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About This Guidebook

Recent research shows that a majority of people in the workplace spend a significant amount of time searching for information they need to do their jobs. Couple that with the fact that most people also continually learn new things informally online AND the fact that a majority of companies do NOT have an informal learning strategy in place to date; and you have an enormous opportunity for improving learning and business practices on a massive scale.

As a researcher and learning strategist, I have had the great opportunity to observe many proactive, informal learning programs in action, across many different types of organizations, whether used stand-alone for specific initiatives or applied at the highest strategic levels, as part of a company’s overall learning ecosystem. In addition, I’ve also had the privilege of serving as a judge for leading award programs recognizing outstanding achievement in knowledge management, informal learning, and performance support initiatives. For these programs, award applicants are required to submit complete case studies and result data showing the impact of informal learning.  Submitted case studies include a wealth of information about successful best practices in the area of just-in-time learning.

This guidebook draws upon observations and result-oriented best practices to create an informal learning composite, including: conceptual models, business justification, examples of informal learning application; and a framework defining five, progressive levels of informal learning (created by Chapman Alliance).  Hopefully you’ll notice that the guidebook is actually made up of a series of “informal learning topics,”  that can be read in sequence or used to explore specific topics.  Please feel free to use this resource in discussions with learning councils, benchmarking your current informal learning practices, and socializing informal learning inside your organization.  In fact, you’ll find a list of discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Enjoy informally learning, about “Optimizing Just-in-time Informal Learning.”

Why Informal Learning?

Consider the following facts…and draw your own conclusions.

Fact #1 – Learning informally online is a regular occurrence

When was the last time you learned something new?  …or re-learned something long forgotten? Was it learned in a classroom, or as part of an online course or workshop?  It very well could have been. But more likely than not, the thing you learned was born out of a basic need to complete a specific task or possibly just to satisfy a burning curiosity to know something. You searched the internet or a trusted data source on your own and evaluated the information you obtained. In a nutshell, that is what informal learning is all about.

We asked over 400 learning professionals, the following two questions, one-at-a time, and in the following sequence:

  1. Have you completed an eLearning or Instructor-Led Training course in the last 2 weeks?
  2. Have you learned something online in the last 2 weeks?

See the results below:

Although there is only a subtle difference between the two questions, the results were quite different from one another. Why is that? In short, the first question asks respondents about their participation with structured learning, while the second question solicits a response that included things learned on-demand, just-in-time and often at a precise moment of need.

This data item alone suggests that informal, online learning occurs on a regular basis (without prompting).

Fact #2 – Employees spend 20-25% of their working hours searching for and gathering information

Think about how much enterprise knowledge and critical information may be locked away in an isolated content repository, inside someone’s email box, or even tacit knowledge that has yet to be captured. Then factor in that employees spend between 2o to 25 percent of time hunting down isolated information by searching for content and/or seeking advice from experts, needed to be productive in their jobs.

A research study by McKinsey Global Institute reports suggests that “making knowledge and information more [openly] available,” could “reduce information search time by  as much as 35 percent, which would return approximately 6 percent of the workweek to other [more productive] tasks.” Although the primary focus of the McKinsey study was on the use of social technologies for information exchange, the  same logic is equally applicable to opening access to content for use in informal learning  — a cousin to social and collaborative learning.

Is returning 6% of employees workweek significant?  Absolutely!  With a little math, this metric can be used as a foundation for developing a business case for informal learning.   Fathom the potential of cutting down search time by 35% and re-focusing time savings back on work that helps a company’s bottom line.   Consider how these numbers help answer a fundamental question – Why informal learning?

Click here for more information about the study by McKinsey Global Institute, entitled “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.”

Full Link:  http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/the_social_economy

Fact #3 – Informal learning is either “rogue” or “non-existent ” at most companies

We asked the same group of learning professionals (used in Fact #1) to choose the statement that best describes their company position on informal learning, choosing from the following statements:

  • Company-wide informal learning strategy in place
  • Departmental informal learning strategy in place
  • Rogue informal learning projects
  • Non-existent informal learning strategy

just in time informal learning

In actuality, Chapman Alliance has run this survey over a dozen times over the last few years, during webinars, conference workshops, and events (for groups of learning professionals AND groups of non-learning, e.g. IT, managers, etc.).  Although the percentages vary slightly from survey-to-survey, the order is nearly always the same (1) Rogue, (2) Non-existent, (3) Company Wide, and finally (4) Departmental.  What does this imply?  I’m continually amazed at the acknowledged prevalence of “Rogue” informal learning projects.  In short, people obviously see the need to provide access to learning content, information and captured knowledge.  They even go so far as creating actual infrastructure  and tools (knowledgebases, content repositories, and web pages) to meet specific informal learning needs.

I think about this data every time I sit-down with a learning council, with stakeholders representing multiple lines of business, to talk strategically, only to discover that there literally a myriad of very valuable, highly useful content repositories all across the company.  The problem is they often exist in small pockets, somewhat out of sight, and/or the team is surprised to discover that such a resource even exists.  On a side note, many rogue projects are also highly innovative, nimble, and easy to use.

Ultimately, strategy discussions most often lead to figuring out how to scale informal learning content for use by a much larger audience, making it easier for users to find content, moving learning closer to the point of performance, expanding search capabilities across multiple content resources, and unlocking barriers to access.

My interpretation of this data:  it seems that in many organization support for informal learning infrastructure is often occurring at the grass roots level (simultaneously in multiple areas) and gradually becoming an important part of an organization’s overall learning strategy over time.

