high profile business initiatives, or mission-critical skills that need to develop over time. Once a topic is identified, we would try to identify or create as many of the components of a full-scale learning environment as possible (resources and tools; relationships and networks; training and education; supervisor and company support). This would give our learners a lot of choices in how to address the learning needs they’ve defined for themselves. The strategy can be augmented with democratization of content (below) to continue to develop the environment and keep it fresh.
Target Audience Support
This strategy begins with a target audience rather than a specific topic area. With this strategy, we try to organize a wide variety of materials across all of the knowledge and skill learning needs for a particular target audience. This approach aims to fully support ongoing learning for all employees in a role or group of roles. This approach is huge in scope and likely involves some of the other strategies as a way of conceptualizing the project (e.g. creating “learning environments” for the various topics that need to be addressed).
Democratization of Content
This strategy gets us off the hook in one sense because it involves turning the creation and organization of content over to SMEs and the learners themselves. It organically builds an informal learning library by allowing many (if not all) employees to share what they have found helpful in their own leanring journey as well as to create resources for others to access.
Most of us would agree that our role is to support performance, so it would seem right that there would be an informal learning strategy that begins with identifying the performance you are trying to support. My own take is that the link to performance is the starting place and line-of-sight end point for all of these strategies. I’m thinking that a “performance support” strategy for informal learning would be roughly equivalent to an electronic performance support system or a side-by-side coach or mentor. It focuses almost completely on just-in-time, just-enough learning resources rather than longer term ones.
Figuring out the focus of our informal learning topics is only part of the strategy. Strategy is also about how you will specifically select and deliver those resources. What kinds of resources? Are we including human resources (e.g. expert locators, mentors, communities of practice)? How do we make the materials available? (Possible answers: a library, a search engine, a blended learning program…) If we are making materials available electronically, do we simply allow them to lay in wait for a search, or do we want to “push” materials to potentially interested learners? The questions go on, and there’s a lot to be said about how to “design” such a thing. I’m thinking about that, too…
I’d love to hear from folks who are trying to “formalize” or “strategize” informal learning… what are your challenges? Do you think strategizing informal learning is an oxymoron and a lost cause, or is there something to this that we need to figure out how to do effectively?