I follow several learning-oriented blogs on a regular basis, and I have witnessed numerous conversations about formal versus informal learning. Discussions range from determining impact to defining strategies around integrating informal learning into a formal mindset. In a span of two weeks I read, “Training is Dead!”, and just this morning that “Training is Making a Comeback”. CLO Magazine had a little blurb last week asking if it the time has come for informal learning to go formal(1). Interesting conversations for sure, but underneath the diverse dialog, I have to ask, “Who cares what we call it?”
Quite honestly, it is “learning”! Yes, it includes training – formal, premeditated, scheduled-in-advance, structured learning events. Moreover, there is informal too – learning scattered across unstructured, uncontrolled moments of learning need satisfied with a barrage of media types and collaborative venues. Face-to-face, just in time, twitted, or flitted they are all viable solutions in different situations. I wonder though, have we become too enamored with what we call the solution, or how we choose to deliver the final product? Any way you slice it, it is still learning, and what we call it matters little.
Something does matter however. Consider it a parallel argument viewed from a different perspective – the learner. To be more specific, what matters is the learner’s intent. What motivated the learner to the point where they recognize the need to learn something? In previous posts, I have shared these five moments of learning need (2) :
Any number of formal or informal solutions can satisfy these learning moments. Let us not match solutions to the learning need or align informal over formal; that is not the point of this writing. We do enough of that already. As workplace learning professionals, we migrate toward the solution more so than understanding the learner’s motivation to learn. Certainly, an effective solution is ultimately what we seek, but I argue that the path to the “right” solution may be shorter if we become more intimate with the nature of the learner’s intent. The learner’s motivation to learn did not just manifest out of thin air, it had to come from some stimuli. What sparked the desire to learn? Within what work context did one or more of the five learning moments listed above arise?
Work context defines not only the motivation to learn, it defines the environment where the learner is attempting to function successfully. Whether the learner tightens lug nuts on an assembly line or is the creative talent developing an advertising campaign, one or more of the five moments drop in to challenge productivity. Work context comes with drivers and restrainers that define what combination of learning solutions are appropriate. Consider the work context where there is a high degree of urgency to perform flawlessly. Consider the work context where there is a high degree of risk to perform flawlessly. Does it matter whether the learning is formal or informal? Which one is better?
At the point of attack (in the work context), one question holds relevance: “What learning solution effectively supports the performer in their moment of need?”
I have been in this industry too long to not respect the robust dialog and banter over this or that methodology or this, that, and the other terminology. In fact, I am a firm believer that without categorizing things into various buckets, the diversity of learning methods and solutions would overwhelm us. My caution is to avoid leading with the cure before confirming the disease. Understand the learner’s intent and the work context from which it sprang forth. Identify the desired behavior and the gaps preventing it from happening, and then you can call the solution whatever turns your crank.
(1) Prokopeak, M. “Is It Time for Informal Learning to Go formal?” Executive Briefings, CLO Magazine, July 2009 at http://www.clomedia.com/includes/printcontent.php?aid=2685
(2) Gottfredson, C. “A Beginning Discussion: What is Performance Support?” PERFORMER Support: Learning @ the Moment of Need (weblog), November 1, 2007. Accessed June 26, 2009 at http://performancesupport.blogspot.com/2007/11/beginning-discussion.html
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist