Iceberg…. Straight Ahead

The main focus of HRD (Human Resource Development) Departments, I’d venture to say, is creating structured learning activities; planning employee ‘on-boarding’, skill re-certifications, in-services on new equipment, introductions to corporate concepts like the world of ‘lean’ practices, etc.

It seems we are quite fond of having everyone congregate in a room (virtual classrooms was a big advancement for us) so that we can deliver a lecture with an accompanying power point presentation…… please tell me no one is still using THIS :). It’s our comfort zone; it helps us to ensure that the class unfolds exactly as WE planned, that we cover every point WE believe is salient.

However, I think we might have missed the memo…. Authors like Berg and Chyung (citing Cross 2007) have found that 80% of workplace learning occurs through ‘informal’ means. It’s the learning that takes place outside of a classroom setting – unstructured, experiential, non-institutional learning. And they report that although the majority of learning is now ‘informal’, only 20% of our investment in learning is dedicated to enhancing informal learning (p 230).

With the rapid change and supercomplexity in our organizations that I spoke of a few months back, it seems only sensible that the only way we’ll keep up and thrive is with a commitment to life long and ‘informal learning’. An impressive example, is the ability to reach out and find the definition of ‘informal learning’ recorded by Jay Cross (who I just quoted in the previous paragraph) at my fingertips via Web 2.0. It’s all part of the ‘participatory web’ that he describes. Or that an expert like Jay would be willing to share his passion for the topic via his wikiThe push/pull learning that he describes on his ‘’, where “Training is something that’s pushed on you; informal learning is something you’re pulled into. Many a knowledge worker will tell you, ‘I love to learn but I hate to be trained.’ Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they are asked to do”….

Aren’t we usually the best judge of where our knowledge deficits are? Don’t we have the best sense of the educational strategy that appeals to us? Shouldn’t transference be what each of us is striving for (both teacher and learner)?

As with most occasions in life…. somewhere in the middle usually lies the truth. Accuse me of vacillating, but  I found myself agreeing with Svensson, Randle & Bennich and their claim that both formal and informal learning are needed to create innovative and useful knowledge. As they suggest:

Both formal education and informal learning have severe limitations if the ambition is to develop competent employees for the present and the future labour market. Formal education is more likely to lead to the production of abstract and sterile theoretical knowledge, while informal learning is geared to practical knowledge that it is short-sighted and instrumental. Competence, as we have defined it, is based on a combination of theoretical and practical elements; the former element contributing to the generality and innovativeness of the knowledge and the latter guaranteeing the usefulness of what is learnt. (p 776)

At present, however, the scales seem  heavily tipped with our comfort in delivering formal training in HRD. So, I’ll spend the remainder of this post sharing some potential ideas that we might incorporate to reach that balance.


An interesting finding in the research of Berg and Chyung was that as age increased, so did the interest in engaging in informal activities like searching the web, and reading printed professional magazines and journals (p 238). In my own world, access to the web is still fairly limited on nursing units and handhelds are viewed with trepidation in patient care areas  AND I’m not sure how many of my colleagues know how to access our library services on-line or which are the most user-friendly data bases….. PLUS that would mean we’d also have to ensure they have time dedicated to informal learning.

I enjoyed the idea that people learn easily and are happy with learning situations where they are not aware that they are learning. As Simons, Germans & Ruijters suggest, it’s where learning is a side effect of working and problem solving. These authors offer that it won’t occur automatically and still needs to be organized by providing opportunities for responsibility, reflection, feedback, innovation and autonomy. They also suggest that measures are needed to ensure that learning remains possible – because task goals tend to take priority and  dominate learning goals (p 45)….. So how do we ensure that employees have those teachable moments? Allow them to find the answers themselves, encourage them to share their new-found knowledge with colleagues? Encourage colleagues to pair up to take on the day’s work? Ensure that time for informal learning, isn’t time that we fill with another task. Perhaps we can ask an employee to create the new policy we need or host the next team meeting OR next time someone makes a mistake, lets congratulate them on trying something new rather than pointing out their failures. There must be ways that we can ‘sneak’ in a little learning…. and according to Simons et al, they’ll appreciate that we tricked them!

Another finding of Berg and Chyung was that ‘level of interest in one’s current field’ was identified as affecting engagement in informal learning the most. People tend to be intrinsically motivated to spend time on things that interest them and ‘monetary rewards’ have the least impact on informal learning (p 239)….. Finding what makes each employee tick is the benchmark of a true leader. I’ve always agreed with Hertberg’s motivation theory that I cover in my own class. It identifies money as a ‘hygiene’ factor….. it doesn’t motivate, but it limits dis-satisfaction. (Do we really think that the NHL players will come back to work ‘happier’ when this current dispute is FINALLY settled?)

Building on the research above, Brake, Champion, Fuller, Gabel & Busch (citing a study of teachers reported by Lohman) found that:

To promote informing learning in the workplace, organizations should design employees’ work areas and schedules to allow opportunity and time for collegial integration and sharing. In addition, they should ensure that employees have access to adequate computer technology and the Internet, which would enable access to needed information in a timely manner. (p 348)

I’ve been at a number of meetings lately where we’ve talked about the ‘new’ design for offices and the move to open concept spaces. Where inter-professional teams are co-located and work, plan and problem solve as a team. It’s an intriguing concept…. but one that we are having a little trouble selling.

There is also a role for supervisors according to Coetzer; who suggests that we need to foster employee learning through engaging in a range of employee development interventions like providing feedback and coaching, delegating challenging work assignments, and reinforcing learning. Or as the managers interviewed by Armson & Whiteley were quoted as saying: “I could probably interact more with them [employees], make them feel like an individual and not a number, chat with people, encourage them with positive feedback or sometimes sitting back and listening” (p 420). Sometimes I think we make it harder than it really is….. Just last week, I asked one of my team members how they were going to approach a dicey situation and agreed that we’d ‘just listen’.

Finally, I particularly liked this idea of  Berg and Chyung (citing Livingstone 2000):

The tendency of researchers [is] to compare informal learning to an iceberg, explaining that while a small portion is observable, the vast majority of it takes place in subtle forms that are not easily observed and documented. We suggest other researchers pay attention to this hidden phenomenon in workplace learning and use ethnographic research methodologies to uncover variables that may be crucial to developing a learning organization (p 240).

Observing and documenting our practices as teams; trying to uncover more than just the superficial practices that work presents, may prove to be an exciting and interesting research opportunity. We need to find out more about what makes informal learning so successful? And how might we create our own ‘invisibility cloak’ for workplace learning practices.

What have YOU seen out there? How did you trick someone into learning lately?


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