Friday, April 23, 2010

What is Informal Learning?

A popular topic that has been thrown around the adult education community is the concept of informal learning.  Informal learning is the learning that takes place independently from a structured learning environment.  If you are an organization who has decided to embrace informal learning as part of your training program, there are some things to remember.

First of all you cannot force informal learning to occur.  You can however, foster an environment where informal learning is likely to occur.  One of the earliest examples of informal learning in all our lives is the playground.  As children, many of the new skills we learn come from this environment.  We learn much of our early social skills from this environment.  Children watch other children at play.  Once they understand the parameters of the activity they will join in.  If newcomers break any of the rules the larger group will correct their behavior.  The only formal aspect of the play ground was a school or community building it in the first place.  What games children played, and the skills and knowledge learned, is up to the children themselves.  It's important to note that each child may get something entirely different from their experience as well.

So how do we duplicate this model in the workplace?  Create a workspace that is conducive to collaboration and discussion.  In an office building where I recently worked, they had space throughout each floor dedicated to where several employees could sit and relax with a coffee (a Starbucks and another restaurant were located on the main floor).  Employees were given a comfortable environment in which to discuss their work and learn from each other.  In addition, the desk space was organized into open concept group pods rather than isolated cubicles.  If you wanted to have a group conversation or share ideas, one had to only swivel their chair around to be facing a half dozen of their colleagues.

Rather than being limited to just email, employees in this office have Office Communicator, Microsoft's corporate version of Messenger.  It has all the functionality of the consumer version but in this case restricted to communication within the company.  Employees were able to download versions of the software which would run on their company provided BlackBerry's and other smart-phones.  Communication with one another could occur anywhere and any time.  Introducing a social networking type tool provides the environment in which learning can occur through the sharing of ideas and resources.

Rather than blocking certain social sites from office workers, give them access to tools that will allow them to share ideas with one another.  Concern for questionable web practice usually disappears when employees can all see each others screens.  Like the playground, employees will generally correct any inappropriate behavior amongst each other.  Also giving employees a shared work space online can create a collaborative environment where each can teach what they are knowledgeable about, while simultaneously learn from one another.  Tools like Sharepoint do this very well.

It's important to only provide the framework.  Too much intervention on the part of the organization and then you have lost the real value of informal learning.  The beauty of this model is that it will seem like leisure and playtime, rather than contributing to the skills and knowledge of your employees.  They will enjoy it and it will foster a positive attitude toward their work and learning environment.

For more information about informal learning, check out this informal video with Jay Cross on YouTube:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tips for New Designers

We have all been subjected to poorly designed training.  We certainly know it when we are subjected to it.  Poorly designed courses are usually designed with only the instructor in mind.  New or inexperienced designers usually think in terms of what the instructor should do next.  This is why you get training where the adult learners are disinterested because of a lack of involvement.  As designers we should be considering what the learners should be doing next more than what the instructor does. 

The percentage of instruction should be roughly 1/3rd, while practice and evaluation should account for the remaining 2/3rds.  For example if I am conducting a training session that lasts 6 hours, The instructor should only be presenting to the class for a total of two of those hours.  The remaining time would be for the learners to practise what they have learned and for the instructor to offer feedback in one form or another. 

Be sure to break down your instruction into small manageable chunks of information.  You would not want an instructor to present for 2 hours and then expect the learners to practice everything they have learned for those remaining 4 hours.  Structure your course into step-by-step instructions placed in the order they would be performed back on the job.  For example if you were teaching how to change a tire, you may want one lesson just on using a jack.  You might spend 10 minutes demonstrating the skill and instructing the learners and then give them 20 minutes to practice what they have learned.  During this time you would wander through the classroom environment offering feedback and encouragement.

When I find a topic interesting, I sometimes make the mistake of providing too much information during training.  I love learning the history and the answers to all the "why" questions, but not everyone is like me.  Be sure to eliminate or reduce the nice-to-know information.  Again if you were instructing people on how to change a tire, you may want to provide the advantages of knowing this skill.  This is often referred to as the "What's in it for me" element, which certainly speaks to the principles of adult learning.  In this case I would not want the history of the tire and how it was developed and perhaps a review of all the possible road hazards that could cause the need to use your spare.  While some learners may be interested in the nice-to-know information, it is not crucial to performing the job task, and will be perceived by most learners as a waste of time. 

Consider the frequency and importance to which the skills are being performed.  If the learners are conducting this new job task on a daily basis and/or it is critical to the organization then spend more time on this training.  If on the other hand the job task is used only once in while and/or has only a small impact on the organization, spend less time training.  Even better would be to develop job aids that break down the infrequent job tasks into to easy to follow step-by-step instructions.  These job aids could eliminate the need for your learners to memorize steps that they will not be using on a daily basis.

Much can be learned by conducting a pilot. Whenever time permits, pilot your course.  Build the additional days needed into your development plan, and schedule participants in advance so that you can be sure their schedule will permit them the time to review your training.  By the time you have a final draft of the course, you will have been exposed to the content for a great deal of time.  You will no longer be objective as to determining if the learning objectives can be effectively met by simply reviewing your own work.  The fresh eyes, ears and mouths of others can tell you if they are able be engaged, and retain the new knowledge and skills.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Career Development

What is the value of training and development to potential employees?  On a recent survey conducted by Right Management, 40 percent of respondents said that career development ranked as number one.  To these people career development was more important than items such as work/life balance and competitive compensation.  Of this list only 8 percent felt that good rapport with one's manager was important.

Although I was not a part of this survey, I agree.  As someone who works in Training, I value career development as it's often the objective of the training I design, however as an employee I also crave my own career development as well.  Recently I was asked during an interview for an Instructional Design position what was important to me in an employer and I reflected on another recent interview experience where I learned that career development wasn't a focus of this potential employer.  The thought of working for this employer suddenly seemed less appealing regardless of what compensation was offered.  As I talked about the developmental experiences I had with my previous employer the interviewer kept commenting that they didn't offer these services or that development was something you did on your own time.

A friend of mine was recently talking about trying to get ahead within her organization.  She found it demoralizing that the only development her employer was offering for a position she was interested in pursuing was to job shadow during her off hours.  While job shadowing may be an effective means of supplementing training, it can lack the skills development and knowledge needed to perform the actual job.  In addition you run the risk of transferring improper procedures or just plain bad habits to the person doing the shadowing.  A more formal method of training is recommended.

Considering the results of the Right Management survey, I think more organizations should consider what can make new positions appealing to employees.  Considering the cost of hiring externally, employers could reduce the turn around and offer career development as an incentive to stay within an organization.  This approach may be less expensive than offering higher wages to untried new hires, who may eventually prove unworthy in the end.