Organization Learning Thrives Informally

April 29th, 2014

Source: PeopleTalk April 2014 edition (BCHRMA)

Author:  Jennifer Gerves-Keen

IN A RECENT ARTICLE ABOUT CAREERS published in The Globe & Mail, Marina Glogovac discussed the relatively new importance of continuous learning as it pertains to ongoing success in today’s marketplace. According to Glogovac, learning to learn is the most competitively relevant skill for today’s world.

Learning is a Key Driver

Without a drive to learn—and a culture that supports it—an organization will go stagnant. Over longer periods of time, this has a serious impact on the ability of the leadership to motivate employees, make high-quality hires and increase and improve business offerings. Organizational learning is also undergoing change. At the NeuroLeadership Summit in November 2013, Tony Bingham, president & CEO of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), recognized that we are moving away from the “sage on the stage” model wherein we need an expert to ‘teach’ us; what we are moving towards is a more democratic model where everyone within an organization has a responsibility to develop everyone else.

A More Democratic Leadership Model

Bingham’s thinking mirrors what is currently happening within many organizations. More and more, the daily leadership of individuals—who are not necessarily in leadership roles—is finally being considered as important as the recognized leadership roles when it comes to results. By its nature, such thinking opens up informal learning possibilities across businesses as ‘social learning’ becomes the new norm. Social learning is defined “as the process in which individuals observe the behaviour of others and its consequences, and modify their own behaviour to interact in an environment that fosters learning”.

The Full Measure of Social Learning

With no metrics and no real recognition, social learning is invisible within most organizations, despite the fact that it actually encompasses 90 per cent of all organizational learning, as determined by the ASTD. With only 10 per cent of our development hours in the workplace engaged in what would be defined as formal learning, such as workshops, courses and webinars, it is interesting that most training and development staff continue to focus their energies and investment in this area when the real day-to-day impact is coming from social learning. Developing metrics around social learning should be a priority for any organization seeking to embed learning into their organizational culture.

A Neuroleadership Assist

As neuroleader and author Dr. David Rock states in his “Learning throughout the AGES” article, “Adult learning is highly complex. How do we ensure people are interested in learning what is presented, and how then do we present the information to ensure that the knowledge is sustainable, accessible, and easily applied in adaptive and contextual ways?” As we understand more about how the brain works, and how we learn, more and more knowledge has become available that companies need to factor. For example, a key part to a successful organizational culture is autonomy. How can this key be best configured to maximize informal learning opportunities in the workplace? In revisiting standard modes of training, a more motivational learning avenue is always open; consider allowing your staff to explore areas of interest and share them with the group. This is likely to engage more greatly than signing them up for mandatory training wherein they are unlikely to retain as much information since they were not invested in the learning experience from the start.

Bring Choice to Traditional Learning

There will always be a call for traditional training in regards to certain skills or developments, such as a new software implementation, but bringing a touch of autonomy to the mix deepens the learning experience. Giving people some choice whenever possible about the how of learning can make a difference in how participants will approach the experience—and carry that learning forward. If we start looking at the organizational learning process as being less of an investment in ‘set’ pieces—and more of an actual change management process which needs to involve buy-in, employee input, emotional connection and as much autonomy as possible—our corporate learning experiences would invariably be more successful.

Informally Integrating Learning Sustains Value

Dr. Lila Davachi, a neuroscientist with the University of New York has done some fascinating research on the conditions necessary for our brains to successfully retrieve learned information. With the knowledge that we only retain approximately 10 per cent of any formal learning experience, organizations are obviously not getting a large return on investment by using corporate learning events such as workshops and webinars alone. The more we can integrate learning to become an on-the-job experience, the more we can directly and immediately apply what we learn. Moreover, the greater spacing we give people between theoretical learning events, the more information people will be able to retain and use over longer periods of time. The direct and personal application of learning through such avenues as mentoring, coaching and peer-to-peer learning experiences, as well as allowing for time to reflect about what we’re learning—all are effective ways to promote a learning culture within your organization. While organizational learning has always been an exciting field, it is now so more than ever. We have only started to touch on the importance of social learning and, if we can start to measure its impact, there will no doubt be new data to help guide us forward on our journey towards effective and applicable life-long learning experiences.

Jennifer Gerves-Keen ( is a certified coach and learning consultant who, in partnership with Jenny Lewis, is using neuroscience to create more effective ways to learn within organizations.


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