Stop Learning the Hard Way, Part 1

A couple weeks ago, my seven-month old son started having all the tell-tale signs of teething.

So what did my wife and I do as first-time parents faced with a fussy infant?

Well, we felt like we had a few options:

  • Look it up in one of the 36 books we bought about babies.
  • Call our moms.
  • Show up at our neighbors and plead for help (or leave him there).
  • Attend our 13th Baby Care class at the local hospital.

Usually, we turn to one of these options first. But a couple Saturdays ago while I was folding onesies, burp cloths and blankets, my wife hopped on the Internet and did what most of us do when we have an information-seeking problem.

She “Google’d” it.

A friend had told her about teething tablets and gels, so she used that phrase as her search term. Her query turned up over 400 results. What do you think caught her attention – the top hit for a Hylands product or the YouTube clip of “The Doctors” offering a product review?

Of course, she consulted “The Doctors” first.

She liked their advice, but wasn’t totally satisfied and wanted to hear from other moms. So she returned to her original search results and found a few forums where moms like her were providing their unvarnished view of various products.

Doesn’t something similar happen on our jobs?

Our co-workers come crying to us about something: “I can’t do this” or “I need help on that.”

Okay, maybe they don’t come crying, but people frequently have job-related questions. They have a concern related to their benefits, or want to improve their skill sets in a particular subject area or just want to get more information about something quickly.

They’ve turned to you for answers and you want to help them.

More often than not, you can field those questions that are related to your area of expertise.

But where do you go for answers when you don’t have a ready response?

I’m assuming your options are not that different from me and my wife when we were seeking medical advice:

  • Look it up in some kind of document on your desk or desktop computer.
  • View your organization’s intranet.
  • Phone a colleague or send the person to someone else.
  • Send the person to training.

Those are valid options and I am sure you engage in at least one of these activities every day.

But do you ever turn to the Web for answers?

Do you conduct a quick Google (or Bing or Yahoo!) search?

How often do turn to an online forum of your peers who are dealing with the same questions and encountering the same problems every day?

Do you even know if one exists? (Psst…I know of one for government employees.)

Yet this is exactly how people are learning and developing their knowledge, skills and abilities on the job. In fact, I am currently reading the DorobekInsider’s Book of the Month: The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.

The authors maintain that “people need to learn fast, as part of the ebb and flow of their jobs, not just on the rare occasion that they are in a class.”

Just a few weeks before reading the book, I had been reflecting on that very notion and presented a few of my ideas at a luncheon keynote for the Training Officers Consortium (in fact, this blog post is that presentation!).

Specifically, I tried to convince them of three concepts:

1. Informal learning is the new normal.
2. The real experts are in cubicles, not just classrooms.
3. Social networks are the perfect, perpetual classroom.

This trend in turning to web-based tools for real-time information signals a profound shift in learning and knowledge sharing. In Part 2 of this series, I will draw upon some of my recent reading and my experiences while an employee at the Graduate School (USDA) and now as the Community Manager of GovLoop (a role that I am more and more seeing as “Chief Learning Officer” for Government), to flesh out these concepts for you.

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Angelo Serra

One thing that we seem to have a hard time doing (in government, and more specifically, in IT) is “practicing”. We use common sports analogies when describing our work – teamwork, crossing the finish line, etc. – but the one analogy we consistently leave out is one of practicing. It seems as if we are always in “game mode”, and most times “the championship game”. As workers, you are absolutely correct, we have come to focusing on fining very quick, specific answers from what we all consider our “trusted peers”. These specific answers may be good and solve the current problem in the short run (and we seem to focus on the immediate more and more these days), but may cause issues for us or our peers down the road.

What I wonder is, how do we make time for practice?

What if our “trusted peers” really don’t know what they are talking about?

How do we guide our informal learning so that the learning we do is not always on the tactical level?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Sounds like a great series! Social learning is a great tool but you run into two problems: groupthink and cliques. You might be interested in Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin by Pamela Walker Laird. A good book on the history of networking in America, Laird demonstrates how certain groups in America succeeded while other groups (that had similar talents and drive) did not.

