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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Learning Goals

In talking with Jay Cross about the recent Learn Trends session and through experience in the #lrnchat, I've come to realize that there are easier personal disconnects for me with informal, social learning experiences and my personal learning goals.

Let me provide some context …

I'm an Infovore (sometimes called an Information Addict). As such, I have to be careful about not oversubscribing or falling prey to the myth of keeping up. I have various techniques that I use as part of my Information Radar where I specifically control the flow and try to improve filtering.

I've worked a bit with Stedman Graham and a phrase he uses really sticks with me:

We all have 24 hours in a day. What makes us different is how we choose to spend it.

When you combine these two thoughts, I am conscious about making smart use of my time (my learning time). I try to make sure that the time I spend is directed towards my personal learning goals. This aligns with the concept of having a To Learn List.

So, going back to the discussion that Jay and I were having around Learn Trends - we seem to have a difference in base philosophy about Learning Goals.

Are we directed in our specific learning goals – I want to learn more about X that will help me solve Y?

Or are we open to learning about just about anything within the overall topic?

I'm sure there's language about this kind of difference in learning styles (?) somewhere. But just so I can refer to it in this post, let's call these:

  • Directed Learning Goals – specific focus
  • Flow Learning Goals – nonspecific, exploratory

Each has it's place an purpose. There's not a right or wrong here. But I believe that it's important to be aware of this from both a learning design, learning style and learning comfort standpoint.

Learning Goals, Expectation and Comfort

Okay, so let me be candid. I generally seek out almost exclusively directed learning goal opportunities. In fact, take a look at my Top Down Strategy. It's a road map for turning almost everything into a directed learning goal. Do you actually have directed learning goals when you are reading the Sunday paper or visiting a museum? For me, it's okay if I don't, but I somewhat am aware of that. Yes, I know that's probably not the healthiest, but I still do read the Sunday paper and I recently spent a lot of time in DC at the wonderful museums.

Now, when you take someone like me who's fairly far on the directed learning goal side of things and you put me into a learning event where it's primarily dialog and aimed at people who have more of a flow learning goal slant, I start to feel uncomfortable.

I find myself trying to translate from the flow learning experience into a directed learning experience. I'm trying to figure out how it relates to my directed learning goals. I become frustrated if I can't connect it back to some of my directed learning goals. The bottom line is somewhat …

That's great, but how am I going to use this?

As long as someone is clear at the start of a learning experience that they plan to let things flow, then I guess I don't have much of a complaint. But …

I will wonder if it was a good use of time, even though I probably will have learned a lot.

Informal Learning and Directed Learning Goals

I believe that this same issue plays out more broadly for learning organizations around informal learning.

In Social Learning Measurement, I discuss various ways we can go about measuring the outcomes from social learning. My general suggestion was that we should be measuring the outcomes (business impacts or intermediate impacts). I generally moved away from talking about measuring specific learning outcomes. And it's going to be hard to deal with things like Online CEU Credits where those are based on time equivalents.

Unlike formal learning, informal learning is generally not going to ensure that specific knowledge will be transferred. Instead, people will learn what they need in order to accomplish the ultimate objectives. We aren't sure what they will learn.

You would think that someone like me, with a strong directed learning goals slant, would be uncomfortable with social learning solutions. Well it really depends.

I rather like it when we can create systems that focus on the real business outcomes (see Data Driven) and allow the mechanisms to be figured out within it. Social learning (informal learning) within the context of directed learning goals feels very comfortable to me.

I think there's something very important here to help make informal learning comfortable to people like me. You are still defining a purpose or direction for the learning. We may not agree on how we will get there or the specific topics or even the form. But we define what we believe we will be able to accomplish as an outcome.

As a specific example, one of the sessions at the Learn Trends April Session, was - "Making informal learning concrete". Jay got me to be a time cop – i.e., keep the conversation moving. I learned something out of the experience. Jay and I should have established what the goals were for the session. I was thinking of concrete as a sidewalk. Jay was thinking of it inside a big truck, still wet and getting continually mixed. I have no idea what people in the session expected – and Jay and I didn't do much to set expectations. We could have likely made the session more comfortable for people with my slant by doing a better job setting a bit of context.

I am very curious to hear thoughts around this. I hope you will comment.


Archana Narayan said...

Thanks for this post, Tony. :) Making informal learning concrete will definitely make me feel comfortable (I think)! I think what troubles people most about informal learning is that is that the motivation is mainly intrinsic. you cannot predict learning patters. Even if an organization encourages informal learning, the motivation to learn, share, and collaborate has to be intrinsic. The manager cannot force you to interact with peers, read more, share, and learn to enhance your skills.

Learning has to be directed by goals. People with high internal motivation will define these goals themselves. What happens those who are not internally motivated?

V Yonkers said...

This post reminds me of research I did on comparative education systems. McClean identified 5 different categories of "knowledge" that most cultures fall into. The categories are based on the culture's epistemology or understanding of what knowledge is. Rather than go into the specifics of each of the categories are, I'll tell you that depending on what a societies understanding of knowledge is will determine how they set up their educational system.

What I keep seeing in your post here is that knowledge is pieces of information that can be used for specific purposes while others look at knowledge as something that will enrich their understanding of the world, but not necessarily at this time or this place. It also seems that there are differences in epistemology between "formal" learning and "informal" learning within the same culture.

What is important is how to measure "learning" when the definition of what you are measuring differs between cultures (including organizational, professional, and educational). This is where a lot of work is currently being done in international education: comparing apples to oranges. I'm not sure there's an answer yet, but we need to be asking the question so we can come up with some way to resolve the differences in perception between formal and informal learning, and the traditional and 21st century workplace.

jon said...

I'm not a child development expert but isn't this how some teaching models for children are set up? (I'm thinking Montessori) Given the appropriate environment and directed goals a child will learn what they need to learn to get to that end result. They will utilize both formal and informal methods to attain their goals and they will also be enhancing their meta-learning skills as well. (creativity, mental agility to name a few) Now granted, a child's learning goals will be much more open than those of a knowledge worker in a corporation. But with more clarity around the goals an adult can learn in the same manner. I have seen this work inside a corporation and if the goals are directed at the correct intermediate factors, it is amazing to watch the business results follow. To your business partners this seems a little like voodoo because you are selling them a solution that promises outcomes but has rather loose process definitions of how you are going to get there.
But if you really think about this learning process doesn't it mirror most work environments? In most knowledge worker work environments there are high level goals and very loose process definitions on how you and your peers are to accomplish them. The real disservice is to give learners a highly directed learning environment, then turn them loose into a working environment that is not. In our experience, informal learning environments with directed goals, help your employees to determine if they will be successful from the start.

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

@Archana - great point about those not motivated by learning goals. I think they often are motivated by job goals then - and learning is part of it - still will be hard though - because they do the minimum.

@Virginia - good point that there's a difference in philosophy about what valuable knowledge is (applied vs. general understanding).

@Jon - that's extremely well said. I agree that part of the challenge before us is as you said "more clarity around the goals" - but I do think there should be more definition to the support environment and the supporting skills and motivations.

I'm pretty sure that there's a lot more patterns out there than we've got captured.

Bill said...

The biggest issue with informal learning is that it is an anti-definition. It's as if I define all activities as "sports" or "nonsports." Well we can recognize sports because they have rules, objectives, and ways to measure success. But nonsports can be almost anything on the contiumm from no rules to rigid rules; no objectives to strict objectives; and no success measures to complex measures of success.

I agree with you Tony that for informal learning to work, you have to have intrinsic motivation to structure the learning and determine when you have reached your personal goals. And when you rely on informal learning in an organization, the organization has to structure the learning so that results can be measured. For those who aren't intrinisically motivated, the organization has to supply the motivation. And what about the intrinsically-motivated folks whose goals aren't in line with the organization's goals?

These are real world concerns. For example, I worked at a web development company where we had a lot of informal learning going on. But I would say about 80% of that was not based on our current work or contributed to the success of the company (which shut down a year later). We all enhanced our personal knowledge at the expense of the company's money and time.

I suppose the fundamental question here is: are you actually learning when you can't apply that learning productively? Maybe for your personal enjoyment but you need to align your learning with the organization's goals to be productive.

Michael Eury said...

The discussion of different perceptions of what concrete looks like is to me the central point. I like the idea of concrete that still has time to be formed into something. I know others that want concrete to be solid, set and unchanging. Isn't this just a matter of differing personality traits? Because of this I think that informal learning sits well with those who like 'wet' concrete and 'dry' concrete for those who prefer a more formal approach.
I agree with other commenters that knowledge itself has different meanings for different people. Some look to gain knowledge to fill a specific need others seek knowledge to build a bigger picture - though they may not know what that is yet.
As for how informal learning fits within organisations again I think it depends on where you are coming from. Firstly, everybody learns informally and formally. From a business perspective it would be helpful to provide conditions whereby people's informal learning is somewhat aligned to the businesses. However, the real benefit of informal learning for business is that it is generally not directed. Sure this may seem to be a waste of business resources but it is also where business innovation springs from. If all learning follows pathways laid down by the business then the results will be more-or-less what the business expects. If the learning is more informal and free-form new ideas, solutions and innovations will provide this business with a competitive advantage.
Think Google. 20% of their work time is given over to Innovation Time Off. Google has found that 50% of their new innovations spring from this 20%.
Surely a good case for informal learning!

jay said...

Tony, great topic and something I look forward to exploring with you. A few knee-jerk reactions:

You write, "Unlike formal learning, informal learning is generally not going to ensure that specific knowledge will be transferred. Instead, people will learn what they need in order to accomplish the ultimate objectives. We aren't sure what they will learn."

In a business context, isn't learning enough to accomplish the objective sufficient?

At a more fundamental level, the massive swing from the industrial age to the network era is accompanied by pervasive uncertainty. Twenty years ago, the business world seemed predictable; corporations wrote five-year plans. Today, it's a world of surprises. We're all tied to the unpredictable interplay of complex adaptive systems. It's tough to assemble a viable learning to-do list when you don't know what tomorrow will bring.

This is a balancing act; it's not all planned in advance or all impromptu. (See Not Without Purpose.)

Tony Karrer said...

We've had some really wonderful comments this week! Please know that I appreciate these thoughts and especially how it helps shape my learning.

Jay makes a great point that if you set things in motion that ultimately achieve the desired end results, then you somewhat have your answer.

It's clear that defining the end result is central. And hopefully people are motivated towards those end results. I'm pretty sure that there are dramatic examples of disconnects.

This discussion has certainly sparked a lot of thoughts - too much for a comment - I feel the need to write a blog post.

Bill said...

Hello eury and thank you for the comments.

Yes, the 20% rule is a great idea for the employees. But maybe not so good for the company -

And yes, people need some freedom and time to explore ideas that may not be profitable in the short term. But, as a business owner, how much time and money are you willing to give to every employee who has an idea? And for every "Post-It Note" idea, how many other ideas were explored which didn't pan out? There needs to be a balance and you can't balance something without being able to measure progress toward a goal.

And to answer Jay's question - "In a business context, isn't learning enough to accomplish the objective sufficient?"

Inherent in your question is a measure toward a goal. In "accomplishing" an "objective," objective is another word for goal and to determine if the goal is accomplished, you have to measure the level of accomplishment. So, learning is a part of the process but then there is the application of the learning. If my boss wants me to build an ASP.NET app and I spend my time learning PHP, then I have personally enriched myself but I didn't accomplish the business objective. There still has to be a direction to my learning for me to be a productive and contributing employee.

Even if you are working for yourself, you still are under the direction of the client. And I have yet met a client who will give me money to pursue my own learning interests that don't benefit the client. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

I like Bill's "whoever pays the piper calls the tune". Rightly so and it is so true.

My comment to Michele Martin included "we should look at some blend of formal and (so-called) informal - a new mode of learning, though I'm not sure how this can be facilitated or arranged. The bottom line is that formal learning is falling out of favour, yet that form provides the goal focus that appears to be lacking in the informal approaches discussed to date."

I don't really think there's any new way of learning, but we may need to experiment with its delivery.

Catchya later

Catherine Lombardozzi said...

This post got me thinking as well... My thoughts posted on my blog at