Donald Rumsfeld and measuring the effectiveness of informal learning

Former US secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld was rightly ridiculed for his fatuous comments on ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. If only he’d uttered them in the context of informal learning, then perhaps his words would not have sounded quite so barmy.

Alas, Rumsfeld put his size 10s in his mouth while giving a Department of Defense briefing on intelligence and the Iraq war, rather than in a discussion on how informal learning can be tracked. For those of you who missed mystic Donald’s utterances, it went: “There are known knowns, things we know we know. There are known unknowns, things we know we do not know. There are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Isn’t this pretty much the state of play as regards the tracking and measurement of informal learning? Because it’s informal, we can’t alwaysknow when it’s going on, what learning it involves, how effective it is,or what benefit it has to an organisation or individual. In Rumsfeldian thinking, it would be a known known with the characteristics of known unknowns.

One known known is that for many people, informal learning is far more useful than the formal variety. Another is that education and learning gurus and eggheads want to impose some sort of measurable order on it.

For example, NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) recently ran a conference on how informal learning can be recognised. At time of writing, I hadfew details, but one idea floated at the event was the development of qualification frameworks thatwould include skills and knowledge acquired informally.

I’m sureit won’t be long before the University of the South Circular Road will awarddegrees in nothing in particular as long as it was learned informally in an approved virtual framework and involved zero attendance at a campus that doesn’t exist.

This desire to measure informal learning will surely have ramifications in the realm of organisational training and learning and development. Organisations are, and will ever more so, be compelled to provide learning, or information on where to find that learning, that can be accessed Martini style – any place, anywhere, any time.

This can only mean one option: learning and knowledge that can be accessed electronically – which tells us that search engines are informal learning mechanisms par excellence.

As for measuring the effectiveness of informal learning to organisations providing it, surely there can only be two measures: the ability of the learner to do something they couldn’t do before, or to know something they didn’t know before. As for tracking informal learning,don’t bother. If it’s informal, it doesn’t need tracking -it needs providing.

Management as tragedy

Not too many of you willassociate the Bard’s works with modern management. However, this is not the thinking at Leicester University.

Anew course, Shakespeare and Management, is being offered as an option for full-time management students. It will look at how Shakespeare’s work can be used in management training, and will encourage students to develop a better understanding of how literary texts can offer insights into management techniques. Themes will include the use and misuse of celebrityand iconic figures. Well, that’s what it says on the tin.

This raises the possibility of some interesting case studies. For example, the late, great publishing helmsman and pension expert Robert Maxwell, who brought both celebrity and tyranny to his management style. And whose final words -“A lifebelt, a lifebelt, the Mirror Group for a lifebelt”- are so redolent of Richard III’s.

By John Charlton, editor and training manager


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