Why do we want to spend our time talking about informal learning,
and more specifically social learning and Web 2.0? Because we in
the learning profession have a history of dancing around this
subject. If we don't respond, if we don't take action now, we risk
Tony Karrer, an e-learning technologist and CEO of TechEmpower, in
the May issue of T+D magazine, encourages companies to start
adapting to the current trend in informal learning; otherwise, he
says, "they will find themselves marginalized in the business."
Our job, our focus, and our creative energy must include getting
our hands around this thing called informal learning. Doesn't it
seem reasonable that if most of the learning occurring within an
organization is informal, you are involved? You might think: "We've
been talking about it forever and have even dabbled in it. Our
worlds aren't crumbling. I am really busy and don't have the time
or the energy to get involved in informal learning." That logic
might have been OK in the past, but there is this emerging,
powerful force unlike any in history that is altering the
profession's landscape and this time, there's no going back.
To help understand this force, let's consider Don Tapscott's book:
Grown Up Digital. He refers to the Millennials or Gen Ys as the Net
Generation or Net Gens based on their defining characteristic,
which is the network. Tapscott wrote that technology is like air to
them. The Net Gens are the largest generation ever. And the oldest
in this generation is 32 - so, we're already seeing the impact in
the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the
size of the workforce in the United States in 2014 will be roughly
162 million. Estimates suggest that the Net Gens will make up a
whopping 47 percent of the workforce in 2014. That's less than five
We're all aware of the stereotypes of the Net Gens - they can't make a decision, don't want to "pay their dues," they ignore hours and dress codes, need constant feedback, their parents are involved in everything, and so on. But, in his book, Tapscott wrote, "The evidence is strong that they are the smartest generation ever. Raw IQ scores are climbing by three points a decade since World War II, and they have been increasing across racial, income, and regional boundaries."
Tapscott added: "As employees and managers, the Net Generation is
approaching work collaboratively, collapsing the rigid hierarchy
and forcing organizations to rethink how they recruit, compensate,
develop, and supervise talent."
In their book, Groundswell, Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff
see the collision of three forces: people, technology, and
economics. They see these three trends - people's desire to
connect, new interactive technologies, and online economics - as
creating a new era. We have a generation of people entering the
workforce who don't know any other way - this is the way they've
always done it. Are you ready for them?
Is formal learning dead? Of course not. Informal learning will not
eliminate traditional formal learning. Certification, compliance,
and deep learning will continue to be formal because the structure
is required. In the May issue of T+D, Josh Bersin of Bersin and
Associates said it well: "It's not informal learning taking over
everything; it's a modernization of the learning function."
What it isn't
Unfortunately, most definitions of informal learning describe it by
what it isn't. Has that frustrated you? Many describe informal
learning as any learning that isn't formal. It's kind of funny when
you think about it. Also, many people combine informal and social
learning as one and the same. They need to be careful with that
generalization. Clearly social media is a major component of
informal learning. But other approaches are also included in
informal learning - for example, search. When you type a query into
Google or Yahoo, is this informal learning?
Some contend that this is not learning, but information gathering and, that information gathering isn't learning. Maybe, but let's not debate deep learning theories. What's important is that there's more to informal learning than social learning. Social media is helping to connect people with the right information at the right time in the right way to better serve the customer. That is a very compelling reason in itself to facilitate social learning.
Informal learning will only increase
ASTD and i4cp recently conducted a research study on informal
learning, and the results are compelling. Ninety-eight percent of
the respondents said that it was occurring to some extent and 34
percent said to a high extent. What is the expected change over the
next three years? More than 56 percent expect it to increase over
the next three years. We also found that despite the high
percentage of informal learning occurring in organization - between
70 percent and 90 percent - most of the money is allocated to
formal learning. This study tells us that we have a lot of informal
learning occurring in our organizations, it's going to increase, it
works, there is no budget assigned to it, and most of it is
occurring outside of learning's purview. Is this the way we want
our organizations to operate?
Do you think that having the learning function driving informal
learning would be good for you professionally and for your
organization? We have a great opportunity to make an impact with
informal learning based on this research and based on your
responses. One key impact area is knowledge retention from informal
As professionals who are facilitating and driving informal
learning, we know that we must ensure that this knowledge is
captured. Web 2.0 technologies are enablers - they are the tools
that support collaboration and social learning; they don't cause it
to automatically happen.
As learning professionals, this is our opportunity to be a
game-changer - a paradigm shifter - and in the process wellposition
our organizations and ourselves for future success. Web 2.0
technologies and the Net Gens are gifts that will catalyze us to
drive informal learning - the most elusive, yet the most prevalent
and potentially the most important learning in our organizations
now and for years to come. And, as importantly, they encourage us
to create the structures that support accessing and retaining the
information shared for learning.
Now is the time for you to connect those pieces to create a
learning masterpiece that meaningfully demonstrates the critical
importance of each and every one of your roles. If this is your
first step into informal learning, into Web 2.0 technologies. The
data tells us that you're not alone, and if you're one of the few
veterans, please leverage those same tools and technologies to
share your knowledge and collaborate with the rest of us. There are
tremendous resources available from ASTD and from many others to
help you on this journey, regardless of your level of expertise -
and, that is quite reassuring.
We are all in this together, and now we have the catalyst to take
our careers, our profession, and our organizations to the next
level. And, collectively and collaboratively we will succeed.