Drawing your own conclusion (Discussion Topics)

Based on the facts presented, what is your conclusion about the need to support informal learning? Here is a summary list of the facts for your convenience:

  • Fact #1 – Learning informally online is a regular occurrence
  • Fact #2 – Employees spend 20-25% of their working hours searching for and gathering information
  • Fact #3 – Informal learning is either “rogue” or “non-existent ” at most companies

Focus Questions (explore your position on support for informal learning)

  1. Which statement best describes our strategic position on informal learning: (1) Company-wide, (2) Departmental, (3) Rogue projects, or (4) Non-existent?
  2. If we assume that 98% of our learning audience learned something informally online (in the last two weeks) and that they spend 20-25% of their time searching for information; what kinds of just-in-time learning and information are they looking for?
  3. Are users typically going outside the company to learn and find information (e.g. Google, YouTube, blog posts, communities, etc.)?  NOTE: using outside resources for learning is a highly encouraged best practice as part of an overall informal learning strategy.
  4. What internal, informal learning resources do we already have?  How many?  Who owns them?  Where are they located?
  5. Have we identified requested internal learning resources?  If so, what are they?
  6. Could we really decrease search time by 35% and return 6% of an employee’s workweek? (e.g. McKinsey research)
  7. Why is (or isn’t) Informal learning important to us?

Understanding the Strategic Role of Informal Learning in the Bigger Picture

As with any newer learning innovation, you will a find a fair share of “experts,” willing to shout out loud, “all learning should be informal!”  That’s absurd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally an evangelist for the approach, but not to the extent that informal learning should completely replace structured learning and other creative delivery channels. In this chapter, we’ll talk about finding the right balance for informal learning, whether used stand alone or as part of a broader learning ecosystem.

70-20-10 as a guideline

Let’s start with the 70-20-10 guideline.  Why do I call it a “guideline” and not a “principle” or “standard.” The fact is that 70-20-10 isn’t really based on any empirical research data, although you’ll find plenty of references suggesting that it is.  Here’s my ever-so-slightly, adapted take on 70-20-10, with emphasis on workplace learning:

  • 70% of learning takes place informally, often while on the job, through self-learning, just-in-time, just enough
  • 20% of learning occurs through social interaction, such as coaching, mentoring and collaboration
  • 10% of learning  planned, formal training courses (classroom, eLearning, workshops, etc.)

Let me add some of my own real-world experiences and specific observations from a different perspective in support of this “guideline.”

  • An industry association provides continuous learning opportunities to member through a learning portal including on-location classroom events, structured certification tracks, eLearning, webinars (both live and recorded),  and several other structured courses.  Almost as an afterthought they decided to add a “digital library” with benchmarking research, managers guides, reference materials, videos, etc. as part of the learning portal.  Fast forward two years, and usages statics showed that users accessed items in the digital library approximately 80% of the time vs. accessing structured courses near the 20% mark.  Coincidence?  You decide.
  • A leading retail organization recognized that they had limited time for structured classroom session, yet workers need detailed information about the products they sell.  They purposefully segregated what was taught in weekly pre-shift training session (focusing on values, procedures, compliance, and sharing ideas) and moved product knowledge-training and some scenario-based exercises out onto the floor.  Sales associates had access to engage in a series of self-directed product knowledge learning on mobile devices throughout the day.  When analyzing the reporting data, they found that an average associate engaged in about 4 hours of structured learning each month and 12 hours of self-directed learning on mobile during the same time frame.  That translates to a 75/25 split.
  • A non-profit group won two prestigious learning-industry awards for outstanding achievement for  their design and global deployment of a system capable of providing much needed informal learning in third-world countries with modular, just-in-time, informal learning creating both by experts and allowing people to share informal learning with one another.  This new system replaced a previous learning technology that only was a launch pad for structured eLearning courses and classroom registration. Within an 18 month span, the average time spent in the system went up by over 300%. What changed? The added capability of knowledge access and content sharing.

In many cases, I’ve found that many of the most innovative learning companies “plan” their learning strategy to emulate 70-20-10.  This may drive you to the conclusion that starting with the approximate distribution among informal (70%), social (20%) and formal (10%); is a kind of cheating.  It could be written off as self-fulfilling prophecy and you would be somewhat correct in that assumption.

I’ve seen the positive effects of 70-20-10 application so many times, applied in so many different successful implementations, that I’ve become a true believer of how well it really works, even without empirical data to back it up.  That’s why, like Captain Barbossa in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, I prefer to refer to 70-20-10 as “more like ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Stand Alone Repositories of Informal, Just-in-time Learning

The examples shared thus far may imply that informal learning has greater value when linked with other types of learning, e.g. social, classroom, eLearning, etc.  If you’ve drawn that conclusion, you would be quite wrong.  In fact, there are a numerous  examples of outstanding, stand-alone, informal learning systems used in workplace settings.  As the main purpose of this guidebook is to encourage optimization of informal, just-in-time learning; here are just a few examples of innovative stand-alone applications (to get the creative juices flowing):

  • Searchable acronym database. I came across a company where they, self admittedly, used so many confusing acronyms that someone was actually assigned to come up with a solution. The person came up with a great idea to create and easily accessible, searchable acronym directory as just-in-time, informal learning resource.  Not sure why I was inclined to use this example, because I’m reasonably sure that very few readers of this ePub work for groups that overuse acronyms…right?
  • Case Study Repository – Healthcare.  a medical community had 25,000 documented case studies used for teaching purposes including photos, medical reports, scenario write ups, successful diagnosis, possible mistakes made in initial diagnosis, etc. (NOTE: all of the personal information was removed to protect patient identify and approved as suitable teaching material).  With limited people resources and a learning content management system, they assembled the contents of each case studies into a complete library of learning objects that could be used by teachers in a classroom setting, accessed on demand (just-in-time) for one-on-one patient education, and used as a reference library for researching related to current patient needs (performance support).
  • Customer Education, On Demand – Retail Products.    In the past, sales associates provided customers with printed product information and/or step-by-step set up instructions for hobbyists. By applying access to informal learning content, associates have the ability to run a quick search using a mobile device (just-in-time), discuss product information or instructions on the spot that he or she may have learned about long ago in a training class, but have long since forgotten (performance support); and even type in the customer’s email and have a digital information sheet sent directly to them via email.  NOTE: do you see the lines starting to blur between learning and business?  Good! That’s an informal learning best practice that is ripe for further innovation.
  • Call Center Troubleshooting Guides. Just-in-time repositories abound at most call centers across many industries, where customer services representatives have a wealth of information at their finger tips that would be nearly impossible to memorize or intuitively absorb everything needed to solve customer issues.  Especially impressive is observing a call center employee helping a customer with questions about cosmetics, then watching the same customer service rep answer the very next call and field questions about hydraulic equipment maintenance, representing a completely different supplier (true story).
  • Video-On-Demand – Software Provider.  A software company has been providing classroom, eLearning and virtual classroom training for many years. Somewhat recently they added a massive content repository, accessible to customers and partners, providing short, contextual videos with tips, advice, just-in-time help, etc.  End-users can also upload tutorials to share with others in the community.  Video learning is non-scored and accessible anywhere, anytime, including mobile devices.

These are only a few examples. This list could go on and on.

The key point is that just-in-time, just enough informal learning repositories can have a major impact whether used stand alone or combined with other learning delivery channels.

Informal Learning, as Part of the Broader Learning Ecosystem

While there are many good reasons to deploy informal learning stand alone (shared in the previous section); there are equally compelling  arguments why you might want to  consider integrating on-demand, just-in-time, just-enough learning into a broader ecosystem of learning technologies.

just in time informal learning

Most organizations typically have three or more of the following technologies already in play:

  • Learning Management System (LMS).  main purpose is to provide access to learning content and events, including classroom management, launching and tracking eLearning, scheduling and managing virtual classroom sessions, certification tracks, reporting, etc.
  • Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS).  main purpose is to organize and deliver modular learning content, configured for multiple uses and in multiple output formats including structured eLearning courses, informal learning (on-demand, just-in-time, and just enough), print-based learning (instructor-guides, student guides), classroom visuals, job aids, performance-support (contextual advice), reference materials, mobile and tablet delivered content, tests and exams, etc.  NOTE: I’ll go into more detail about why LCMS’s are ideally suited for informal, just-in-time learning in a later chapter.
  • Social Learning Tools. main purpose is to facilitate collaboration and learning communities, coaching, and mentoring
  • Virtual Classroom (VLT, VILT, VLE).  main purpose is to provide live, online courses; webcasts, webinars, etc.
  • Integrated Talent Management (iTM). main purpose is to monitor and management performance and HR development, including: recruiting, onboarding, compensation, workforce planning, performance appraisals, succession planning, and management career development plans.
  • Off-the-Shelf courses. main purpose is to provide pre-built eLearning content in areas such as job-specific skills, legal and compliance, IT application training, safety, etc.
  • Authoring and Development Tools. main purpose is to create eLearning courses and interactive learning content
  • Storefront.  main purpose is to support organizations that sell learning through a variety of transactions including credit card purchase, bulk purchases, invoiced sales, etc.
  • Outsource Custom Courseware Developers.  providers of learning content development services

So, what factors suggest that informal learning repositories might be better suited inside a broader, learning ecosystem (as described above)?   The primary driver comes down to providing a single point of access for “all things learning.”  Imagine someone who wants to learn something, accessing a central learning portal from their computer or mobile device, and having complete access to formal learning courses (10%), social learning c (20%, engaging in learning communities), and informal learning (70%…. just-in-time, just enough).

Imagine the person opening a search window that spans entire ecosystem, finding relevant content as part of structured courses, searching thousands of modular learning objects (informal),  and searching through content created as part of social exchanges (blogs, wikis, direct communication, answers to frequently asked questions).

Creating such a system most often requires integrating multiple solutions, which may sound complex; but when well orchestrated, the results can be spectacular.  Such integrations are not as common place as they should be (or will be in the future).  Far too many organizations settle for delivering only mainstream learning experiences: classroom, eLearning and/or virtual classroom. find it difficult to incorporate innovations such as social learning, informal (just-in-time), mobile on demand, and analytic possibilities available through multiple learning delivery channels.

Some of you may already have such an integrated system in place and are using this guidebook for some new ideas or validation. Others may be contemplating how to best proceed in adding and enhancing informal learning’s extremely important role in a broader ecosystem.  In order to best illustrate the possibilities, here are a few examples of informal learning used within a connected environment.  NOTE: some of these examples were used previously,  but in this list I’ll focus on  the points of connection.

  • Product knowledge on-demand – retail.   Sales associates use mobile devices to launch and play self-directed product knowledge learning on demand (LCMS/Informal).  In a connected environment, a record of each transaction is added to the learner’s transcript (LMS).  HR is creating a staffing plan and wants to find people who have the most product knowledge in a specific department. Since data was recorded on each product knowledge access, they simply run a workforce planning search and use product knowledge as one factor in their candidate selection (iTM).   In order to motivate employees to learn on their own time, they receive point values for each informal learning activity.  Point totals are posted in a learning community (Social Learning) as a competitive scoreboard.  Awards and incentives are provided for top scores each month.
  • Professional certification prep courses delivered through distance learning.   A virtual instructor works with a group of 20 student that have signed up for a 6 week course to prepare for a professional, high stakes certification exam.  The class is made up of working professionals and class session time in a virtual classroom is limited (Virtual Classroom).  The instructor has access to a content repository full of modular case studies that she can pull up and use as teaching resources, on demand during their time together (LCMS/Informal).  At the end of the session, she posts a link to the case study used in class, plus a few similar case studies to provide contrasting examples in a learning community (Social Learning).  Student can study case studies individually and work as teams (as assigned) to discuss and report back on case study homework. Usage information on access to case studies is appended to each student’s transcript (LMS), so that the instructor can monitor progress.  After the course is completed, students have access to the whole repository (LCMS/Informal) for 1 year as part of the certification prep course, so they can continue to prepare for the final exam.
  • Industrial/Manufacturing company gets double value by reusing informal learning.  Workers at this company deal with extremely complex equipment with equally concept operating procedures.  They first learn and encounter the procedures as part of a two-week blended learning class with time split between eLearning prerequisites, walking through each procedure (LMS launching courses created as module objects in an LCMS) and then revisiting the procedure during group discussions in a face-to-face classroom.  During the class they are also taught how to access each procedure in isolation when on the job (LCMS/Informal).  On a just-in-time, as needed basis, workers can easily find just the step-by-step procedure that are looking for (LCMS/Informal).  The content they see isn’t a copy of what was embedded in the eLearning course.  It is the exact same content, now isolated for individual use (LCMS).

Regardless of whether you decide to deploy informal learning as a stand-alone repository, or as part of a broader learning ecosystem,  or even a hybrid combination of both; providing access to just-in-time learning will add a whole new layer of possibilities, driving learning innovation to the next level.

Drawing your own conclusion (Discussion Topics)

In this chapter, we talked about:

  • 70:20:10 is a “guideline” (not a rule, standard, or principle)
    • 70% of learning takes place informally, often while on the job, through self-learning, just-in-time, just enough
    • 20% of learning occurs through social interaction, such as coaching, mentoring and collaboration
    • 10% of learning  planned, formal training courses (classroom, eLearning, workshops, etc.)
  • Informal learning can be implemented as stand-alone application
  • Informal learning also plays a significant role a broader learning ecosystem

Focus Questions (discuss where informal learning may best fit in your learning strategy)

  1. Using the 70-20-10 guideline as a measuring stick,  sort all learning provided by our company into a percentage mix.  How close are we already to 70-20-10?
  2. What parts of our content fits in the 70% to date?
  3. What need and/or future plans focus on the 70%
  4. What parts of the learning ecosystem (see diagram) are already in place?
  5. Do needs and plans align best with deploying stand-alone informal learning or adding informal learning as part of our learning infrastructure?
  6. Brainstorm several storylines that could possibly connect multiple system and support 70-20-10 from a central learning platform.  Do these stories feel contrived or do they meet some real needs?

Five Levels of Informal Learning from Basic to Advanced

In this chapter, we’ll explore “five levels” of informal, just-in-time learning.  Rather than presenting five completely different approaches, you’ll notice that the five levels are a progressive build of the same model, starting with the most basic approach and systematically adding levels of sophistication designed to meet needs as follows:

  • Level 1 (Search) – make it possible for people to fluidly post, share and consume informal, just-in-time learning
  • Level 2 (Focus) – make it easier to find relevant content and get experts involved as providers of informal learning
  • Level 3 (Personalize) – informal learning adapts to learner needs and allow more choice about access formats
  • Level 4 (Analyze) – measure usage of informal learning for analytic purposes
  • Level 5 (Close the Loop) –  regular content maintenance and assessing content reuse of informal learning in other parts of the learning ecosystem

Where did these “levels” come from?  Good question.

The five levels of informal, just-in-time learning is a conceptual composite of the anatomy across many best practice deployments of informal learning, as observed by the team at Chapman Alliance.  Levels do not describe a single implementation; rather components from many scenarios in a unified, progressive-walkthrough view.  As we explore each level, moving from beginning to advanced; you will likely see parallels with many of the examples already listed, for example:

  • Searchable acronym database – uses Level 1 (an open Wiki)
  • Case Study Repository – Healthcare – uses Level 2 (vetted content, created by experts, organized by case study type – “taxonomy”)
  • Retail product knowledge – uses Level 3 (learning content available anywhere on mobile, through email as digital file, computer, print)
  • Association providing and monitoring use of digital library items – uses Level 4 (monitors and reports usage of informal learning — and passes the data along through analytics)
  • Professional Certification Course – uses Level 5 (case studies used in class as part of structured learning, pushed in a social learning community, and available for just-in-time use following course completion)

Notice that more advanced-level designs often use a combination of functionality from previous levels as well.  As we further explore each level, it is VERY IMPORTANT to know that not all functionality displayed at each level has to be present.  In fact, I can’t think of an implementation that has “all of these” optimizations in place.  Remember that the model is conceptual, representing multiple implementations.  The main purpose for including the five levels in this guidebook is to share optimization possibilities.

Level 1 – Search

First, take a look at the following graphic

informal learning

This is what most people immediately think of when talking about informal learning.  In fact, sometimes when we run the survey, asking people if they’ve learned something online in the last two weeks (and 98% say “Yes”); I’ll follow up by asking, “what approach did you use to find answer to the topic you wanted to learn about?” Most frequent responses:

  • I Googled it (“Google” the verb that needs to be capitalized)
  • Found it on YouTube
  • Wikipedia
  • etc. No surprises here.

Is this effective, just-in-time learning? Absolutely.  I use this learning technique daily…often more.  Why? Because there is some great information out there at my fingertips, from multiple sources.  I know the risks of finding data that may be inaccurate or insufficient, but I compensate by looking up multiple, contrasting sources and glean the information I need for my purpose.

Let’s apply this model to a corporate setting.  Every example of informal learning cited in the guidebook uses basic search, find, consume as a core foundation for informal, just-in-time learning support.  The thing that changes in a corporate setting is that there is often some additional structure around how the basic search and find is used:

  • Who can create data?  Anyone, or just certain people?
  • What content sources are appropriate and which ones aren’t?
  • Who can access the information? …internal staff, partners, customers?

Although some of these questions sound a bit “big brotherish,” There are some legitimate concerns that may necessitate putting some structure in place.  For example, a pharmaceutical company has an open knowledgebase with product information.  They could be at risk if information shared in the knowledgebase is misleading or potentially dangerous (NOTE: the database is designed for informal learning purposes). In this example, the company allowed any user to create and post content; however, they did put a vetting mechanism in place. Still they have several thousand content contributors adding and modifying content all the time; finding a balance between informal and controlled. This is very pragmatic.

Level 2 – Focus

Level 2 informal, just-in-time learning adds two new dimensions; (1) inviting, encouraging subject-matter experts (SMEs)  to create content and/or converting authoritative content as part of the library of informal learning objects; and (2) expanding access options (beyond search alone) to include visual organizers and context that will help potential users find things in a much more efficient way.

Review the following graphic

informal learning

Adding expert content to the repository provides such as case studies, procedures, video demonstrations, reference materials, etc., add additional perspective.  Encouraging SME’s to contribute is also a great way to capture and share knowledge that can be used by others.

One problem with using “Search” as the only method for finding things is that many useful content items may be hidden or never found if the right keyword combination isn’t use.  Adding a taxonomy (a system of classification…indexing) provides addition way for grouping and clustering content in meaningful ways. For example, the healthcare group that converted 25,000 digital case studies for just-in-time learning could have simply metadata tagged each use case and left it at that.  However, they went one step further, creating a taxonomies of case types, so that informal learners could pick a category and immediate see all related case studies.  In this examples, case studies could appear in more than one category.

If you think about it, visual organizers are also the key to developing performance support systems.  Consider a repair technician in the field troubleshooting technology he/she may not be familiar with. Instead of typing in possible search phrases, the technician clicks on the equipment list, picks the right model, then chooses troubleshooting guide.  The system provides a list of all related content and clearly delineates expert vs. user-generated content.

I enjoy books, but if I need to find specific information in them, I appreciate a well-designed table of content even more.

Level 3 – Personalize

How cool would it be if the content repository knew something about me and could pre-filter content most relevant to my situation and give me a choice about how I’d like that content to be provided?  Look at the Level 3 graphic.

informal learning

Learning systems often keep profile data on individuals such as job/role/function, location, language preferences, communication preferences (e.g. email, SMS, phone), etc.  It is not uncommon today to login to access a formal learning course and have a learning management system intelligently show only courses within a 50 mile radius (pre-filtering). In most cases, it doesn’t mean the other courses aren’t accessible.  It simply means that the system is personalizing the experience. Imagine how much more powerful as content is personalized. Here are several quick filtering examples:

  • Using an informal learning resource library to pick and choose topics related to an upcoming field assignment on a mobile device
  • A flight line technician choosing to create a printed version of the training because using mobile is not an option
  • Recommend informal learning resources based on a combination of job and location
  • A biotech engineer’s list of recommended learning content changes daily as new informal learning resources and links are added.  Biotech is one of those industries that by the time you create a course on a topic the information has already changed.  Informal learning works great for rapidly changing content.
  • A plant operation manger only sees content related to her facility and location

Level 4 – Analyze

Moving to level 4, things get even more interesting…  Study the following graphic

optimize for just in time learning

Remember that informal learning is self-directed, just-in-time, and often sought on at the moment of need.  In many cases informal learning is neither tracked or scored, so Level 4 may be entering a controversial area.  If you simply track usage of informal learning access (without trying to measure completion status or scoring information), does it cease to be informal?  That’s a question worthy of further discussion as you envision how informal learning will be used in your environment.

On the other hand, connecting learning (whether formal, social and/or informal) to organizational achievement is the “Holy Grail” in terms of evaluation effectiveness.

According to International Data Corporation (IDC), companies are now collecting more than 300% data on business operations that they were collecting 2 years ago.  There is an insatiable desire to measure everything and informal learning is no exception. By definition, analytics is the “discovery and communications of patterns… often favoring data visualization to communicate insight” (Wikipedia definition). Whether informal learning occurs stand alone or as part of the broader learning ecosystem, usage data can help paint a more holistic picture of what learning is taking place and how it potentially impacts individual and organizational performance.

Here are several example of how companies are using analytic data, collected directly from informal learning:

  • assessing popularity of learning topics
  • sorting popularity by customer access, partner access and internal staff access to see if there is alignment among common areas of interest
  • using just-in-time learning access patterns to identify future training needs
  • appending just-in-time learning access onto individual learner transcripts
  • assignment point totals for access to product information, used for gamification scoreboards (cited in a previous example)
  • matching access to troubleshooting guidelines used in call center with independent customer satisfaction ratings (CSAT scores)
  • collecting usage and rating data on expert and user-generated content; providing incentives for highest usage and ratings
  • using inbound data: pushing informal learning objects to users based on skill gap analysis
  • appending talent profile with user areas of interest based on usage patterns
  • monitoring trending topics by location, division, line of business, etc.

A specification standard used to collect and communicate data across learning technologies is the Tin Can Api (also known as Experience API or xAPI). This standard can capture all types of learning related activities from multiple devices including social interactions, experiential learning, on-the-job training, and access to informal learning. The interesting thing about how the specification works is that it writes natural statements as a report of activities (e.g. “John just interacted with XL-901 procedural guide”).

Another aspect of Level 4 is the activity of evaluating informal learning content itself.  If modular learning content receives low ratings, it is likely worth finding out why and possibly removing from the repository.  Collecting usage data makes it easy to identify content that may not be used at all.

Level 5 – Close the Loop

The last level of the model focuses on keeping learning just-in-time learning content repositories streamlined, up-to-date and functional.

Explore the Level 5 illustration

informal learning ecosystem

Level 5 completes the cycle in five distinct ways, each of which can be added separately, including (1) making the system self-improving by asking learners what they need, (2) minimizing redundant and conflicting content, (3) identifying informal learning resources that can be reused in other areas, (4) letting users, content developers and SME’s know what learners need; and (5) putting screening conditions in place for highly sensitive and risky content.

Up until this level, system users may intermittently participate in the process as content creators or content consumers (once the system is in place).  This is the first level that actually suggests that a person (or distributed team of people) may need to allocate dedicated work time to maintain and manager an informal learning repository.   Note the “Content Curator” item on the illustration.

A few years back, I came upon a massive, informal, just-in-time learning repository with 2.5 million modular learning topics – a very impressive operation.  I was given a tour of the system and learned that there were three, full-time “content curators.” I discovered that their jobs were very much like museum curators organizing, arranging, storing, archiving, and basically running a massive operation.  They process and check inbound content (even after initial posting), work with business owners to consolidate redundant content, archive dated materials, and a whole more.  Since then I have studied two more such repositories with dedicated content curators (with learning topics in the 700,000 range) and a full time content curator managing 10,000 learning objects, mostly video modules.

If you run (or plan to run) a somewhat smaller initiative, you may wonder what this has to do with your.  Seeing these larger scale projects has caused me to ask more questions about how others handle the tasks performed by these content curators.  The answer for smaller operations includes holding regularly scheduled reviews (once a quarter, twice a year),  having content owners and/or developers maintain learning content that belongs to them, policies in place for how long content can live in the system, etc.

On the flip side, I do hear from many organizations that are painfully aware that they have a massive amount of data content, but no one has the time to go clean it up.

So the answer is, even when running smaller informal, just-in-time data repositories, you should make a plan for regular update and maintenance.

While some of the other items here are mostly self-explanatory (asking informal learners what they need, publishing expressed needs to potential content creators, and putting expert vetting processes in place; e.g. the pharmaceutical knowledgebase); be sure to the two items in the lower, left hand corner of the Level 5 illustration.  When maintaining the a content repository, it could become very easy to focus exclusively on cleaning thing up. However, I highly encourage you to have a method in place to recognize valuable and highly reusable content that could be used for other purposes or pushed for wider distribution. This includes content that may be very useful in classroom sessions or through social collaboration for items such as videos clips, case studies, reference materials, diagrams, etc.

Current usage of informal learning techniques

In a recent webinar survey, we asked learning professionals that already have some form on informal, just-in-time learning repository in place, to list which of the techniques they used. Please note that survey respondents were asked to check all that apply.  Here are the results:

  • 71% – Experts create and upload content
  • 69% – Simple search (e.g. title, description, keywords)
  • 61% – Defined spaces for uploading informal learning content
  • 55% – Linking and reusing informal as part of structured learning
  • 42% – Choice of content in multiple formats
  • 39% – Non-experts can create and upload content
  • 32% – Policy in place for updating and refreshing content
  • 28% – Personalized content
  • 27% – Tracking usage of informal content
  • 22% – Advanced search

It appears the most common scenarios (at least for the group that attended the webinar), the most typically scenario is learning repositories, containing mostly expert-level content, using simple search and linking reusable content to as part of structured learning.

Drawing your own conclusion (Discussion Topics)

In this chapter, we talked about:

  • Level 1 – search-based
  • Level 2 – expert content and taxonomies (finding content in context)
  • Level 3 – personalizing learning delivery and providing output option choices
  • Level 4 – measuring usage and other data
  • Level 5 – content maintenance and assessing content reuse
  • What current techniques are being used the most

Focus Questions (discuss what levels and techniques would work best in your environment)

  1. What informal learning content is currently “searchable” across our group …across the company?
  2. Is search alone sufficient, or do we need to provide additional organizers to make content easier to find in context?
  3. What is the importance of giving users a choice of format?
  4. What aspects of personalization would help the most?
  5. What is our position, policy and feelings about collecting data about informal learning usage and/or rating content?
  6. If we do capture the data, how would be best leverage its use?
  7. What percentage of our data is redundant, conflicting and dated?
  8. What is our clean up and maintenance plan
  9. Do we need a designated content curator, or will having a regularly scheduled maintenance time and policy suffice?
  10. How much of our content is possibly reusable for other purposes?
  11. How do we compare with survey respondents use of informal learning techniques?
  12. Which techniques would work best in your organization?

Applying Learning Content Management (LCM) to Informal Learning

In this chapter, we’ll take a closer look and development techniques and discuss why you should consider using a learning content management system as the underlying platform to support informal, just-in-time learning.

Content Development Techniques for Informal, Just-in time Learning

There are several fundamental differences between the way that full eLearning courses are created vs. how content is prepared specifically for informal, just-in-time learning.  See the following comparison:

formal vs. formal content

Before you contemplate sending an angry email… I know that you can created short, to-the-point, traditional eLearning courses, and I also know that just-in-time learning can also be very large as times (e.g. reference manuals, long videos, simulations, etc.).

The descriptions do convey the differences in purpose between formal/structured eLearning course (part of the 10%), vs. content that is purposefully created to be just-in-time (often coupled with the phrase just-enough, part of the 70%).

There is also a slightly different thought process, mindset, and skills needed to create effective just-in-time learning. We’ll talk about this in the next chapter.

Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS)

Although authoring tools, used to create traditional eLearning courses, can play an important role when creating informal learning, I will explain why learning content management systems (LCMS) are ideally suited for the purpose, using the 5 Levels of Informal Learning model.

  • Level 1 – search –  An LCMS is, at its core, a learning object repository capable of both creating and delivering learning content.  Content, at every level, is tagged and all text-based content is searchable.  Where authoring tools can play a valuable role is in the creation of interactive exercises, software simulations, role-play scenarios and capture video content that can be added (like any other content) into an LCMS repository – tagged for searchability.  traditional eLearning generally needs to be launched from another platform, such as a learning management system (LMS). As self-contained systems, individual learning objects can be run and played in isolation, expose search capabilities across all objects and keep data on content usage from the moment of creation.
  • Level 2 (taxonomy organization)  Most LCMS’s use a file-folder-like system for organizing learning content that naturally resembles a taxonomy.  What this means is that related content can be stored together while still being.  Learning content  can also exist in a single location, yet be present (through linking) in other parts of the tree view. This helps both during development and serving up collections of similar content (as needed).
  • Level 2 (support expert content) – Another aspect of level 2 is publishing expert content.  Multiple team members work together in an LCMS environment including the possibility of having experts, designers and developers working collaboratively in a non-linear fashion.
  1. Level 3 (personalization) – objects can be tagged to align with demographics such as job/role/function, language, location, language, etc. Upon delivery, the LCMS delivery engine can pull learning objects and dynamically assemble them based on multiple parameters.
  2. Level 3 (choice of format) – LCMS’s are designed on the premise of publishing content in different formats such as eLearning, performance-support (access to individual topics), classroom visuals (PowerPoint), Smartphone, tablet, eBooks, job aides, online tests, instructor guides, student guides, etc.  When using other development tools, a new version of the content in each of these formats would need to be produced manually.
  3. Level 4 (usage statistics and analytics) – Some LCMS’s have built-in usage tracking and monitoring built into the core of the system.  Using any other learning technology, creating Level 4, data tracking would need to be set up especially for this purpose. In addition, data can be streamed to data warehouses, LMS’s and any other technology capable of receiving analytic data.
  4. Level 4 (evaluate) – By capturing data through delivery, reports can be generated through the LCMS showing usage and ratings to  evaluate what content is being used most often, find any problems that may suggest removal of content, etc.
  5. Level 5 (content curation) –  In an LCMS, content lives and is editable directly inside the repository. What this means is as content needs to updated, you can open it right on the spot, make the change and the change takes place immediately without even taking it offline.  Using a tandem of traditional authoring tools and an LMS, content would need to be pulled offline, authoring changes made outside the environment, re-exported and packaged, and then re-uploaded into the LMS (perhaps with some additional testing). During regular maintenance updates, all content in the library is readily accessible by the entire team.  Additionally LCMS’s typically have archiving, version control and roll-back to previous versions, as needed.
  6. Level 5 (reusing content for other purposes) –  Because content objects  are exist independently, any learning content that needs to be migrated for use as part of a larger, formal eLearning course can be mapped into the course, without even changing its location. The process is very similar when mapping content for used in social learning.

At the heart of a large majority of informal, just-in-time learning projects that I’ve been involved with, you will find learning content management technology as the core.  By design, an informal learning initiative could start as a stand-alone project using only an LCMS, and then integrated into a broader ecosystem without rewriting or moving the content.  In most cases, LCMS products are designed to play well with, and even partner with third party LMS, social, and virtual classroom technologies.

