The Learning Organization: The Hunt for the Right Mix of Learning 

By Jon Wollenhaupt

Learning OrganizationA learning organization is defined by its ability to quickly acquire knowledge that enables it to innovate and meet the challenges of a rapidly changing environment. Senior management within the learning organization must be committed to creating and sustaining a culture that encourages and supports continuous employee learning, critical thinking, and risk taking with new ideas. Most importantly, HR executives and chief learning officers must understand how today’s workforce is motivated to learn, and how unstructured learning can be aligned to ensure it is helping meet organizational goals. 

Most organizations are still experimenting to find the right combination of different types of learning that meets the needs and workflow of employees; they’re also trying to figure out and how to measure the contribution and impact of informal learning on productivity. 

The mix of learning that is to be optimized within the learning organization includes: 

  1. Formal learning takes place in an environment where the training or learning department sets the goal and objectives. Formal learning is normally always intentional, which means it is based in a strategic thinking process that has learning as a goal rather than an incidental outcome; it is guided by a formally developed curriculum and is structured in terms of learning objectives, duration, content, method and assessment. Non-formal learning takes place when someone outside of the learning department, such as a manager or supervisor, sets the goals or objectives. 
  2. Informal learning is self-directed, unscheduled, impromptu, and often spontaneous. It takes place during conversations in the company break room, during informal mentoring sessions, and in connected communities that facilitate knowledge transference. Author and informal learning champion, Jay Cross, frequently uses this analogy to describe informal learning: “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.” 
  3. Intentional learning is defined as a persistent, continual process to acquire, understand, and use a variety of strategies to improve one’s ability to attain and apply knowledge. It is a process that is supported by a questioning spirit and an intentional desire to learn. There are five core attributes that help define intentional learning: questioning, organizing, connecting, reflecting, and adapting. 
  4. Incidental learning is unintentional or unplanned learning, which takes place through observation, repetition, social interaction, and problem solving. Alan Rogers, renowned author and professor of adult education, describes incidental learning as “a natural way of learning that has characteristics of what is considered most effective in formal learning situations: it is situated, contextual, and social.” 

Learning OrganizationThe 70:20:10 Model 

The origins of the 70:20:10 Model are vague and even controversial. Most commonly, the model is ascribed to researchers Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison who were working during the 1980s with the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. However, when these researchers published their book Lessons of Experience in 1988, they never specifically mentioned 70:20:10 as a formula for organizational development. The research team’s original work did describe the professional development of successful managers and how they obtained knowledge and skills, which they reported as follows: 

  • 70 % of knowledge came from informal, on-the-job experiences and stretch projects 
  • 20 % from interactions with others including coaching, mentoring, feedback and observation 
  • 10% percent from formal training and structured courses 

Critics asserts that the 70:20:10 Model is neither scientific nor a formula for how best to develop employees. In addition, detractors say the model is conceptual and is based on retrospective musings by executives about what made them successful. Nevertheless, the 70:20:10 Model today holds sway with organizations globally. 

Informal Learning & the 70:20:10 Model 

Proponents of the 70:20:10 Model are typically the leading voices for informal learning. They regularly remind us that the majority (70%) of workplace learning and development comes from unstructured, experiential sources while a mere 10% comes from formal learning such as classes, workshops and training. The pros of informal learning are commonly stated as follows: 

learning organizationThe Pros of Informal Learning 

  • The learner acts on his or her own initiative and natural curiosity to advance his or her knowledge and skills, which provides the deepest cognitive impact. 
  • Informal learning occurs faster and more spontaneously. The learner applies new knowledge immediately to solve problems and create efficiencies 
  • Informal learning happens on the job and in context. An example is when a coach or mentor helps a coworker learn workplace processes, procedures or technologies that are fundamental to the learner’s job description. 
  • The learning resource (coworker) is regularly available to the learner. 
  • Informal learning is highly flexible and customizable to the needs of the learner. 
  • New knowledge and skills acquired by the motivated self-learner enhances the learning that takes place in a formal training or classroom setting. 
  • With social and mobile technologies, creating informal learning situations can be less costly and more time efficient. 
  • Learning informally can be more personal and less intimidating for some people. 
  • Because informal learning can take place during the flow of the learner’s work day, resistance to learning is reduced. 
  • Informal learning provides support at the point of need. 

