Putting the F-U-N in Learning Ecologies

people diggingFormal training has taken a front seat thanks to a recent EDC survey for Motorola. And though EDC’s teaching-firm report is just this month being formally released, some people within Motorola are already lobbying for a stepped-up commitment to formal training. Their argument takes the form of an obvious question: If 40 hours of formal training yields 160 hours of informal learning, what would 80 hours of training yield?

The desired answer, of course, is 320 hours – two months’ worth of leveraged, on-the-job learning. But Frasier worries that the relationship between formal and informal training may not be so straightforward. A learning environment is a wonderful thing; it can also be, Frasier understands, a fragile thing. “I fear that you could create an overheated environment where too much time spent in formal training starts to take away from informal learning,” he says. “My hunch is that unless you keep the two in balance, too much formal training could lead to a collapse of informal learning.”

Nowhere in EDC’s teaching-firm report, it should be noted, is there the slightest suggestion that formal training – even when administered in staggering doses – might imperil the kind of informal learning that happens at times in all companies. In fact, one of the main themes running throughout the 300-page document is that formal training and informal training can be, should be, and, in many cases, already are dynamically linked in ways that nourish one another.

“The key message we’re trying to get across is that corporate management can realize huge gains on the money it spends on formal training by improving the relationship between training and informal learning,” says Monika Aring, director of EDC’s Center for Workforce Development and co-director of the teaching-firm project.

But the report itself stops well short of attempting to define exactly where or how such linkages should be crafted. Instead, it paints a complex, many-textured picture of all the ways informal learning can occur in an organization. Learning occurs, we are told, in four dimensions: pragmatic (job-related skills and knowledge); intrapsychic (personal coping skills and problem-solving abilities); interpersonal (how we interact, cooperate and share information with others); and cultural (understanding how the organization works, what things it approves of, what things can land us in big trouble).

Within the sphere defined by these learning dimensions are an infinite number of explicit facts and procedures to be learned or memorized. Less apparent, but equally important, are all the bits and pieces of implicit work-related know-how, lore and wisdom – the tacit intelligence that workers absorb by some process of mental osmosis.

social circle graphIntermingled in this blend of infinite content and multiple learning dimensions are all the elements that set the creative learning process in motion: work relationships, social relationships, company values, the intentional and unintentional things employers can do to make learning a natural part of the job, and all the things they can do to obstruct learning.

The EDC report never actually uses the term ecology, but Aring acknowledges that the term, which has lately started to crop up elsewhere, is entirely apt. “The mix of interdependent elements and cultural factors that cause informal learning to happen, or not happen, isn’t something that can be managed,” Aring says. “I know people are going to try to look at the elements listed in this report and say, ‘Because we’ve got this, this and this in place, we’ve created a learning environment.’ But the elements that make for a learning culture are extremely context-dependent,” she notes. “And context isn’t something you can manage or predict.”

Which is why careful managers like Motorola’s Frasier will think twice before assuming that throwing more formal training at workers will automatically engender more informal learning. The ecology metaphor carries a double meaning. Ecosystems, when healthy, can be self-regulating and self-sustaining. But sometimes they can be damaged beyond their ability to repair themselves.

Even at companies that strive to create learning environments, it’s often easy to misinterpret the signals and end up doing the wrong thing.

Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution in Raleigh, NC, has worked for years to foster various kinds of on-the-job learning. Some new hires are put through an apprenticeship program. Others receive mentoring and peer training from co-workers following a formal, new-hire training regimen.

But when EDC researchers visited Siemens as part of the teaching-firm project last year, they found one company policy that seemed to be working against informal information-sharing. Concerned that the company cafeteria was becoming a place for inappropriate socializing, management had walled off part of the room, believing that decreasing the cafeteria’s size would make it less convenient for workers to linger there.

“It was the exact wrong thing to do,” says training director Barry Blystone. As it turned out, workers were using the cafeteria as a de facto meeting place where they could gather in a corner to discuss work issues (along with all the other things managers assumed they were talking about – cars, families, the Duke University Blue Devils, etc.). Across the seven firms EDC researchers looked at, three-quarters of workers interviewed reported that they talk about work away from the job, including during lunch and other breaks.

“By shrinking the size of the cafeteria, we were taking important space and time away from an informal learning opportunity,” Blystone says. Ironically, the company used the walled-off space for a conference room – one where meetings had to be scheduled in advance.

