Informal learning - Saffron Interactive
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Informal learning - Saffron Interactive

Learning’s Environmental Crisis17In a previous paper, “The Sage of Paradox”, Iargued that as learning professionals we needto stop thinking of learning as an event that isorganised by one set of people and imposedupon another, regardless of whether thatevent takes place in a classroom or via themedium of e-learning. Learning is a naturalconsequence of living and working: work hasalways involved problem solving, judgement,conflict resolution and choice – these are alllearning opportunities. We can experience themand move on regardless or we can reflect uponthem within the context of our environment andour core principles and, as a result, produce newinsights that move us forward.In this article I intend to take a closer look at how wecan increase the impact of learning by interleavingit more closely with the world of work.To make a difference with our learning initiatives we should thinkless about content and more about environment.Advance, © Saffron Interactive 20071

Informal learningThere now appears to be an upsurge of interest in ‘Informal Learning’. Indeed it would appear that this is the fashionable thingto build into one’s learning programmes. But make no mistake: to really embrace informal learning we will need to abandonsome very well embedded paradigms, and the nature of paradigms is that we are often blissfully unaware that we are lockedinside one.The nature of informal learningResearch shows that around 75% of what we know, the stuff that really makes a difference to how we perform, is learned throughserendipitous interactions in the workplace rather than being a result of formal, designed efforts to train people.Before we explore the consequences of this statistic we shouldfocus in on just one word from the above: ‘know’. What is it thatwe know?Back in the 1950s the respected philosopher Michael Polyani introduced the idea that knowledge comes in two forms: explicitand tacit. Explicit knowledge comes in the form of know what, where, who, when or that. By contrast tacit knowledge is aboutknow how, what if, know why and care why. Put simply, explicit knowledge is stuff that we know that we know and can write down,whereas tacit knowledge is stuff that we use but are not consciously aware that we are using it and probably couldn’t explain tosomeone else how we did what we did or why we leapt to the conclusion that we did. When we operate in the tacit domain weare exhibiting what might be termed ‘expert’ behaviour. Interestingly, research also shows that around 70% of all knowledgethat is useful in our organisations is of the tacit variety – this is because in some way we are all ‘expert’ at something.I want to explore two paradigms, and their associated paradoxical consequences, that we unwittingly accept and which governthe way we think about learning. The first is this:Paradigm – “experts know best”Ergo, if we want to improve the performance of a group of people, we find an expert in thatdomain, analyse how they perform and then design training so that everyone else can emulate theperformance.Paradox – “most of the time experts don’t use the knowledge they think they know.”Because expert behaviour is rooted in tacit knowledge, the expert often can’t explicitly state why theydo what they do. Worse still, we then put another expert in the way, the training designer. Thesepeople have one real skill: they are adept at constructing events entirely out of knowledge that theexpert can articulate and, as we have seen, this often has little relevance to the way that the expertsbehave.2Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2007

A short detour along theroute from novice to expertFormallearningInformallearningTypes of behaviourNoviceAdvanced BeginnerCompetentProfi cientExpertThe journey from novice to expert was neatly describedby Hubert Dreyfus and is captured in the diagram above.Most people can immediately identify with this journeyin the context of the acquisition of a skill such as ridinga bike or playing a musical instrument. To explain theimportance of this insight, let’s walk through the model inthe context of learning to drive a car.The Novice driver may be taught to change gear withreference to the speedometer, hence the instruction– when you get to 10 miles per hour change into secondgear. After a while, we master these simple activitiesand move to the stage of Advanced Beginner. At thisstage we start to consider situational elements, so thespeedometer may read 10 miles per hour but if the brakelights are showing on the car in front, this may not be agreat time to change up. Once we have started to masterthese situational elements we move to the next phase,that of the Competent performer. We are now aware ofthe complexity of what we are doing and we start to dealwith complexity by overlaying a personal plan. In drivingterms, instead of going where the instructor tells us, weare involved in planning our route ahead of time – weno longer just drive around, but instead we drive with apurpose. As such, we are involved in the outcome of ouractivities but may still have a limited understanding of thebigger picture and be detached from decision making.In time we develop into a Profi cient performer. By nowwe have substantial experience and start to recognisepatterns of events and associate solutions that haveworked before with certain patterns of events. Theprofi cient driver will spontaneously adjust their plannedroute or driving style to suit emerging circumstance;we are fully involved in the bigger picture and takeownership of the outcome but still may be detachedfrom decision making.Finally, we attain Expertbehaviour. In this state the driver is no longer engagedin operating a machine but rather is fully engrossedin the driving experience. We are at one with theroad; we often are unaware of what gear we are in orconsciously thinking about our actions. The expertdecides intuitively – we just know.Interestingly, under conditions of extreme stress orcrisis, the expert can fall back into novice or advancedbeginner mode and start following rules.This isdangerous because they are neither used to or practicedat following rules. This partially explains why expertsoccasionally do incredibly dumb things, sometimeswith catastrophic consequences.The transition from Novice to Advanced Beginner isessentially associated with rule following behaviourand this is best facilitated through formal learningprocesses. However, the transition from competentthrough profi cient to expert is largely associated withpattern recognition and experience. It can only beattained within the performance context. It is rooted inthe acquisition and sharing of tacit knowledge and thisis fundamentally a social process – it needs prolongedand deep engagement with other expert practitioners.This is the domain of informallearning.Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2007 3

