A comment from Phil LeNir on last week’s informal learning strategy post got me thinking more about the human element with regard to informal learning. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in creating or linking learning assets for quick access that we forget about enabling the human interactions that are really the most effective way we learn informally.
As I see it, there are five key human roles in an informal learning strategy:
Subject matter expert (SME). Learners tell us all the time what they really want is access to the person that knows the answers. In a most recent satisfaction survey at work, learners let us know that they like e-learning but miss having someone to field questions. There’s an illustrative story out of IBM that their first attempts to build a database of artifacts that consultants could leverage turned out to be a very expensive telephone directory – consultants used it to find people who had worked on similar projects and talk to them, not to leverage their presentations. In our informal learning strategies, how do we help people find the right experts, and how do we recognize those experts for being the go-to people? Are some SMEs so sought-after that we need to make the role part of their job responsibilities?
Role model. We know from social learning theory and research that observation is a powerful learning tool. Learners carefully watch those around them for hints about how to behave and what to avoid. We can’t really assign role models; learners choose who they want to emulate (and who they plan to dismiss) without necessarily consulting learning leaders. But we can offer informal opportunities for learners to interact with our preferred role models by pairing them with the right people as mentors and coaches (see below) and by pointing out who we would recommend as models for specific behaviors.
Mentor. The learning literature is full of research on the effectiveness of the mentoring role and advice on how to set up mentoring programs. To me, a mentor is a person with far greater experience than the learner (although not necessarily two levels above the learner in the hierarchy, which is part of the classic definition). The mentor’s most impactful role is to ask questions that promote learner reflection. In addition, a mentor may be in a position to influence the learner’s assignments, which can help expose the learner to different opportunities. There are formal ways to enable mentoring in organizations, but mentoring can be in the informal column as well. From a strategic point of view, informal mentoring is more likely as we build a learning culture that expects leaders (and senior individual contributors) to pass on their expertise and savvy to others.
Coach. A coach is a more active teacher and adviser who is engaged with the learner’s everyday work. Being alongside the learner, the coach is able to offer new tools and techniques, give advice on adjustments in approach or behavior, and provide feedback on actions and consequences. This very powerful role can be played by a supervisor or a senior peer. We don’t often hand out the title of “coach,” and we probably don’t often enough assign a coach to newcomers who could really use one. An informal coach is a learning boon (if that person is qualified, and if the learner is of a mind to listen to good advice when it’s offered). We need to create the environment in which asking for coaching on a specific skill is seen as a smart move. And much like with mentoring, informal coaching will grow when helping others to develop is a part of the organization’s learning culture.
Peer learning partner. Learning is not a solitary task. People tell us that they value gathering in classroom settings because those settings allow them to have more interaction with peers who are experiencing the same challenges. Learners want to be able to think things through with people who are at the same point in the learning curve. They want to be able to toss around ideas and explore options without being told what to do, which is sometimes the drawback of working with SMEs, mentors, or coaches. We can enable this connection by introducing learners to one another and providing them with opportunities to get to know one another and form a bond. Learners who want a peer learning partner ongoing will take if from there. Of course, they may not call these folks their “learning partners” – you’re more likely to hear them referred to as “lunch buddies” or the “happy hour crowd.” But if you listen to the conversations, some of it will be about learning.
Note that these are roles, not job titles. The roles can be played by front-line employees, trainers, supervisors or managers, or external support people. The roles run the gamut along two continuums: level of expertise (SMEs are experts; peers are likely not) and level of interaction (mentors may only be involved intermittently, coaches may be more frequently present).
To breath life into our informal learning strategies, we need to work on building a culture in our organizations where these roles will flourish. Sharing expertise and collaborating with others needs to be encouraged, recognized, and rewarded. Reaching out to others for support of learning needs to be viewed as a savvy strategy for getting up to speed and getting ahead. There has to be some room for informal conversation and sharing experiences. In an economic environment where time is increasingly scarce, interpersonal interactions my be undervalued and underutilized, and that will have serious consequences on learning in our organizations. The live element of learning is something to monitor… we can’t let our enthusiasm for information-based informal learning strategies shortchange our learners with regard to the interpersonal aspects of learning.
I want to do some more thinking about this… Let me know what I’m missing!