Looking back over recent posts, it starts to become clearer to me what is needed for an informal learning strategy to be effective in the workplace. So far, here are some of the factors that I’ve identified as being needed (building on ideas from many other sources)…
> Motivation for learning.
> A culture that provides access to other people who support learning in a wide variety of ways
> Easy access to materials that support learning
> Skills in utilizing electronic tools to manage learning.
In preparing for an upcoming series of workshops, I think I’ve landed on another important ingredient… a learning coach. We can coach ourselves, of course, but many of us benefit greatly from having someone to support our learning.
Informal learning – by definition – requires a learner to set his or her own goals and to monitor progress toward those goals. Learners may not set goals as stringently as instructional designers might, but it’s critical that they identify what it is they want to learn. Sometimes, learners will gravitate toward formal learning solutions in order to meet these goals, but in a great majority of cases, formal learning is not offered, or is not readily available. So the next step in the learning process is for the learner to come up with some kind of strategy for learning. This might involve going to the bookstore (okay, maybe I’m the only geek who does that, but still, it’s a strategy), finding a colleague who can teach or coach on the subject, doing an internet search and sorting through what’s found, or even doing some tentative experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t.
Many learners will benefit from having someone to coach them through identifying their learning needs, sorting out the options for learning and development, and processing what they learn when they follow any of the available paths for learning. A learning coach may not be as directive as a sports coach, but needs to be knowledgeable about learning options, supportive of learner’s decisions, and – most of all – gently demanding of results. A good coach pushes a learner to set challenging goals and to define clear strategies for meeting them. A good coach sometimes teaches and often provides feedback on progress. A good coach asks tough questions to help a learner reflect on and apply learning. And a good coach applauds progress and takes some pride in the coachee’s accomplishments.
Who are these coaches? For workplace learning, this is a critical role of the line manager. A good manager develops people, and there is no more powerful way to do that than to be an encouraging and demanding learning coach. If managers take on this role, the question about how to monitor and evaluate informal learning dissolves; managers will be intimately involved in knowing what, how, when and to what degree their direct reports are learning.
Having pondered these things, I’m inclined to consider the dynamics of the coach-learner relationship from both sides. I can challenge myself to be a better coach as a manager and as an adjunct faculty member. And I believe that we are all responsible for our own learning, including finding (or being) our own learning coach. I’m a fairly self-directed learner in most instances, but there are a couple of areas of my own learning for which I am in search of a good coach (mostly in areas not related to my day job). Like finding a mentor, this isn’t a simple search, but worth the effort. Having thought about what is required, I hope I can be both a better learning coach and a better self-directed learner.