How Did You Learn to Learn?

Here’s the situation: The CEO of Company A strongly believes that the best way for people to learn is face-to-face and in classes. So that’s exactly how the L&D organization structures education in the company. The CEO of Company B absolutely wants everything done virtually, supporting performance when needed. That’s exactly how L&D structures Company B’s education.

What is the difference? The way they learned to learn. The CEO of Company A is a Boomer who learned in class from teachers who were the experts standing as the ‘sage of the stage’. The CEO of Company B is a Millennial who learns what she needs to know on her computer, desktop or laptop, tablet and smartphone. The big distinction is in the tense of the verbs. See it?

Company A “learned” and believes in just-in-case learning. Company B ‘”learns” and believes in just-in-time learning. Here are some examples of both:

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Just-in-case means I learn it now just in case I need to know someday. Just-in-time means I only learn it when I need to use it. Someday or now.

Every organization needs BOTH types of learning, and Brandon Hall Group and BizLibrary join for a webinar Oct. 8 to discuss how. You can sign up here.

Just-in-case learning, also referred to as formal learning, means you get the knowledge and know-how early and hopefully will need it someday just-in-case. Formal learning happens when people other than the original expert or owner of that knowledge share the recorded version of that knowledge. Formal knowledge, recorded in any format (written, video, audio, etc.) only needs to be accessible anytime and anywhere, independent from the people who originally had it in their head. It’s a static form of learning.

Just-in-time learning is another way of describing informal learning. Informal learning is what happens when knowledge is neither externalized nor recorded, and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person. It’s a more dynamic form of learning. Here are some more examples of informal knowledge transfer:

  • Instant messaging (IM)
  • Spontaneous meetings on the Internet
  • Phone call to someone who has information you need
  • Live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product
  • Chat-room in real time
  • Chance meeting by the water cooler
  • Scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda
  • Tech walking you through a repair process
  • Meeting with your assigned mentor or manager

A lot of what we learn in companies today starts with a formal event. Yet the informal learning that occurs downstream from the formal is what that really helps us adapt and adopt what we learned. In order to get good at whatever we sponge in during a formal event, we need help and support to put it into practice. We require people who can answer our questions, and with whom we can learn more, make mistakes, unlearn, relearn and practice some more. When we do not build informal and formal into the learning process, the chances of real learning occurring decrease.

I’m not talking about blended learning either. Blended learning programs that have no downstream learning in place are static events. Blended learning programs that are the kick-off for downstream, ongoing and continuous learning are examples of the learning journey across the continuum. The best example is a blended learning program (event) that creates a Community of Learners (CoL) that gets accustomed to a face-to-face class mediated by technology and then they “graduate” into a “Community of Practice” to learn continuously after the event from their network.

The problem with the approach that Company A and B have is that they are both falling to one side of a continuum that ranges from formal to informal. Here is the continuum; some refer to it as the 80/20 rule; others as the 70/10/20 rule. It has the same implications for the companies in our example:

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A Boomer, who represents the first and only transitional generation, runs Company A. Many Boomers were through all their schoolplace and much of their workplace learning when the digital revolution occurred. A Millennial runs Company B and she sat through somewhat boring classes, fast tracked through grades, networked in college and always used a computer, then a laptop, and then a smartphone and a tablet and … you get the picture. Therefore, the way they learned to learn gated their decisions about how everyone in their company will learn. And that is the problem.

Now to go over to the Dark Side. I believe that the continuum represents the learning journey and you need to have learners go through the entire process. All learning starts with a formal event. We still think of it in Boomer terms – class, conference, elearning program. Anything can be that event when we transfer new information. It is the beginning of the learning journey. Classes and other formal events have their place. Smartphones and performance support tools have their place. To focus solely on one or the other is a good way to short-circuit and disable the way the learning process works. We need both, the learning event and the supportive downstream learning moments. As the Boomers pass on, the ways they learned to learn will continue to have value. As the Millennials take over, the ways they learned to learn needs to be inclusive of the previous approaches to learning. One is not better than the other and both together create a synergy in which everyone learns more.

The ending of the story: So Company A added technology to their face-to-face classes and extended their programs downstream in the form of a Community of Practice. Peer-to-peer ongoing continuous learning. Company B started holding learning kick-off classes that gathered people together in real time in different places for 20 minute classes to set the vision, goals or objectives of their learning journey. The learning took place across the entire continuum. That is the key to future learning success.

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