on September 19th, 2011

People learn 70% of what they know about their jobs through informal means (US Bureau of Labor Stats – 1996). So stop pouring your money into formal training without pausing to consider these other more powerful options. Not through formal courses. Or training workshops.

Formal training accounts for only 20% of what people learn at work (from Jay Cross). 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 very good (and sometimes not so good). The transfer of learning is outstanding. Everyone understands the topic. But then no one applies the learning (and it is often difficult to apply to their jobs). 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 organisation you might want to recognise the informal learning already taking place and put in practices to cultivate and capture more of what people learn’.

What is informal learning?
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. Engineering apprentices know all about this form of learning in learning often from a master crafts(wo)man. Graduate engineers are supposed to engage in this form of informal learning from mentors but this is often still a work-in-progress and not particularly successful.
Permeate your entire culture
The most powerful form of training is to permeate your entire company culture with further informal learning by encouraging dissemination of know-how continuously. 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 five 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.

Achieve dramatic improvements to productivity through learning
A few suggestions in using informal learning:

  • List all the informal training activities that are going on in your firm. Publicize them, encourage 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, promote and create informal communities of practice based anywhere from the water cooler to the internet
  • Improve meetings to make them learning experiences for everyone.
  • Encourage open distribution of ideas/know how and expertise

Here at IDC, we live, breathe and are passionate about engineering education. We run many training courses throughout the world and train tens of thousands of engineers and technicians every year and have many loyal clients. Mainly short courses and formal in a classroom or in the plant. But in some respects formal training must be one of the greatest wastes of money for engineering industry. Most of the results are not measured as far as return on investment and real improvements to productivity, morale and return on investment to the firm. We try hard to ensure our clients do this and link our formal in with their informal learning to ensure it is an enduring experience and of long term benefit. We believe that informal learning has tremendous untapped benefits and can be successfully linked in with formal training.

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 and link it in with your informal learning at your plant or office.

This true comment (along with thousands of others is attributed to Albert Einstein): ‘I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’

Comments from last week’s blog on desalination
Thanks to the corrections from last week’s newsletter from our sharp eyed readers:

Jim Dickson writes: With respect to your recent email on desalination, you should note that 0.5% salt concentration is hardly drinking water (this concentration would be considered higher end of brackish water.   Depending on local laws/guidelines we usually look for about 300 ppm salt (equivalent) in drinking water which is 0.03 wt% – more than an order of magnitude lower than what you state.  Thought you should know that error in your announcement.

Tom Munding writes: Your article is off by a factor of 10.  Potable (drinking) water should be < 0.05% (not 0.5%) salt. 0.05% = 500 parts per million.

Yours in engineering learning

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