Your powerful informal learning engine: part 3

Written by Paul Matthews on 22 April 2015

In part one, I talked about the huge and powerful informal learning engine that is running largely unnoticed in the background.

In part two, I shared a list of questions you can ask to help you figure out how to get your informal learning engine running more smoothly and more powerfully.

Given that we have this huge engine chugging away powerfully within the organisation, it obviously begs the question, how can we harness that power more directly and focus it in order to achieve some specific learning outcomes?

Perhaps the best place to start when answering that question is to think about how people learn.

I have asked a lot of people how they learn best and they almost always answer that they learn best by doing. There is a universal appreciation that experiential learning is incredibly powerful. People learn from activities. I am not talking here about mindlessly doing an activity without noticing what results we are getting.

People learn from their activities when they notice what results they are getting and compare them to the results that they wanted. This is often an unconscious process. When we are aware of it, we call it reflection. Reflection typically considers the gap between what actually happened and what we wanted to happen. Given that we are in a positive frame of mind, we start thinking about how we could have done things differently in order to get closer to our ideal outcome.

People learn even more again when they discuss their activities, and their reflection on those activities with somebody else. The very act of externalising and putting into language our reflections prompts new ways of thinking and new ideas about how to be more successful when doing those activities.

People learn even more again if that discussion is with someone who knows more about those activities than they do. This introduces a mentoring component to the discussion and adds a new dimension to further expand their reflection.

People can learn even more again if they try and teach someone else how to do those activities successfully. In order to teach someone else, we have to get really clear within ourselves how we are able to achieve the results that we do in order to help someone else replicate those results. We get questions that again trigger further reflection.

In order to tap into this powerful activity based learning and directly harness the power of our informal learning engine, it’s obvious we have to take a few simple steps.

Step 1. We need to decide on some specific learning outcomes that we wish to achieve for the learner. I am assuming here that all the necessary work has been done to arrive at a set of learning outcomes that are aligned with business needs and the focus is on task performance rather than learning for learning’s sake. In other words, you have gone through the performance consultancy process in my new book Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle.

Step 2. We need to design some activities for the learner to do, and just by doing those activities they will end up learning the things we want them to learn. Coaches do this all the time when they task their coachee between coaching sessions.

Step 3. We need to delegate those activities to the learner, a few at a time so they are not overwhelmed and with sufficient support in terms of signposted resources and anything else they need in order to do the activities successfully. There is also something else that is very important when we delegate the activities. We must not interfere with how they go about doing those activities or try and micromanage the learning they are achieving while they are doing the activities. We have to let go of control of their learning in order to take full advantage of the power of informal learning. We need to let the informal learning engine do what it does best.

Step 4. We then need to reassert control over the learning by debriefing the learner on the activities they have done. We need to ask questions like...

  • What was easy?
  • What was difficult?
  • What did you learn?
  • What did you discover?
  • How would you do it differently next time?
  • How does your experience impact on other things you do?

Ideally the person doing the debrief has more experience with these kind of activities and can add to the conversation their own take on what they have discovered works better. They are also in a position to verify that the learning outcomes desired from this set of activities have been achieved.

Step 5. If it is possible, it is really helpful if the learner is put in a position where they then need to share their newfound knowledge and behaviours with colleagues.

Ideally the activities are incorporated within the workflow so the learning that results is directly applicable to the day-to-day needs of each individual learner. When the learner has done a small set of activities this week, you can start them on a new set next week and so on. The secret is little and often so the repetition breeds habits and sustainable changes in behaviour.

The above four or five steps will allow you to directly harness the power of the informal learning engine already running in your organisation, and use it for specific learning outcomes.


About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via

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