In Part 1, I laid out the present reality of learning. Using a recent lesson learned in responding to my teething, seven-month old son, I made the claim that we’re increasingly gaining new information via search engines and social networks. I said that I planned to persuade your thinking on three points:
• Informal learning is the new normal.
• The real experts are in cubicles, not just classrooms.
• Social networks are the perfect, perpetual classroom.
Well, let’s get to it:
1. Informal is the new normal.
In the August 2010 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Michael Echols cited the common wisdom that informal learning constitutes 70-80% of all knowledge acquisition. He said informal learning has always been around: “It’s called experience,” he said. Social networking is so powerful, he explained, because it “creates access to massively greater experiences through the click of a button, resulting in ease of use, low cost and access to an exploding universe of contacts.” Another key driver of the growing importance of social networks is the increasing mobility of the workforce.
Echols distinguishes informal from formal learning (i.e. a traditional, instructor-led classroom experience), arguing that informal learning is self-selected content while formal is expert-selected. He also suggests that formal learning more readily lends itself to the measurement of value.
While I understand and respect this distinction, I have to disagree. It’s just as easy -- in fact, it might be easier -- to access expert advice by performing a Google search or posing a question in an online community like GovLoop (https://www.govloop.com) or Quora (http://www.quora.com). In fact, I think the more important question surrounds the notion of who constitutes an expert. I would define an “expert” as anyone who can provide a relevant answer to an employee’s question with a high degree of accuracy or point them to a credible resource.
As for the measurement side of Echol’s definition for formal learning, I think it’s time to write the requiem for Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation. There is really only one question by which you need to measure an effective learning experience: Did your employee get the information s/he needed to do their job effectively.” It’s time to start rewarding resourceful individuals who can find information quickly in addition to those people who can remember and regurgitate vast amounts of information on demand.
2. The real experts are in cubicles, not just classrooms.
If you agree with this paradigm shift in who constitutes an expert, it necessarily follows that we need to start questioning where we find the experts. Traditionally, we’ve adhered to the notion that experts are instructors or authors – the “sage on the stage.” You and I can access their knowledge when they stand before us in a classroom (physical or virtual) or complete a book or article.
That’s no longer our reality. You and your employees can’t wait weeks or months for the next scheduled course or publication date. We need information right now and there are tools that enable us to find it fast. In contrast to those sages, we need “peers on our PDAs.” The impact on learning is that we need to create ready access to colleagues in our field who can provide quick answers to our questions with a high degree of accuracy and agility.
There are several ways that niche communities are accomplishing both forms of knowledge exchange. On Twitter, two great examples are #lrnchat and #localgovchat, where niche groups of practitioners and thought leaders gather at a designated time every week to cover current topics of importance. The topics are generated by the people involved in the chat, not by one sole expert who purports to have all the answers. While the sessions may have a facilitator, all of the participants are encouraged to share their thoughts – and each person’s contributions are equally valued as “expert.” Of course, the real value is that participants in these weekly chats are forming relationships and building knowledge networks that they can access in real-time throughout the week.
3. Social networks are the perfect, perpetual classrooms.
Let’s say you are not quite ready to let go of the traditional classroom. I’ll grant that formal learning is not vanishing overnight, but I do believe that we need to start taking the subject matter experts out of the classrooms and placing them in online communities. I’ll say it again: your employees can’t wait weeks or months for the next training session. And why should they when we have the tools to create ready access to expert advice? Even if you’re not willing to take the employee out of the traditional classroom, it’s time to start expecting the experts to step away from the whiteboard and hang out on the web where people need them every day.
Do you want to know where we need them? We welcome their presence in places like GovLoop – a sort of perpetual classroom or conference where people convene between traditional training events and gain access to content and colleagues. One of my favorite examples of GovLoop serving a learning function was a few months ago when an employee from the U.S Office of Personnel Management asked a question about geographic information systems. Nine minutes later, a GIS technician for the County of Kankakee, Illinois, responded with a link to the exact information he requested.
Kitty Wooley, a long-time GovLoop member and an employee at the US Department of Education, put it this way:
The real point, to me, is shared learning…on GovLoop people share all sorts of things they're learning and that adds a lot of timely value. I think of this in loose terms that allow room for lots of creativity, as "other people talking about things they've done, or are doing, that really work, that may be replicable." The point is to share experience while it's still fresh and the person's still thinking about it.
This same concept applies to agency intranets and less formal online communities like listservs and forums. Whatever you’re choosing to use to gain on-the-job help, you’re likely not learning like you used to.
What do you think? Do you continue to appreciate the traditional classroom or should learning be moved to online portals where people have ready access to real-time resources?