This is a simultaneous blog post, published in tandem with a post by Rachel Burnham.
I’ve been involved in a few conversations recently talking through the approach that I’m taking and a common question that people are asking me is about the use of the word informal. My definition is to place the learning that an individual undertakes as self-managed, personally owned, individually facilitated, in this space. Having talked around it for a while, I wasn’t entirely convinced with this explanation and I’ve been seeking a fuller definition that would help people understand my thinking.
Part of my investigation highlighted how one of the challenges that L&D professionals within organisations have is understanding the level of tacit knowledge that each person brings to a learning experience, event, or activity. What L&D has done traditionally is pre-test people, create a baseline that may (or may not) bear a semblance of accuracy and use that as our start point for measurement.
I was reminded of it this a few weeks ago when I had a chat with Rachel Burnham. I tweeted some lines from the conclusion to a paper that I’d been reading and Rachel was interested in its content. When she’d read it we agreed to get together to review it and see how it might impact our practice. We met up and had a truly meaningful conversation about our interpretation of the paper – Informal Learning in the Workplace, Eraut 2004.
In the paper, Eraut focuses on a range of theoretical frameworks that support informal learning and takes the opportunity to explore their validity and relevance with workplace learning. In the first part of the paper, we’re led through his understanding of what he means by informal learning. This he does with the following typology which he first presented in 2000:
Michael Eraut’s typology of non-formal learning (2000: 13)
|Time of stimulus||Implicit learning||Reactive learning||Deliberative learning|
|Past episode(s)||Implicit linkage of past memories with current experience||Brief near-spontaneous reflection on past episodes, communications, events, experiences.||Review of past actions, communications, events’ experiences. More systematic reflection.|
|Current experience||A selection from experience enters the memory.||Incidental noting of facts, opinions, impressions, ideas.Recognition of learning opportunities.||Engagement in decision making, problem solving, planned informal learning.|
|Future behaviour||Unconscious effect of previous experiences.||Being prepared for emergent learning opportunities.||Planned learning goals.Planned learning opportunities.|
The conversation that Rachel and I had centred on this table. As I mentioned above, L&D traditionally has difficulty in engaging with the tacit knowledge people bring to their learning activity. Using the table above, we can see where L&D shoehorn a relevance to our activity in the deliberative learning column. If WE are in charge of deliberate learning we can take credit for the deliberative learning that an individual undertakes to develop their skills, competence or skills.
Wrong. This whole table is a classification of informal learning, ie learning that is invisible, individually codified and personal.
Simply put, L&D doesn’t have a stake in the delivery of any of the 9 states of learning referenced above. Our role is entirely to commission and delegate the activity to create the environment where this learning can happen. That means not creating formal structures to take credit for informal learning experience. That means not creating a corporate MOOC but giving people time and space to undertake the MOOC that will support their performance the best. That means helping managers realise the value of informal learning experiences. I wrote about this previously referencing the clothesline paradox and asked the question then:
If we can measure something does it mean more?
This fascination with measurement and reticence to just ‘let go’ is pervasive and compelling – why wouldn’t you want to be able to show your worth with an increase in learning? Why wouldn’t being able to count the learning steps lead to efficiencies? More worrying appears to be the desire to create ‘social measurement tools’ within learning platforms; I get daily emails on this topic at the moment from vendors selling informal social learning measurement tools.
I will be exploring some of the ideas about informal learning on 10/11 September at Learning Live in London. If you’re coming to the event, the session I’m facilitating on the 50 Big Ideas will spend some time looking at the value we place on learning content. I’ll be trying to help you with, if not a big idea, at least a few small ones that you can take back to the workplace and maybe, in 8 weeks or so, help change your practice.
So what’s the poor L&D professional to do? Is our role to formalise learning so we can count and measure it, or create an environment where we can drive more opportunity for people to learn informally? Let me know in the comments.
Eraut, M. (2000) ‘Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ in F. Coffield The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press.
Eraut, M. (2004) ‘Informal learning in the workplace’ in Studies in Continuing Education, Vol. 26, No. 2, July 2004