Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Blend for the New Normal

Blending Formal and Informal Learning

The learning tradition of pre-modern society was for centuries defined by two enduring patterns. The first was informal learning in the form of on-the-job training. It was customary to apprentice young workers in the skilled trades by having them observe and work alongside competent craftsmen until they acquired enough knowledge and skill through experience to work independently. Here, learners learned in the workflow. The second pattern was that of formal learning in which a teacher pulled learners from the flow of their work and taught them through formal instruction. For centuries, society held to these two approaches: one experiential, the other didactic, and there seemed to be little impetus to change.

In the early 18th century, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution created major developments in agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Overtime organizations began to move away from the “apprentice” informal learning model to greater emphasis on formal training primarily using external resources and after-work hours. Gradually, formal training was brought into the organization and delivered during work time but completely removed from the workflow. Cognitive and behavioral psychology contributed to the formalization of training development and delivery. National associations emerged advancing training as a necessary part of organizational success.

The nature of training continued to evolve on the formal side. Basic skills training became supplemented by interpersonal skills and management training. Organizations who could afford it bought technology-facilitated media because of its promise of greater productivity in the workplace. The training function became more widely recognized as important, which led to a greater investment in formal training in the form of event-based courses

Eventually additional layers of organizational support emerged in an effort to support learners beyond their formal learning at their moment of apply. For the most part, this assistance consisted of support services (e.g., help desks), and publications. Support services picked up where training left off, often cultivating an environment of educational welfare where problems and needs were resolved with great proficiency, but often left those who had made help desk calls no more proficient after the call than they were before. Publication groups were charged with developing ongoing support solutions such as printed and electronic documentation and online help. Between support service groups and documentation groups, the informal learning needs within an organization were supposedly covered. But that was not the case. Informal learning, where it is estimated that 70 to 80 of all learning takes place, had gaping holes. Informal help networks flourished to fill the void where, too often, unconsciously incompetent workers helped others achieve the same status. And when someone demonstrated real competence, the less skilled would rob him or her of productive work time.

Today, the patterns of market disruption and accelerated change have become the new normal. And given the technological, economic, social, and political forces that drive the new environment, there is no evidence to suggest that organizations will somehow return to conditions of stability and equilibrium. The volatility and speed of the new era appears irreversible, which is tough news for leaders and organizations struggling to survive. Organizations confront increasing complexity in globalizing markets. They find themselves constantly challenged to learn and change, as Gary Hamel observes, “in a way for which they have no precedent.”

Google’s initial public offering on August 14, 2004, signaled the entrance and game-changing impact of web 2.0. Technologies such as wikis, blogs, social-networking, open-source, open-content, file-sharing, peer-production were not new at the time, but the Google offering coincided with the point at which virtual communities finally gained massive traction and scaled to orders of magnitude beyond anything of the past. Of course the internet was already heavily populated, but 2004 saw a select few websites consolidate anchor positions in a virtual land grab. The web presence of not only Google, but also YouTube, Myspace, Facebook, Wikipedia, eBay, and created a force multiplier effect for social networking and mass collaboration.

These technological and environmental advancements have fostered the new millennial learning mindset and opened the door for blending formal learning with intentionally defined informal learning practices. Here’s one example of what this kind of blending looks like:

New Blend Example 1
  • A workgroup completes self-tailored pre-work prior to attending a virtual class.
  • They attend 4 virtual meetings each lasting 2.5 hours spread out over 8 weeks.
  • Following each virtual meeting, learners independently complete “Expand” assignments requiring them to use their personal learning network to learn more about what they learned during each virtual session. They document what they learned in a course wiki.
  • Also following each virtual meeting learners complete “Apply” activities tied directly to their personal work and submit the results to their trainer. They work on these activities using a digital performance support broker that provides learners finger-tip access to all the resources they need to apply what they have learned.
  • Students work together in virtual groups to help each other.
  • Trainer holds virtual feedback/coaching session for each set of “Apply” assignments for each learner.
This “new blend” of formal and informal learning practices represents a significant scope shift for training professionals. We are now intentionally stepping into the informal side of learning. We should have always been doing to this, but emerging technologies make it more feasible. Support services and technical publication groups should NOT feel threatened by these efforts. They have much to offer here. But there is more that the training profession can and should be doing in addition.
In reality, the distinction between formal and informal learning should look more like this:

Formal Learning, of course, is what training groups have traditionally done—they build, deliver, and manage learning solutions to support organizational needs. The point of this blog is to make the case for broadening the scope of this work to embrace both formal and informal learning and to correlate these efforts with others whose charter plays in this same field (such as support services, technical publications, etc. In doing this, organizations establish a complete learning ecosystem.
A learning ecosystem comprises all the factors that support a vibrant learning community of interdependent people in gaining and maintaining the skills necessary to perform effectively together. It can exist at different scales in an organization (e.g., work group, division, company.)
Informal Learning, as you can see by the graphic, can be divided into two areas: Informal Intentional and Informal Independent. Informal Independent is learning that individuals and teams may choose to do outside what is planned, implemented, and managed by the training arm of the organization. This has been the elephant in the room for a long time. Two-thirds of learning taking place within most organizations has been happening in the Informal Independent area. But, as learning teams begin to focus on a broader view of their role, learning solutions are beginning to include intentional informal learning activities. This new blend can look something like this:

The New Blend Example 2 
  • An Employee is in the middle of a pressing work project. She consults her digital performance support broker and identifies four areas where there are several unique twists that require additional knowledge and skills to complete the project.
  • She immediately accesses directly from her broker, several microblogs where she shares her learning need out through several follower groups (internal and external to the company.)
  • A representative from the learning group along with other microbloggers immediately provide recommendations. She sorts through those recommendations and does the following: 
  • Schedules and takes 3 recommended e-learning courses, 2 from within the companies LMS and 1 purchased independently from an independent eUniversity.
  • Schedules and participates in 4 virtual coaching sessions –two internally sponsored and two from a colleague/friend from another company.
  • Spot reads through 3 books (two digital.), one of which was purchased online
  • As she moves forward to complete the project, she frequently accesses her electronic performance support broker to guide her as she and her team completes each critical task.
  • After she completes the project, she takes 10 minutes and accesses a “Lessons Learned” template via the performance support broker and documents lessons she learned, enriches it with metadata, posts it and then pushes it out to the her direct manager as a project report.
As you can see, there is a blend of formal learning solutions (e.g., e learning courses, virtual coaching sessions), independent informal learning (e.g., scanning through books), and intentional informal learning (using the performance support broker providing access to the resources she needs at her moments of apply.)

It is readily apparent that there is a great amount of learning going on outside the formal structures we have so adeptly put in place. The reality is that the informal side of learning is where real learning occurs in any organization. Formal learning can either help or hinder those informal learning.efforts.

Today simply building and deploying a set of formal learning events doesn’t cut it. The New Normal requires the blending of formal and intentional informal learning practices and making available the permissions and resources that support dynamic learners when they choose to learn independently.

In Summary
  1. Although informal and formal learning practices have been around a long time they have most often been approached as separate paths for learning and skill development. Over time, formal learning has become the primary arena for investment by organizations.  This is changing today. 
  2. Historically, most learning and other siloed support groups have not blended their practices to provide unified performer support to those they are charged to serve. This needs to change.
  3. The current environment of unrelenting change coupled with the disposition of an increasing number of learners to learn informally, has opened the door for learning teams to lead out in blending formal and informal learning practices.
  4. This blending has created a healthy division within the informal learning arena: intentional informal learning and independent informal learning. Intentional informal learning is anything planned for and supported when people learn on their own or with others independently.


  1. When you blend those 2, are you sure you will still be able to get the necessary results?

  2. Outstanding post Con. Thanks.


  3. Great post Con!
    Could you please expand on what you mean by "digital performance support broker" and do you have any software packages in mind or any recomendations of companies that are using a "performance support broker"?

    Mike Diehl

  4. "E-Learning Softward Solutions" - We have found that only when you blend formal and informal that you get REAL results, especially around productivity gain and true business results. Obviously it depends on what you mean by the necessary results. Formal instruction does an amazing job of supporting a learner in aquireing knowledge. Informal learning does the same for the application of that knowledge. If the outcome is to pass a test such as compliance, formal learning alone can do the trick. If the desired outcome is a lasting change in behavior and productivity, informal learning is the perfect blend and compliment to the formal stage which lays the ground work... We hope this answers your question. Please clarify or ask again if you'd like more information.

  5. Great post. This hits close to home as I have been working towards this in my organization. As I implement informal learning solutions such as wiki's and blogs, I am finding that it is often necessary to provide a little formal training on the informal. Not everyone is as quick to jump on these new tools as us bloggers and tweeters. If informal solutions are going to be effective you need to work hard to teach your learners how to take advantage of these tools. It's not as easy as it sounds.

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