Closing the Learning-Acquisition Gap with Informal Learning

Even if you’ve never consciously thought about it, rewards have a massive impact on our behaviour every day. Almost every action we take, consciously or unconsciously, is in pursuit of a reward or avoidance of a negative consequence, which is a reward in its own way. We’re all trained to behave in a certain way based on our own reward structure.


Basically, we’re all trained animals

This is the same way lots of animals learn (bear with me – no pun intended). Let’s take a look at a quick example.

In the 1940’s, a well-known psychologist, BF Skinner, used positive reinforcement and reward behaviour to train pigeons. He didn’t train them to stay off of statues (which would have been a worthy endeavour), but, among other things, he trained them to peck at pictures of German battleships. Every time they pecked a picture of a German battleship, they were rewarded with grain – this was their new normal reward behaviour.  They were actually steps away from trying to put these pigeons in the front of missiles to guide as an early alternative to radio guided missiles. Wacky but completely true (there is a great article here if you are curious to learn more) – it also highlights well the connection between training and rewards.


Why are you reading about pigeons?

Well, this is the way many aspects of our lives are structured. We get trained to do something, perform a task to maximize our rewards, then reap the benefits. But this is a myopic view of things and it’s not exactly how we learn best. Humans are pretty remarkable beings. We aren’t pigeons and we can learn to do things in more way than one. But the challenge facing HR and L&D departments is providing training for all the tasks that are thrown at our people every day.  It’s easiest to provide one-size-fits-all training, but the sheer amount of training we need is nigh-on impossible for one department to tackle. But if we can’t get training to our people as needed, they will inevitably start losing faith in our ability to train and support them.

We’re already struggling to close a widening skills gap and can’t have our people lose faith.  New graduates aren’t equipped with the critical skills that they need to execute their roles, and even experienced hires are failing us. So, we have to ask ourselves why. Part of the problem could be our hiring processes, or it could be that the pace of change is just too fast. These are both contributing factors. But there is something more we may be missing.

I think the primary reason for this skills gap is that we are still only rewarding people for learning and doing their jobs in limited ways. We’re very much stuck in a performance review, assembly-line style learning and reward culture.


Change is hard

Solving this learning and reward culture problem isn’t going to be easy, but change rarely is. Luckily, the solution to this problem is already in the heads of many of our colleagues and coworkers. They just may not know that they are the key to solving this problem.

Many people on your teams already have the requisite skills and know-how, or the Personal Mastery Knowledge, to coach new hires and close the emerging skill gaps. To get it out of their heads, we need to shift our approach by making traditional formal training more flexible by incorporating more informal learning. This can be done by leveraging asynchronous and online learning components, and fostering more mentor-mentee relationships. In this type of informal learning environment, staff are encouraged to use online learning modules to learn basics at home and then come to work where coaching and mentorship, not scheduled training sessions, take precedence.


Rolling out Informal Learning

Before take a deeper look at informal learning, let’s look at how we learn. We’re all social, we all have our own quirks and styles, and we all need to experiment.  These factors all led to adaptations that most school boards have made over the past 15-20 years; that is, a more learner-centred focus where we tweak and refine our process before we start producing the “products” we’re going to get rewarded for. In this regard, most corporate training has yet to catch-up.

In-person training sessions speaking to a general audience are not how we learn best. Even the grand-daddy of reward behaviour, our mad pigeon scientist BF Skinner, knew we get skills in more than this way. Researchers building on his work, notable linguist Stephen Krashen, have shown that there are two key ways we get new skills.

The first way is called learning: what we read, are told, and write down. This is how lots of us learned at school and how we learn now.  We are pretty good at getting learning to our staff, although timeliness is often a challenge. Regardless, that’s only one part of the equation.

The second way we get skills is through informal learning, or what is called ‘acquisition. Acquired skills  are ones we pick up with practice, through trial-and-error, and things we glean from our MKOs (more knowledgeable others). MKOs are all around us: your parents were MKOs when they helped you learn how to tie your shoes and your colleagues can be MKOs to teach you about organizational process improvement or javascript.

Some people even estimate that informal learning (under the umbrella of “experience) makes up almost 90% of what we know, so it’s too bad that we don’t reward staff directly for this sort of learning and self-improvement. This would lead to more personalized learning and true (and faster!) acquisition of the skills they need to succeed.


The road ahead

The challenge to the L&D departments of the world will be to close this learning-acquisition gap in two ways: (1) create environments where coaching and this informal learning is encouraged and rewarded and (2) find ways to track our people’s progress with technology so we can make this desired behaviour permanent.

We can’t afford to resist change much longer. Gen Y and Gen Z are here and growing. They put a focus on relationships, which is great news for coaching and informal learning initiatives.  They are also digital natives who are used to finding their own learning online. They don’t need their training to be perfect, the need it to be timely, curated, and validated by their peers (MKOs). They live online and will demand personalized, social, and informal learning. I believe that to help close this gap that over the next few years we’ll need more timely, trackable, and mobile elearning solutions that incorporate peer feedback and guidance. We can no longer rely on our traditional training practices like Skinner did with his pigeons – we need a new solution.

No matter which way we slice it, these generations will soon force us to change the way we train and reward people. Closing the learning-acquisition gap and using technology to track their improvement process will be the first step, but it’s a long road ahead.

Grow and scale your unique training programs

Mitchelle Boyle

Digital Marketing Specialist at Learnkit
Learnkit works with industry leading businesses and top academic institutions to create innovative custom elearning that delivers measurable, real world results
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