How to spread knowledge

Informal learning comes under the spotlight at this month’s Learning
Solutions conference in London. Guy Sheppard examines how it can be used to
best effect

Traditional training departments will disappear as the benefits of informal
learning become increasingly recognised, according to Gunnar Bruckner, the
former chief learning officer of the UN Development Programme.

During the opening address to the Learning Solutions 2004 conference in
London on 25 May, he will argue that a command-and-control approach to people
development is misguided. Instead, he says, organisations need to create a
culture of learning in the workplace where informal learning takes precedence.
This is because most business knowledge resides within the heads of employees,
so encouraging its spread is a cost-effective way of boosting performance.
Examples of informal learning vary from staff collaborating on a project to
exchanging information over a coffee.

Bruckner, now chief executive of Coaching Platform, says informal learning
is not controlled by the organisation, yet organisations can sanction and
facilitate its development. So how does informal learning work and what are its
benefits and limitations?

Martyn Sloman
Learning, training and development advisor to the Chartered Institute of
Personnel and Development

"Since the late 1980s, there has been a very considerable switch away
from training which is designed to encourage people to acquire necessary
knowledge or skills to learning where the individuals themselves construct new
knowledge or skills.

"Where people have the opportunity to use more discretion at work, then
informal learning is much more important. But it does not mean that you can
simply let it happen.

"The big challenge for the HR department is to ensure that proper
informal learning is taking place. It has to be context specific. What works in
a newspaper office, for example, is very different from what works in
manufacturing industry."

Sue Whiteley
Organisational development manager, Pizza Hut (UK)

"We’re currently running at about 50 per cent turnover among our team
members [restaurant staff] so any investment you make in training and
development is quickly lost. That’s where informal learning comes into its own.
Most of the learning that happens is on the job, but we facilitate that through
team members who are seen to have skills in developing others as well as a good
overall business knowledge.

It’s a question of knowing and understanding the person you are coaching.
You have to appreciate where they are in their development and what level of support
they need."

Malcolm Knight
Head of training, GAME

"If anything we are moving away from more informal learning and
training as the company gets bigger. For in-store staff, that is really
formalised now because we are very keen to ensure we get customer service
right. At head office, it is more informal because there are groups of people
within their own department with specialised sets of skills. We don’t formalise
any training for them other than for soft skills such as leadership and
planning. As long as tasks are being set and the end results are being reviewed
and discussed, I wouldn’t have any concerns about informal learning and
training taking place."

Warwick Hall
Operations manager, BMW, Hams Hall

Informal learning is a significant part of our training tool kit. It’s a
combination of watching other people, learning by doing and calling for
assistance from the guy that works alongside you. It’s having the ability to
coach someone else and to learn from other people. It is a culture where you
welcome your peers giving you guidance and you don’t see it as criticism. It’s
very difficult to quantify its impact, but where it happens, it leads to a
flexible, communicative and reasonably satisfied workforce."

Pat Ashworth
Head of learning and development, Co-operative Financial Services

"One of our best examples of informal learning is when delegates on
management development courses meet up on a regular basis afterwards to discuss
real business challenges. We’ve found that some of these relationships have
become long-term and powerful things have happened as a result such as by
supporting each other with informal mentoring arrangements. We also see
community involvement and volunteering programmes as an opportunity for
informal learning. They develop a whole raft of skills such as leadership,
delegation and communication.."

Adrian Roberts
Personnel manager, INA Bearing Co, Llanelli, Wales

"In the late 1990s, we were losing product to other INA plants in
Eastern Europe so to compete we began a cultural change programme where
learning had to be greater than the rate of change we faced. We wanted to
engage all employees in learning and get them to think critically about what
they were doing. We’ve now given team leaders the people skills to interact
with their teams and involve them in continuous improvement activities. It’s
the only way that informal learning can take place. We embarked on all this in
2001. Only now are we’re beginning to see the benefits."

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