When economic or business circumstances cause companies to tighten their belts, the first item on the chopping block is often training and development. I’ve heard many L&D professionals bemoan this situation, but Paul Matthews has good news. With a shift in your views about what learning is, you can still build a powerful learning organization and demonstrate the value to executives at the same time.
Paul Matthews focuses on what works.
A native of New Zealand, Paul Matthews has always applied the practical, no-nonsense approach he learned growing up on a farm to his work in the corporate world. He’s been the director for a major IT company, founder of People Alchemy, and leadership consultant to blue chip clients. Through his experience, he’s recognized the power of informal learning and has helped his clients take advantage of it.
His book, Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times, sums up his experience and advice in this area. In Matthews’ words, “Much of the learning we do on a daily basis is not something we think of or label as learning. Informal learning happens when people chat about their experiences or ask someone a question. It happens when they look up information using Google or go to a specialized website. It happens when they pick up an old manual or handbook to check something.”
Use Informal Learning to Build a Learning Organization.
If you can harness this informal learning, you can create what Matthews describes as an “agile learning organization.”
Agile learning organizations:
- Align learning goals and activities with business goals.
- Combine traditional classes with mentoring, coaching, and follow-up activities.
- Maintain a knowledge sharing framework to provide employees with key information when and where they need it.
He describes how NASA used informal knowledge sharing to transfer key experience from one mission to the next even as personnel shifted on and off the projects.
So What is Informal Learning?
Matthews defines it as “any learning or collaboration that takes place outside of a class, seminar or workshop, beyond the scope of a self-study course, and away from any environment recognized as part of formal learning.”
Basically, employees are filling in their knowledge gaps themselves any way they can. He cites Forrester research that found 47% of business technology users in North America and Europe use one or more websites not sanctioned by IT to do their jobs.
Companies who recognize that employees are seeking support as they do their jobs can make a big difference in performance by providing such support. Matthews points to Avis Budget Group which trains new hires through a structured experience in which they do everything from cleaning a car to managing a fueling station with support and mentoring from other employees.
But he points out that informal learning comes in dozens of flavors and successful companies combine multiple learning channels depending on needs.
What are the different flavors of informal learning?
Your team probably already uses some of the strategies on this list, and the list itself isn’t exhaustive. As long as people are gathering, sharing, or discussing information, or practicing new skills and behaviors, they’re learning.
A few kinds informal learning:
- Google searches
- Lunch gatherings
- Professional meetings
- Giving something new a try (or trial and error)
- Online help
- Communities of practice
- Social networks
- Knowledge sharing networks
- Job shadowing
- Informal coaching
- Help desk
- Supervisor guidance
- Cross-functional transfers
- Peer coaching
- Formal coaching
- Asking for help
- Flash mentoring <short duration with specific focus>
- Teams of new and experienced employees
- Case studies
- Action learning groups that solve business problems collaboratively
- Informal feedback
- Incidental meetings between departments
- Private social networks (e.g. in professional organizations)
Matthews quotes a CIA officer who’s helped build new knowledge sharing capabilities in the agency, “This is kind of grass-roots adoption. One of the things that we encourage with all of these tools is for people to find value in the tools themselves rather than it being forced upon them from up on high.”
What is the role of L&D in this informal learning world?
Having explored the informal development options, Matthews then explains that L&D’s role focuses on becoming key strategic partners in the business by enhancing and demonstrating the value of non-traditional learning.
“L&D needs to spread its influence into the learning that is happening informally and thereby assist people to be capable when and where they need to be.”
Matthews describes two key functions for L&D:
1) Aligning informal learning with business objectives
2) Helping people jump the “knowing-doing gap”
The “knowing-doing gap” comes from a book of the same name by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton and refers to the “problem in which companies fail to take the vital step of transforming knowledge and learning into action.”
L&D can address this problem by pushing learning into the workplace at the time when it’s most useful to supporting action.
How can you get started with informal learning?
True to his avowed dedication to practical solutions, Matthews lays out clear steps you can take today to identify where employees are learning and make the most of it.
He shows you how to
- Learn how people are sharing information today.
- Learn how people are collaborating.
- Find out what people need to function in their daily jobs.
- Market your efforts so management and employees begin to see informal learning as valuable and effective.
Matthews suggests starting to encourage knowledge with available tools like wikis, forums, message boards and social media.
Then, with a good understanding of your “learnscape,” Matthews proposes supporting the learning process by helping people learn how to learn, incorporating practical experiences under key learning objectives, and providing time for practice and reflection.
He also notes that L&D should take responsibility for maintaining and vetting information sources. Like the internet, your own resource repositories will quickly fill up with garbage unless you curate and vet the material in it regularly.
To bridge the knowing-doing gap, Matthews advises
- Focusing learning around actions (which are associated with key business goals).
- Avoiding “how we’ve always done it.”
- Measuring behaviors and habits as well as business metrics so you can see correlations between specific actions and specific results.
The power is in the measurement.
Demonstrating the benefit of informal learning means measuring results. Matthews recommends evaluating three key areas:
- Does the informal learning solution meet the needs of the business?
- Does it meet the needs of the learners?
- How have performance goals improved?
He shows readers how to use a variety of tools to assess these areas:
- Focus groups
- Usage numbers
- Task completions
The value is in the action.
This book offers tons of practical ideas beyond what I’ve detailed here, and readers who are committed to taking action will find an excellent blueprint. But Matthews concludes by admitting that a book can only help transfer knowledge. It can’t create results for you.
You and I and all the L&D professionals struggling to get attention from management today have to take action to make a real difference. Thanks to Paul Matthews’ great experience and detailed advice for harnessing the power of informal learning, it’s a little easier to take that action today.