Yes, your colleagues can be great resources as long as you are surrounded by smart and generous co-workers. Otherwise. . .

Carrie Guinn

With training dollars becoming more and more rare, I’m faced with having only enough money to send 2 or three people to training in a team of 5 per year. What we’ve done to ensure we continue to learn, is set up a weekly “Tech Talk” hour for the team to share ideas, information they’ve learned in formal and informal training. My team develops web applications and they have to stay up with the latest in technology and innovation. They’re a young group that enjoys a challenge and they are constantly discovering things on their own. Having a scheduled time during the week where they can exchange information has worked out well. They also use a wiki to document anything they’ve learned that would be helpful to others on the team. The persons lucky enough to attend a conference or training comes back and gives a presentation to the others on what they learned and how they think we can apply it.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Angelo – I think everything we do is practice…not sure about those sports analogies and what differentiates game time from normal work mode – feels like it adds an unnecessary level of pressure. I’d say our trusted peers steer us in the right direction, especially when there is agreement among several respondents. Tactical vs. strategic learning – I think this conversation is less tactical and more strategic, eh? How do we learn vs. which specific tool do I use?

Bill – As always, I appreciate the book recommendation. Sounds like a nice complement to “Built to Last”‘ or “Good to Great.”

Carrie – Nice example, thank you! How does the “Tech Talk” group gather – in person or via a web-based collaborative tool? Like the blend of wikis, in-person conversations as well as traditional presentations…but of course you’re smart…you’re Nebraskans (and in Omaha to boot 🙂 Full disclosure: spent my elementary years in small town Nebraska.

Karla A Langhus

Andrew –

We are currently in the process of rolling out a collaborative learning environment that will allow for informal learning.

We plan on using Bloomfire to host the site (SAAS application); and have two levels of security; one where everyone learns and the other where only certain “roles” have the authority to “share/teach” / create their own content with approval /blessing of functional owner.

The site allows for feedback and to follow the people that create the content.

What is nice about this , is that people who create the content and have a a lot of followers ; could be considered subject matter experts. And if the content is very popular , it could be considered to become a formal learning process.


Tracy Kerchkof

@carrie: Love the tech talk idea and am also curious how your group gathers and how big your group is

@bill “your colleagues can be great resources as long as you are surrounded by smart and generous co-workers. Otherwise. . . ”

Yes yes and yes. This is why I believe informal learning networks should be as open as humanly possible. That is why I am a huge proponent of open source solutions in government. If we don’t have the training dollars to teach our employees how to use tools effectively, then we have to start valuing the power of open source communities in our tech decisions. Open source communities are what helped me learn fact from fiction when it came to what I was being told by superiors in my first job and put me in a position to make better decisions than I would have otherwise made.

Carrie Guinn

@Andrew and Tracy – I have a team of 5 Java developers and 3 Webmasters. They are all here in beautiful Omaha, and there is one day a week when they all work from the office. They each work from home one day a week. Our Tech Talk meetings are on the day they all work at the office. They do use the Wiki to collaborate as needed and when they work from home, they use Gtalk to communicate.
Since this small group supports about 50 different customers in the City of Omaha and Douglas County, they work on very different types of projects. In order for them to all be able to support applications that they didn’t develop, they have to train each other on any new frameworks introduced with any new project or any new reusable modules they create. Dedicating one day a week to spend at least 2 hours sharing knowledge has really helped. They feel better when they know they are not the only support person for an application. They rotate their one week of support so they are only on support once every 5 weeks. When they are not on support, they are doing new develop/project work. They all get to be mentors and be mentored.

Developers are not, by nature, “social creatures”, but it’s amazing how much they can say in a short period of time when they realize that they are all speaking “their language”. Sometimes I have to tell them to slow down so I can understand what they’re talking about!