These sorts of “negative contextual factors” occur in every workplace. They can take the form of frantic production schedules that leave no time for workers to talk among themselves. Extraneous factors that an employer has little control over also can deter on-the-job learning; labor union rules that prohibit job-sharing or make seniority the only basis for promotion are examples of this. But most often it is cultural misalignment between stated policies and actual practices that impede learning. EDC researchers report hearing more than one story about how management gave lip service to learning and innovation, only to have individual managers come down hard on the first workers whose risk-taking backfired.

Only rarely does formal training itself go so wrong as to qualify as a negative factor. EDC’s researchers observed or heard the usual variations on familiar themes: right information delivered at the wrong time; right information to the wrong people; wrong information at the wrong time to the wrong people. In one extreme case, a company pulled workers away from their jobs for extensive training sessions on a new piece of equipment and its attendant software, then decided not to install the new equipment. “That’s the sort of thing that can cause workers to lose trust in management,” says Ann Demarais, a principal with Arc Consulting in New York and field research director for the teaching-firm project. “Once you lose trust in your employer, it’s easy to lose the desire to learn new things,” she says.

While formal training is rarely an impediment to informal learning, it’s seldom the dynamic partner it can be. EDC’s Aring contends that most training, whether in school or in the workplace, focuses on just one of the four learning dimensions, the pragmatic. In most companies, training and informal learning are regarded as separate domains. Few companies have tried to connect the people who develop training with those who look at organizational design, and who are likely to be the ones thinking about structural ways to support informal learning – that is, if anyone in the company is.

“I think the big question we need to ask is: What should the new hybrid of OD and training be that will foster learning across all four dimensions?” says Aring. “But the answer to that question may still be years away. At this point, EDC is just trying to create what it calls ‘a taxonomy of informal learning.’

“We used to talk about depression as just ‘depression,’” she continues. “After many years of research, we now have a taxonomy of something like 20 distinct kinds of depression, and many contributing factors.” Over time, those taxonomical distinctions have led to more precise interventions. The same may eventually happen for learning, she predicts. But first we have to understand that there are different kinds of learning and multiple factors that affect each of them.

EDC weaves many elements into its taxonomical scheme, but springs few real surprises. Taken one by one, the findings are unlikely to alter dramatically people’s ideas about informal learning.

Take, for instance, the places in which informal learning can occur: teams (when they’re set up properly, that is; when teams are done badly, they can stifle learning), mentoring relationships, supervisory relationships, informal discussions among peers – even the dreaded meeting can be a learning opportunity.

That informal learning occurs in these settings is hardly groundbreaking news. More surprising, perhaps, is the amount of informal learning that EDC says occurs as a routine part of doing one’s job. In the past, such authors as Chris Argyris and Peter Senge have suggested that times of crisis or breakdown are rich opportunities for new learning. EDC researchers report no evidence to support that theory.

“The kind of problem-solving that needs to take place when there’s a major malfunction may occur with a few people at supervisory or senior levels,” Demarais says. “We didn’t see it with workers on the factory floor.” Researchers did witness plenty of routine problem-solving occurring in the course of getting the work done. But when things break down, the average line worker, it seems, is apt to wander off and take a break.

Somewhat surprising, too, is the amount of informal learning that occurs among individual workers. No one has ever said that people don’t learn on their own. In recent years, however, a good deal of discussion has addressed informal workplace learning as a social phenomenon: the idea that humans learn within work-based groups called communities of practice (see “Communities of Practice: Learning Is Social. Training Is Irrelevant?” TRAINING, February 1997).

EDC researchers found ample evidence that social learning occurs – for instance, a new worker who is taken under the wing of a mentor or team members will learn a job quicker than one who isn’t. But informal learning can often be enriched by giving new workers time alone to reflect. At such times, they might think of new questions to ask co-workers, and gain new understanding from sorting through all the new information they’ve been given at fire-hose volume.

Even the solitary act of writing a report can be a rich opportunity for informal learning. While this is not an assignment that every worker will relish, even a reluctant report writer may be forced to come to terms with what he knows and doesn’t know, perhaps prompting him to seek information from others after private deliberations reveal the gaps in his own knowledge.