Is Formal Training’s Contribution to the Learning Organization Being Undervalued? —The 10% Amplifier Effect

Studies from The Center for Creative Leadership state that “although training is seen as contributing just 10 percent of a learner’s development in the 70-20-10 model, it has what is known as the “amplifier effect”—formal training courses clarify, support, and boost the other 90 percent of the leaders’ learning.” Author David Cofer in his 2000 brief “Informal Workplace Learning” reported, “This amplifier effect works because each hour of formal learning spills over to four hours of informal learning for a 4:1 ratio.”

Charles Jennings, a leading thinker, practitioner and consultant in the areas of performance improvement, change management, and learning states, “A common misconception about the 70:20:10 Model is that it is ‘anti-training’. That’s certainly not the case. It simply provides guidance to address performance issues with a full suite of approaches that go beyond the traditional structured model of design, develop and deliver content-rich, experience-poor training and development events.”

Pros of Formal Learning:

  • Large numbers of employees will learn the same information and/or processes at the same time.
  • If properly designed, the course’s contents are accurate and up to date.
  • Employees learning through formal training programs come up to speed faster once they start their jobs.
  • Properly designed formal training programs can include a variety of methods to appeal to all learning styles and conform to adult learning principles.
  • The assessment process allows employers to have greater confidence that learning objectives have actually been achieved.
  • A formal curriculum prepared by subject matter experts provides management with greater confidence that important content has been covered consistently.
  • There are established methodologies to assessthe application and impact of formal learning.
  • How Can Informal Learning Be Assessed? 

While the importance of informal learning is widely recognized, methods for measuring its impact have yet to be established. Dr. Saul Carliner, assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, says, “The strategies for measuring informal learning are still in their infancy. There’s no Phillips Model that is widely used.” Because much of informal learning takes place in break rooms or in informal meetings, it is not possible to send out a survey, after an event, that asks someone, “what were the three most job-relevant things you learned in your conversation with your mentor?”, or “how will you apply what your learned from your break room conversation with your colleague?”

Formal assessment practices and methodologies need to be adapted to fit the unstructured learning environment. Fortunately, many of the technologies used to find and share information— blogs, message boards and online communities—offer opportunities for measurement. By accessing those electronic forums, a company can find out which and how many questions are being addressed, and how they are being applied within a department. 

David Wentworth of research firm Brandon Hall says, “It’s important to understand that the nature of measurements should match the nature of the learning. For a formal course, you would use formal assessments and other measurements; for informal learning, look for informal methods of measurement.” 

Kent Barnett, CEO and founder of KnowledgeAdvisors, a global talent development analytics firm, suggests the following questions to help companies get started on measuring the effectiveness of informal learning activities. 

  1. How often do you engage in social learning activities, such as ask a question, reply to a post, access content or participate in meetings? 
  2. Have you been able to find people to help you address your learning needs? 
  3. Did the people you interacted with consistently contribute to discussions or other knowledge-sharing activities? 
  4. How helpful were the knowledge and resources shared within the social learning program? 
  5. Have you been able to apply the knowledge on the job? How? 
  6. Why did you participate in the social learning program? 
  7. Do you feel your participation has been worthwhile? 
  8. Would you recommend this program to others? 

In the hunt for the right mix of learning an organization should resist the temptation to take a formulaic approach to implementing development programs. An approach that works for employees in financial services might not be the best approach for a manufacturing company. Perhaps as important as assessing the learning needs of employees is assessing how the organization should align resources to support and sustain an effective learning culture. Depending on where an organization is starting from, its learning needs will vary. 

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Learn more about how the California Community College’s contract education units are meeting the training needs of business and industry. 

About the Author
Jon Wollenhaupt is a marketing consultant who writes about topics related to contract education, employee training, and corporate learning for the California Community Colleges. His work is funded by the Technical Assistant Provider (TAP) grant that is hosted at Mt. San Antonio College. He can be reached via email at: jon@golaunchmarketing.com

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