The learning world has been talking about social and informal learning for close to a decade now. Jay Cross popularized the concept in his book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance, defining it thus: “Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs. Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route.”
Organizations have moved from skepticism regarding social learning to realizing that it is a much-needed component in the learning ecosystem. The days when formal training alone worked are over. Training worked when work was predictable, processes could be pre-defined, and best practices could be handed down – via ILT or elearning – depending on the organization in question. With the advent of globalization, ubiquitous technology, mobile devices and a myriad other ripple effects of technology, the world of work has suddenly been hit by a whirlwind of change. Simple, process-driven work that defined the industrial era is giving way to complicated and complex work where exceptions are the norm. Employees and organizations alike are at a loss. It is clear that something more than formal, top down training is definitely required to enable employees remain efficient and be able to acquire the knowledge and skills required. Thus, organizations are taking a second look at informal and social learning today.
Micro-learning, micro-content, Learning Flows, and mlearning are some of the current and upcoming trends in the world of learning and development. They all have a common denominator—they require very little “at-a-stretch” time commitment from learners/users. And learning design – driven by these principles – lend itself to informal and social learning as well.
Wikipedia describes micro-learning thus: Micro-learning can also be understood as a process of subsequent, "short" learning activities, i.e. learning through interaction with micro-content objects in small timeframes. ~ Wiki
Some of the key characteristics of micro-learning are given in the diagram below:
These qualities make small capsules of learning – tweets, responses to forum discussions, short podcasts, learning nuggets, and so on – eminently suitable in the context of social and informal learning. Imagine an employee posting a question on a discussion forum on an enterprise collaboration platform. S/he could receive a response in any one or more of the following forms – a direct post, a short video, a podcast, a link to an external resource, or be directed to an expert on the said topic.
A collaboration platform that facilitates such interaction promotes social and informal learning within an organization. However, it is important to remember that a platform doesn’t necessarily bring about the desired change. To foster a culture of sharing and collaboration, it is important that L&D dons the hat of community managers and facilitators enabling content curation and aggregation and connecting learners to relevant content, to each other, and to experts.
But what’s wrong with good old formal training, you may ask. Nothing really! Formal learning will still be required but it can no longer meet the needs of the workforce. As the juggernaut of change continues to hit the global work environment, exceptions and complex problems are becoming the norm. It is no longer feasible or possible to design training programs in advance for challenges one doesn’t know is coming their way. All of these are pointing to a shift that is in motion—a shift from long courses with a defined structure and curriculum that trained users on good and best practices based on the past. The “Era of Courses” reflected an age where work was stable, experience of the past could be encapsulated and translated into courses that future workers could take and be successful in their work and performance. Businesses grew and became mega-businesses. Accumulated experiences counted. The future reflected the past. And economy of scale was the order of the day.
Learning “at the speed of need” is of paramount importance today. And enabling social and informal learning at the workplace is one way to meet this need. Providing a platform for globally dispersed employees to quickly access a learning byte, share an insight, post a query, or upload a document ensures that just-in-time learning is happening. It also brings learning into the workflow. And fosters a culture of sharing and collaboration thus also ensuring that the organization’s tacit knowledge is being captured.
Today, workers need bursts and nuggets of learning a.k.a. performance support. Lengthier, knowledge-driven courses will still exist but will become optional and can be taken at the workers’ discretion. Individuals will take those courses where they see personal and professional benefits—but they may not be driven by the organization where they work. This is directly evident in the MOOC phenomenon as seen on Coursera or EdX.
Learning design will have to increasingly revolve around micro-learning concepts that are device, time and location agnostic. While micro-learning can be viewed as a support to more formal and longer courses, this equation may change. Workers used to Googling to solve their queries and problems are likely to bring that same paradigm to learning. They may well expect a collection of micro-modules to be available which they will dip into as and when needed. Each worker will chart out their own path through these micro-modules based on their role, performance need and prior experience and knowledge.
However, the big question is: How will corporates take advantage of these trends and phenomenon that have organically grown out the changing technology landscape. And, what will be the role of learning designers in this new landscape—curators & aggregators, facilitators & collaborators, connectors & change agents?