Most business managers know intuitively that we learn our jobs by doing our jobs. Many companies, who’ve recognized this fact, have started to consider how they can harness learning by doing in their training programs. Some companies have taken a Guided Informal Learning approach, which helps them focus employee’s on-the-job training, encourage collaboration and track everyone’s progress.
Read this article to find out more about Guided Informal Learning.
Guided Informal Learning takes advantage of the learning opportunities that arise in everyday work. But co-opting job experience into a learning program presents a few unusual challenges. These haven’t been well addressed by the learning and development community and there are few tools out there to help you. (Learn about one here.) When you first dip your toe in the informal, hands-on learning ocean, you’ll likely come up against some of these concerns.
- Managers can’t control where employees get their information.
- Managers have a hard time tracking exactly what employees have learned.
- Employees aren’t good teachers.
- Work tasks can be unpredictable and therefore difficult to build a training program around.
- How can you determine if an employee is learning or working?
1: Manage resources and consistency by focusing on behavior.
In informal learning, employees may go to the Internet, to internal documents or to colleagues to learn their new skills. All these sources will present information slightly differently, and you don’t have complete control over them.
There are two ways to address this problem. First, you can curate reliable resources and make them available to employees. Second, you can specify crucial best practices and results, so when employees are learning a new skill, they know what observable results they need to accomplish, regardless of the resource they use to get there.
For example, if team members are learning to use some technical equipment, you may want to point them to the manual or user-generated guides, which cover all the safety information and proper procedures. But if employees want to learn how to use PowerPoint for a presentation, you might just show them the corporate style guide, which specifies the proper templates and fonts. You let them choose how they want to learn the program.
2: Track what employees have learned with validations.
With a formal course, it’s very easy to track what employees have learned. In theory, they take the course, learn the information, and then know it. But in practice, everyone knows that you remember little of what you learn in a course, forget even more over time, and apply even less to your actual work environment.
So what managers really know after training is given is that training was taken.
Informal training programs help overcome this deficiency by placing the training in the workplace and as close as possible to the time it will be used. So there’s a much better chance that the training will stick. However, it’s still important to determine when a skill is truly learned, which is why you need to incorporate validation into your program.
For each skill you ask an employee to accomplish, you need to give them a way to prove that they’ve learned it according to the behavioral objective you’ve set. And you need another person who can validate that. That person can be another employee who’s already mastered the skill. It could be you. Or it can be a colleague who hasn’t mastered the skill, but can confirm that it’s done according to the objectives.
Learners can prove mastery in a number ways: by demonstrating a skill, answering questions, displaying a work product or performing the skill as part of an ongoing project. It doesn’t matter as long as someone who knows the behavioral objective can validate it.
The validation also adds accountability to your program. Employees have to practice a skill until they’re signed off, and managers can tell what hasn’t been completed.
3: Employees don’t have to teach; they share experience and learn together.
When you put dozens of people in one room (or thousands attend a massively open online course) you need an experienced trainer who can present information so that it’s as easy as possible for many people to learn together and to keep them all engaged. Only skilled and practiced trainers can manage formal classrooms well.
However, the situation for hands-on learning is different. If one person is helping another learn, they’re not engaged in classroom dynamics. They’re looking face to face at each other. If the experienced employee doesn’t share the information in the optimal order, the learner can ask questions, back track, repeat what they heard to confirm their understanding. The learners have the luxury of setting the pace by asking their colleague to slow down or speed up.
Two people engaged in a learning activity may share some similarities to teacher/student, but at the heart of their interaction, they’re creating knowledge together. The more experienced one is sharing, demonstrating, and coaching the less experienced employee who in turn is questioning, exploring, and applying the new knowledge. Both parties learn from the experience.
4: Deal with unpredictability through focus and flexibility.
It’s true that you can’t predict when a learning moment may happen, but just like forecasting the weather, you can guess which ones are likely to occur. For these, have your lists of skills ready. Once employees are tasked with these lists, they’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to come up. Managers can also remind employees when a good chance to learn comes along.
For those times when a great learning event occurred and no one saw it coming, give employees the flexibility to create their own skill list out of it. You will still need to review the behavioral objective to make sure it conforms to best practices, and they still have to validate with another person what they learned, but there’s no reason to let that chance go just because you didn’t predict it. And if you have an employee who’s starting to see new challenges as learning opportunities, you want to encourage that approach as much as possible. The key is to have a tool or process employees can use to quickly record what they learned.
5: Don’t try to tease out learning from work. Look at them as one endeavor.
We’re so used to thinking that we work at our jobs and learn in the classroom. Even when courses are available over mobile and video platforms, we see those activities as something separate from work. We think of work as doing something we already know how to do. We focus on applying our fixed set of skills to achieve a particular goal.
If employees and management start to see work as learning and learning as work, beautiful things can happen. When you’re learning, your mind is more open to new ideas and possibilities. This is the bedrock of creativity, which generates innovation, new business opportunities, and more effective procedures. When you’re in learning mode, you ask questions and explore rather than accept everything as a given fact. This kind of attitude can help employees understand their customers better, find new products and services in the market, and discover un-met customer needs.
A hands-on training approach takes the first step toward reframing work as learning, but managers have to follow up by highlighting the learning possibilities in each experience. Managers need to encourage employees to ask questions, explore options, and consider alternatives even as they are completing a task. That is not to get in the way of getting work done, but to keep the mind open and be aware of possibilities.
Putting some structure around informal learning will force you to tackle a few challenges. But as you overcome each one, you bring your team closer to a culture of learning and innovation, which in today’s business environment, may be your sharpest competitive edge.
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