The value of EDC’s report is not that it tells us anything so different from what we know about informal learning, says Etienne Wenger, the researcher who coined the term “communities of practice” in a 1992 book called Situated Learning, which he co-authored with Jean Lave. “The value [of the study] is that it gives us a broader sense of the learning landscape,” Wenger says. “We’re just at the beginning of trying to invent new organizational forms that do justice to the kinds of informal learning and innovation that we get for free. This study shows knowledge and learning as a part of a larger social and ecological process.”

Wenger is not the first to raise the ecology metaphor. At Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), “learning ecology” is the term that chief scientist John Seely Brown has invoked to describe the kind of organization he believes PARC needs to become in the 21st century. “How do you even begin to figure out what new skills you’ll need to acquire when, by virtue of their being new, you don’t recognize them as skills?” Brown asks. The answer, he suggests, is to bring together as many different points of view as possible and set them into motion in a place that’s conducive to sharing ideas and information. “We need to create a space where the spheres of work, play, thinking and learning overlap,” Brown says.

In their new book Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know, Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak describe how the information in workers’ heads can be captured, shared, distributed and exploited in ways that turn learning into competitive advantage. While the authors acknowledge that the vast body of corporate intelligence is the sort of implicit, or tacit, knowledge that defies control (see excerpt page 35), the book nonetheless attempts to explore the various structures – both technological and non – that management can institute to foster the creation and sharing of knowledge.

But in another book, Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment (Oxford University Press, 1997), the same authors present a very different way of thinking about how companies work. Here, “ecologies” of information are much broader in their array of interactions and interdependencies than “systems” built of knowledge or information. Critically important to the health of an information ecology are the human relationships that make the various interactions and interdependencies possible. Relationships, more than information, determine how problems get solved or opportunities exploited, the authors contend.

“Relationships are crucial because they not only determine how work gets done, they play a role in how meaning gets constructed,” says Xerox’s Brown. “Corporate America doesn’t like to even admit there is a social and emotional component to learning; they want to believe that this is just information-sharing. But that doesn’t recognize the richly textured social fabric you need in order to have a learning environment. Without this rich complexity, learning just doesn’t happen.”

But this organic, ecological model of a company as a set of relationships and interdependencies is one that doesn’t square all that well with the traditional corporate model of management and control – a model that still favors technological and mechanical interventions. To understand how at odds the two views can be, one need only to look at what passes these days for knowledge management systems.

Speaking last November at a conference called Capitalizing on Knowledge: Winning Practices of the Knowledge Enterprise, Jim Blair, research director for the Stamford, CT-based Gartner Group, posed this question: “Is knowledge management a new idea, or simply a new name for information technology?”

By way of answering that question, Blair enumerated some recent and soon-to-come technological breakthroughs on the knowledge management front: Search engines that actually list relevant sites and topics when a person goes looking for information on the Internet or a company’s intranet (as opposed to the usual list of 100,000 unrelated sites you get from a keyword search); “collaborative filters” that monitor intranet traffic and present a set of sites that other searchers, presumably those with some knowledge on a topic, have deemed useful; and graphic presentation formats that attempt to show the relationships among various documents residing on a network of knowledge management databases.

The problem, Blair observes, is that virtually all of these developments still address only the search-and-retrieval part of knowledge management – the interface between a human and some digital resource. But corporate knowledge is, in fact, a sprawling human interface, where everything you say gets captured by someone else on a second-by-second basis. Blair estimates that less than 5 percent of knowledge lies in explicit knowledge databases. The vast majority of corporate knowledge is the information that’s shared or created in face-to-face conversations among workers. The typical knowledge worker, he says, spends 25 percent of his time in such face-to-face encounters. For chief executives, the figure is more like 95 percent. “Knowledge is the thing that resides within and between humans,” Blair says.

The challenge facing the knowledge-systems builders is how to make the computer search-and-retrieval model look more like the socio-ecological human-interface model, where information is constantly being integrated into the workplace. This involves breaching what Blair calls the “blood-brain” barrier.

All the research and development that aims to make the knowledge search-and-retrieval process faster and better still leaves us far short of anything that even approximates the human model, Blair concludes. How do you begin to incorporate the values and relationships that give shape to an information ecology? Organic, human information systems (blood and brains) work the way they do, Blair says, because people know what matters, who the experts are, who the good communicators are, which individuals or communities have the right skills, which ones will share them and which ones won’t.

Of course, it’s easy to beat up on technology as being, well, too technology-focused – too out of sync with the human dimension of the learning environment. But many aspects of the corporate model, including training and education, still hew to rigid methodologies that sometimes ignore the human dimension of learning.

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