So what is it that we learninformally?The most important insight is that when we learninformally we are by and large not learning things thatare or can be written down. So informal learning is not somuch about content. This is crucial because we have awhole profession of training (learning) designers who arecurrently predominantly focused on content. Informallearning is about context, patterns and connections;these are the building blocks of judgement, intuitionand wisdom. This leads us to our second paradigm andassociated paradox.Paradigm – “analysis is the only form of thinking”.Ergo the best way to understand complexity isby breaking it down into parts. So if we want toimprove the performance of a group of people,we break down the activity, teach the componentparts and, hey presto, when we put them backtogether, they will be better performers.Paradox – “experts don’t see parts, they seewholes”.Experts tend to think synthetically. Synthesisis the converse of analysis, so instead of takingthings apart they put things together. They seewholes in the context of greater wholes. Thissometimes exhibits itself in what has been termed‘thin slicing’ - the ability to make instantaneousassessments of complex situations, assessmentsthat can give better results than laboriousanalysis.Informal learning is the process through which we store thenear-infinite number of instances that will in future enableus to see patterns emerge before they do and to makeconnections under conditions when we only have partialdata. In other words, informal learning is the processthrough which we acquire wisdom and judgement. It isdeeply contextual, collective in nature and there are noshort cuts – it takes time.To summarise the message so far, formal learning iswhere we give people the building blocks to get as faras advanced beginner in performance terms. At best,all it can do is to certify that people are safe to practice.Some teams never get out of this state, or they fall backinto it due to lack of leadership. Informal learning is theprocess by which people cycle through the journey fromcompetent to expert, which provides real and potentiallylasting leaps in performance. The journey is facilitatedby being surrounded by proficient or expert performersand exposure to the full richness of context within whichvalue is created. Total immersion in such an environmentallows people to absorb the ethos of experts, start torecognise for themselves the patterns that are so obviousto the experts and, where appropriate, model the experts’behaviour.4 Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2007

So as learning professionals,what can we do?The simple answer is that most of us will just carry ondoing what we do, and this is right and proper becausewe will always need to support the journey from Novice toAdvanced Beginner. This is where the greatest cognitiveload is; it is where the analytic paradigm works best and itprobably accounts for 80% of the cost and effort in whatwe can do to make people safe to perform.However, surely most of us would aspire to being involvedin really making a difference to how people perform. Todo this we must refocus our attention onto the informallearning space. We must recognise that the tools,techniques and mindset that served us so well in thetraditional space are wholly inadequate to be successful atfacilitating informal learning. We need another paradigmshift.We need to move from an obsession with creating asolution towards a mindset of creating an environmentwithin which a solution has the capacity to emerge.Whereas formal learning (training) has learningdesigners, informal learning has learning architects.Let me illustrate the difference between the roles byusing the metaphor of the great landscape gardenersof our past. If you visit Stourhead in Wiltshire, youmay be captivated by the grandeur and beauty ofwhat you see. You will recognise the scene becauseyou have seen it on calendars, chocolate boxes andjigsaws. You may even feel a sense of pride thatit is quintessentially English. But actually thereis nothing natural about what you see – the lakeswere dug out by hand, the rolling hills were createdby moving the landscape, most of the trees are notindigenous to these islands and the buildings andfollies all hark back to a classical age that neverreally existed. Most importantly, the people whodesigned and built it never saw it in this form, norcould they have envisaged what it would look liketoday. The landscape gardener’s role is to create anenvironment within which beauty can emerge.The learning architect’s role is to create an environment within whichinformal learning can emerge.Advance, © Saffron Interactive 20075

A list of necessaryenvironmental conditionsWe have seen that informal learning is the landscapewithin which the journey from competent to expertperformance is played out. We have also seen thatthe landscape must be immersive, collective, holisticand challenging. What role can the learning architectplay in stimulating informal learning?We need to recognise that informal learning takesplace in the workplace, but many of our workplacesand the stresses we create act as inhibiters ratherthan igniters of learning. To engage successfully ininformal learning we need:The learning architect then must plant the seedthat inspires people from across the organisationto spontaneously come together to join with othersto find solutions to new challenges. They will needspace to work (either real or virtual); they need toolsto collaborate and they need access to role modelsand access to repositories of knowledge. They needto see everything in the context of the whole andthis means that they will benefit greatly from closeengagement with the alternative perspectives thatcome from spanning boundaries inside and outsidethe organisation.1. A contextually relevant space to practise in– this is generally the workplace2. The desire and ability to cooperateproductively with others – this works bestwhen people self-select into groups3. An igniting purpose, task or vision that triggersthe process of self-selection into cooperativegroups4. Access to alternative and paradigms – thisworks best when people from disparatefunctions or disciplines work towards acommon goal.If you take home just one thought from this articlelet it be to channel more of your energy into effortsthat create and sustain an environment within whichlearning can flourish. I believe that we are facing anenvironmental crisis in learning simply because wehave spent too much time looking at the buildingblocks of content. We have failed to notice howugly the environment can become when we pile theblocks of content up in a haphazard way. It is time totake notice of the environment. This means gettingout of the classroom – real or virtual – and lookingbeyond today so that we can build environmentswithin which the seeds of learning can grow.6Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2007

Dr Brian Sutton is Director of Learning forQA-IQ.He is charged with imagining the educationalexperience of tomorrow and creating it today.Brian is a Chartered Engineer and a fellow ofthe Institute of IT Training.Brian Sutton can be contacted onBrian.Sutton@qa-iq.comAdvance, © Saffron Interactive 2007 7

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