Ask most people how they developed expertise in their field, and the answer is often a combination of practice and informal learning. Informal learning has been described in many ways. Broadly, it is implicit, opportunistic and unstructured learning that takes place in the absence of an instructor or classroom. It also has been defined more narrowly as learning which takes place in the work context, relates to an individual’s performance of their job and/or their employability, and which is not formally organized into a program or curriculum. Perhaps it is best defined by Eraut’s typology of non-formal learning (Table 1).
Table 1. Michael Eraut’s Typology of Non-Formal Learning
What role does informal learning play in your organization? More and more often, it has become the predominant talent development approach. When asked how career development and learning occurs, most organizations cite some variation of the 70-20-10 model: 70 percent of learning occurs informally and implicitly on-the-job through experience, tasks and problem solving; 20 percent occurs through relationships, feedback and working with role models; and only 10 percent of learning takes place in the formal programs and classrooms.
Enter collaborative portals
One the great challenges to the application of the 70-20-10 model is enabling and supporting the 90 percent of learning that is informal in nature. To address this challenge organizations increasingly are turning to collaborative portals and content management systems created with tools such as Microsoft SharePoint. This solution supports informal learning in the following ways:
- Enabling easy access to information, various types of content, experts and role models
- Supporting collaboration with team members that enhances networking and relationship building
- Managing the content that supports informal learning and the production of critical job/role outcomes.
Many of the organizations that implement portals and content management systems assume that appropriate usage and informal learning will naturally follow. Unfortunately, this may lead to collaborative portals that fail to meet goals for adoption and usage. The result—poor sharing of knowledge and information, eroding commitment, and meager workforce support for informal learning.
A new model
Consider how informal learning could occur in a more collaborative environment, enabled by a tool such as Microsoft® SharePoint, which is a business collaboration platform that supports collaboration, content management, search, and sharing. Systems developed with tools like SharePoint are often referred to as collaborative portals or content management systems. They make organizational knowledge and collective experiences available for review, reflection, and reuse by others. Designed properly, collaborative portals can enhance the quality of task or project outcomes by augmenting the informal learning process, extending it beyond the individual. This makes it easier for the performer to work together with others and draw on the expertise and experiences of individuals outside of her immediate sphere of influence.
Figure 1 illustrates the Reflect-Discover-Perform model of how informal learning occurs and drives performance when individuals effectively use collaborative portal and content management systems.
As illustrated in Figure 1, the starting point is the recognition of the need for specific learning, a new task or project assignment, a new problem to be solved, or a decision to be made. Before real work begins, the performer mentally conducts a parameter analysis to understand the bounds within which he or she must work. This process helps the performer understand the possibilities, while bounding the scope of the assignment.
First, the performer REFLECTS on the current goal, tapping long-term memory to examine past experiences, problems, projects, and decisions that are similar in some way to the new assignment. This enables the performer to determine the applicability of his/her past experiences. It also provides the performer with the opportunity to recognize personal knowledge gaps that need to be filled to accomplish the new task. So begins the informal learning process, which includes identifying possible sources. In a tool such as SharePoint, this process is supported by well-designed search features that allow performers to do key word searches for possible sources and content that could be explored.
In the DISCOVER phase, the performer explores the sources and knowledge found. At this point, implicit, directive learning takes place. Through the use of a collaborative portal, the performer can contact experts, mentors, or role models based on their specialties. He/she can review technical papers, strategy documents, and other organized content posted on the site. Because SharePoint supports effective document management and versioning control, the performer can collaborate with individuals who are not co-located with him/her, to develop new ideas and work toward completion of the assignment.
In the PERFORM phase, the performer applies not only his/her previous knowledge, but also the new knowledge and learning attained in order to complete the assignment, make the decision, achieve the goals and/or produce the required outcomes in their job.
As this model is applied, new knowledge and content is being created and new decisions are being documented. Not only has the individual performer tapped the organization’s knowledge to succeed, but in the process, he or she also has become a new source for knowledge and content. The process is not complete until new learning can be captured and organized to further extend the organization’s document library and knowledge base.
Informal learning is here to stay, and has taken on increasing importance as budgets for formal training have been cut. In fact, it has become a key component in the organization’s learning strategy. All job roles can benefit from organizational support for informal learning. Such support makes it easier to search and find key content, collaborate with peers, experts, and role models, and fill knowledge gaps.
Collaborative portals and content management systems make it easier for people to work together sharing, reusing, and creating new knowledge and experiences. The Reflect-Discover-Perform model we presented describes how the informal learning process can be supported by these systems.