If Learning and Development organizations (or anyone, for that matter) are going to facilitate learning in the changing workplace, it’s vitally important to understand how employees actually learn. To be clear, I’m not talking about learning styles or preferences, nor am I making assumptions about attention spans or preferences for the format of information. Rather, I’m talking about the evolutionary development of each and every employee in the workplace and how they actually learn at work.

As a Learning and Development (L&D) professional and strategist, I think about choices for addressing performance needs in the workplace. At times, training may be appropriate. At others, it’s performance support, coaching and mentoring, or possibly connecting one employee with others. A key decision is often whether or not to invest our scarce resources in a formal learning solution, and decision factors often include the pervasiveness of the need, the criticality of need to the organization, and the maturity of content to meet the need, among others. Still, decisions are often made subjectively, impulsively, or instinctively.

My “Ah ha!” moment came during a conference session on mobile learning led by Clark Quinn. He presented and discussed the diagram above (which Clark says he adapted from other work) that illustrates the value of formal learning as high for the novice, but very low for the expert. Conversely, informal methods have very high value for the expert but relatively low value for those new to a given field.

I readily accept this relationship because it makes sense. While social scientists may be able to arrive at detailed, data-supported shapes for the curves, I completely believe in this inverse relationship between experience and the value of formal learning. It also explains why researchers found that experiential learning accounted for between 70% and 95% of learning in organizations (Jarche, Informal Rule of Thumb): I could see how employees, who learn experientially from their first day on the job, would generally use even less formal learning as they become more expert in a given field.

Appreciating this relationship is immensely helpful. For one, it’s a decision support tool when considering whether a formal solution is appropriate or not. Even for critical needs, if the affected employee population is mostly expert in a given field, a formal solution is likely the wrong response. It also suggests that a range of solutions may be appropriate, depending on specific circumstances within an organization, especially when large numbers of employees fall in the middle “practitioner” range indicated in the diagram above.

There is one more important relationship shared by Clark that’s related to the above figure.  As shown in Clark’s figure to the left, mobile users interact with data in shorter, but more frequent sessions than those using laptops (or computers). This most likely results from the immediate nature of the mobile need: “How do I get to…” or “What have others said about this product?” This is effectively a form of mobile learning, and mobile users represent an increasingly large fraction of employees.

The workplace is increasingly busy. The same technology that brings facile access to information also raises expectations on productivity, which results in tremendous pressure to spend more time on the job and less time away from it. Like mobile users and their immediate learning needs, informal learning, in short increments, fits well into busy schedules. Traditional formal methods simply do not.

Informal learning, experiential or social, is key to sustaining a healthy workforce. Formal learning is still often needed, and L&D would be well-served to develop it in shorter, more easily consumed segments than the traditional courses of the past. Microlearning, consisting of short, easily produced, and easily managed segments, seems to be both reasonable and scalable. Available on-demand, these can mirror the short interactions employees now expect when learning in a less formal manner. Employees can engage with microlearning content on their own terms at the time and place of their convenience.

Thanks for reading!


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