Support informal social learning with formal training?

If you’ve not been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard mention of the 70:20:10 model – the one which suggests 70% of workplace learning takes place from doing the job itself, another 20% from talking to people, and a mere 10% from course work and reading materials.  Charles Jennings, in his recent article traces this model  back to research based on a survey of executives performed in the late 90’s.

A number of thinkers in the learning space have opined  that if that’s the mix accomplished executives experienced,  that in order to produce more accomplished workers, the  mix of learning opportunities we provide for other workplace learners should be similar.

To say we are skeptical is probably to understate the case.

For one thing, even if the executives accurately describe their experience, that doesn’t tell us a thing about whether that experience was optimal!  Is training and course materials such a small part of their experience because  they deemed it not valuable, or because it wasn’t available to them? (I have a dear friend, who is a leader in his field, who describes finding himself in a bookstore realizing that the reason he wasn’t finding anything helpful was that he was really looking for a book on “How to do this thing you want to do that nobody has ever done before”!)

For another, the kind of learning which works for the highly accomplished might not be best suited for the rest of us. Benn Betts wrote a great critique last July suggesting that we need to use the concept of the learning curve, and that the quality of experiential learning can be significantly boosted by preceding it with good formal instruction.

People are highly adaptive. Given time and proper motivation, many of us can figure almost anything out.  But as employers, we don’t want to devote unlimited time to this process, we need our folks productive, quickly.  And while we recognize the value of practice, we don’t want newbies doing their initial practice runs on real customers, or on multi-million dollar mining machinery.  Well-designed training provides a safe, guided space for the transmission of concepts,  and then the application of those concepts in a simulated work environment. Learners gain skillfulness in the exercises, which builds confidence and aids in the transfer of what’s learned in training to performance on the job.

Of course, if the only formal contact with organizational knowledge is what happens during new-hire training, that’s not very effective either.

We had a client with a problem. They’d developed some new tools for underwriting, which were showing promising results, but uptake in the field was slow.  Each year they’d bring new hires into headquarters, train them formally for a few months, then send them out to the branch offices.  But the “seeding” effort was failing, because the new hires reported directly to old-school branch managers, who quickly dismissed the stuff taught at home office as “not real world.”  Yup, the new trainees were learning a boatload of stuff informally which was in direct conflict with the official word from corporate HQ.

The solution was to move some of that formal training online, and to extend it into the early months in the branch. The exercises required of the trainees in the branch were structured to involve the field managers, which made it possible for training staff at HQ to see (and correct) what trainees were learning from their bosses, and of course, communicate more effectively to all levels of the field just what the new procedures were to be.  Additionally, forums were created to give the trainees access to each other as an ongoing community of practice, so that they could continue to be resources in each other’s ongoing informal learning.

Informal learning is indeed ubiquitous. It’s critically important.  It will happen whether it is “officially” supported or not, but an enlightened organization will want to facilitate the formation of informal learning networks.  What they may find, however, is that some of the best support for that informal learning network can be that provided by an excellent base of  formal training!