Drawing your own conclusion (Discussion Topics)

In this chapter, we talked about:

  • The differences in approach creating traditional eLearning vs. creating informal, just-in-time learning
  • Why Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) are ideally suited for informal development (across the spectrum of the 5 Level model)

Focus Questions (evaluate the possible use of LCMS)

  1. What authoring tools are already in place at your company?
  2. Do you already have an LCMS in play?
  3. What benefits would the ability to create modular learning content, as a team, add to your productivity?
  4. Do you currently create content for multiple formats (eLearning, Smartphone delivery, tablets, performance support, etc.)?
  5. Does this require multiple, separate production passes to accomplish?
  6. If you had usage statistics, analytics and reporting capability built into the core of your informal content repository; would you use it?
  7. How many updates and changes do you make across your digital learning content on an annual basis?
  8. Understanding that LCMS’s make it possible to update and modify content, without having to take it offline: how much time do you thing you might save in maintenance and update costs alone?

Skills Needed for Informal Learning Development

Speaking from a position of someone with an instructional design background, spending the first 10 years of my career developing CBT and then later eLearning (Ouch, that dates me); I’ve observed that people used to creating formal learning need a slightly different thought process, mindset and skills to be effective developers of informal, just-in-time learning.  The following list of variations should help make sure you have the right skills in place or be ready for some minor change management.

  • Think Modular. Designers of structured learning can tell a story and thread messages throughout the flow of a longer courses.  They also use many transitional phrases, such as “in the previous module, you learned….”  Developers of informal, just-in-time learning can’t assume that what they create will be consumed in sequence; therefore storylines are often self-contained and transitional phrases avoided.
  • Keeping Content Lean and the Point.  Remember that a learner seeking out just-in-time and just-enough training is generally trying to solve a problem or find quick information.  Instead of adding lots of color commentary, background details, etc. into the body of the learning, consider creating the most important points in the body, providing options for the learner to dig deeper, but only if they want to.
  • Agile, non-linear development. When developing a series of just-in-time learning content, the developer may have to start in the middle and bounce around to different parts in a non-linear mode.  A good outline will help keep things straight, but it is a unique skill set to write out of sequence.
  • Working with a taxonomy.  Akin to working in a non-linear fashion, working with a taxonomy to organize and store content can help keep the scope of the overall project in perspective. If you think of a taxonomy like a filing system and everyone on the team understands how the filing system works, development will go smoothly.
  • Use Simple Media. Structured eLearning course may be use polished video, professional voiceovers, high touch graphics.  That works because the same course may be used by tens of thousands of people.  Sometimes (although not always) using simple media, digital cameras, self-recorded voice over may work nicely.  Again, think of how many of our survey respondents said they went on YouTube to learn about something.  This isn’t always the case, but be ready to use simple media, if needed.
  • Make content visual/relevant.  Provide visual cues to help learners find the most important parts of the content quickly (as opposed to reading a big block of text).  Anticipate the need. When possible show things in context of their work environment through visuals.  Make things easy to find.
  • Concise, Step by Step.  Good technical writers use an economy of words to describe procedures.  Remember the principle of just enough. Creating procedural learning is also a good opportunity to include the main path, with an option to deeper as needed.
  • Thinking about Multiple Outputs at the Same Time.  It takes talent and patience to create content that can run both on a computer screen or on a Smartphone, but with responsive design it is very doable.  The trick is to design for the most limited environment first (the Smartphone) and then make sure that it scaled up well to the larger environment. Tools like LCMS’s will help, but developers still need to think about multiple outputs at the same time.
  • Keep it Simple. The keep it simple principle definitely applies to creating informal, just-in-time learning. Not every project needs to be a masterpiece.  Use your time wisely by keeping things simple.

Drawing your own conclusion (Discussion Topics)

In this chapter, we talked about:

  • There are variances in thought processes and skills sets between developers of formal learning and informal learning

Focus Questions (discuss possible change management needs)

  • How prepared are our developers to create just-in-time learning
  • How immediate is our need to support multiple output types simultaneously?
  • What policies and guidelines should we provide for the quality of informal, just-in-time learning?

Summary of Key Lessons Learned

  • Learning informally online is a regular occurrence
  • Employees spend 20-25% of their working hours searching for and gathering information
  • Informal learning is either “rogue” or “non-existent ” at most companies
  • 70:20:10 is a “guideline” (not a rule, standard, or principle)
    • 70% of learning takes place informally, often while on the job, through self-learning, just-in-time, just enough
    • 20% of learning occurs through social interaction, such as coaching, mentoring and collaboration
    • 10% of learning  planned, formal training courses (classroom, eLearning, workshops, etc.)
  • Informal learning can be implemented as stand-alone application
  • Informal learning also plays a significant role a broader learning ecosystem
  • The 5 Level, Informal Learning Model, consists of:
    • Level 1 – search-based
    • Level 2 – expert content and taxonomies (finding content in context)
    • Level 3 – personalizing learning delivery and providing output option choices
    • Level 4 – measuring usage and other data
    • Level 5 – content maintenance and assessing content reuse
  • The differences in approach creating traditional eLearning vs. creating informal, just-in-time learning
  • Why Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) are ideally suited for informal development (across the spectrum of the 5 Level model)
  • There are variances in thought processes and skills sets between developers of formal learning and informal learning

About the Author

Bryan Chapman
Chief Learning
Strategist

Bryan Chapman is Chief Learning Strategist at Chapman Alliance; a provider of research-centric consulting solutions that assist organizations in defining, operating and optimizing their strategic learning initiatives. As a veteran in the industry, he has over 20 years experience and has worked with such organizations as American Express, Home Depot, Shell, Kodak, Sprint, Sharp Electronics, Honda, IBM, Microsoft, Avon, UNICEF, American Red Cross, The Food and Drug Administration, U.S. State Department, and many others; to help them optimize learning efficiency through the use of innovative learning techniques and technologies.