Nov 8, 2007

Book review: Informal Learning - Jay Cross

I finally finished the book 'Informal Learning - rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance' by Jay Cross. It has been on my reading list since last year, but somehow I never got around to go on after the first few chapters.

The book is as the title suggests about one extremely important form of learning that is overlooked by the learning profession and industry: how people learn informally through conversation, contacts, social networks, etc. Admit it: the first thing you do when you don't know something is ask the person next to you. Very often that is not the right person to ask, but it does show how people prefer to learn. It is by definition impossible to formalize informal learning (don't even try!), but it can be steered and supported.

I found the first chapters of the book very insightful, cleverly written with some humor and very promising. However, the later chapters where Jay Cross starts describing some formats (often long chapters on personal experiences) did not really add much value for me. They sound like written by a learning guru on the verge of retirement, looking back with disrespect to the things he has done before and we as a profession are still doing daily. Or I was just jetlagged while reading them.

Some forms of informal learning experiences like unconferences, spontaneous and unmoderated sessions, or grokking especially seem very powerful mechanisms for a little select group of people: those who are smart, open and willing. It's like Steiner education: I think it IS better than traditional education, but only for the smart, open and willing. Those forms of informal learning will not take off or be less productive for others. I can see how these formats would work well in an environment such as IBM. I do not see how to get better results out of it in a federal ministry where people actually don't want to share their knowledge for reasons of status and job protection. I can see it working in America. I cannot see it working in a culture where hierarchy and status dominate value and performance.

I totally agree however with the main point of the book. Informal learning is important (80% or another number of learning), and can be fostered and cultivated. In a learning world where about all focus is on formal courses and training, a book that (over)emphasizes the other side is more than welcome. So let's indeed start to at least acknowledge and support informal learning in our workplaces.


jay said...

Thanks for you insights. (I am not on the verge of retirement; my work is so much fun, I aim to continue until I drop.)

One place we differ. You see less structured learning environments as valuable, "but only for the smart, open and willing." As networks help democratize the workplace and we stop evaluating people on social graces and how well they do on tests, I think we'll find that just about everyone's smart.

Bert De Coutere said...

Hi Jay. Thanks for dropping by. I don't hope you drop any time soon as it is very interesting to read your thoughts on learning :). I can actually agree with your point on smart. But the open and willing is more fundamental for me. I meet too many people that have (internal?) boundaries to participate actively or even passively in an unstructured, informal way. It takes a particular mindset that needs to be fostered. I'm sure you encountered that and found ways to open up people.