on August 22nd, 2006

Stop pouring your money into formal training without pausing to consider the other far more powerful options. The US Bureau of  Labor Statistics (1996), indicated that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally. Not through formal courses. Or training workshops.

According to Jay Cross,  formal training accounts for only 20% of what people learn at work. Was it wisely spent ? In many cases, I doubt it. Our experience leads us to believe that a two day short course is great. The instructor is often good (and sometimes not so good). The transfer of learning is outstanding. Everyone understands the topic. But then no one applies the learning. And after a few weeks, it is all forgotten. So a completely wasted investment by the firm. Great course manuals. Great interaction with other professionals. But that is where the learning stops.

At the end of the day, businesses are after results. Performance. Return on investment. According to Marcia Conner (2005),  ‘the most valuable learning takes place serendipitously, by random chance. Most companies, however, focus only on formal learning programs, losing valuable opportunities and outcomes. To truly understand the learning in your organization you might want to recognize the informal learning already taking place and put in practices to cultivate and capture more of what people learn.’

What is informal learning ?

According to Jay Cross (Internet Time Group), people generally acquire the skills they use at work informally. Talking to others, watching what others do, trial-and-error and simply by osmosis, getting shown or corrected on a task they are struggling to accomplish.
The most powerful form of training is to permeate your entire company culture with further informal learning. An example. When a regular problem occurs and the bearing of a machine keeps seizing up or an alarm trips a part of the plant,  identify what the problem is and then try and make the learning experience more generic so that the learning experience can be spread to other instances. Gather everyone around. All 5 technicians, the new snotty nosed graduate engineer, the ancient manager about to retire, the reception lady and then spend 5 minutes showing them what went wrong and how to fix the problem. And then get them involved in the learning process so that they can all demonstrate they understood what happened and won’t forget it. And get them to go and teach someone else in the firm. All informally. At low cost. And yet a very powerful learning experience.

What can you do to get dramatic improvements to productivity with informal learning ?

  • List all the informal training activities that are going on in your firm. Publicize them and increase them.
  • Permeate your whole work culture with engineering learning – that informal learning is great and valuable. Do this from the top down.
  • Build and create informal communities of practice based anywhere from the water cooler to the internet
  • Improve meetings to make them learning experiences for everyone.

IDC Technologies is about training. We live and breathe it. We are passionate about it. We run many many training courses throughout the world and train thousands of engineers and technicians every year and have many loyal clients. Short courses. Mostly formal courses. But in some respects formal training must be one of the greatest wastes of money for industry. Most of the results are not measured as far as return on investment and real improvements to productivity, morale, return on investment to the firm. We try hard to ensure our clients do this. But we believe that informal learning has tremendous untapped benefits.

So why not try and put some more effort into your greatest resource. Your people and informal learning. True engineering learning. Technology and engineering training that works. And when you use formal training, ensure that you research both the need carefully and that it is applied to the job effectively.

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