Lance Dublin
"Creative Abrasionist" Lance Dublin

There’s  a lot of talk these days about “formal” vs. “informal learning”.   Time and again, managers in every industry are asking, “How can I leverage this whole ‘social media’ thing?  That’s informal learning, right?”

Not exactly, according to Lance Dublin of Dublin Consulting, who spoke last night in San Francisco at an event of the ASTD Golden Gate Chapter.

I found Dublin’s ‘s presentation, “Formalizing Informal Learning—Learning’s Third Dimension,” to be quite a thought-provoking journey.    If you think about it, what really is “informal learning”?   According to Dublin, the title is just too broad.  On one side of the spectrum you have “formal learning” — books, classes, trainings, etc.  This type of learning tends to be objective, structured an, most of all, intentional; you have something you want to learn and you find a structured place to dig in and absorb it.   On the other side of the spectrum is informal, unintentional learning.  In other words–all the learning that happens, seemingly by accident, in the course of living our lives.  You’re having a conversation, or you’re playing, or you put your finger on a hot stove…and learning somehow takes place–without any intentionality. That’s informal, unintentional learning.

Where it gets interesting, however, is in what Dublin calls the “third dimension”:  learning that is intentional but fairly unstructured.  We’re talking about activities like reading, and doing web searches; coaching and mentoring;  blogs and wikis; podcasts and YouTube; facebook and other social media;  emails.  In other words, you find yourself needing some information and you go out and get it–but without the structure of  a class or a training.

Dublin’s argument is that we trainers should NOT be thinking about “instituting company-wide, informal learning programs.”   Labeling is useless.  Dublin believes that we have to be extremely solution focused,  asking our clients, “What are you trying to solve?”  & “What would be the best way to solve it?”   And then, depending on the answers we receive, we should use the most appropriate tools available — no matter what the label, “formal or informal”.  For example, if information is not being spread quickly enough in an organization, perhaps a wiki is the best solution…or a quick podcast…or a YouTube video.

Learning is happening all the time, all around us.  When you need some information, do you simply put the problem on hold until you can get into a training program? Of course not!  You grab a book; you do a web search; you call or email a colleague; you pop your head into the office down the hall and ask for help, etc.  There’s intentionality about it, to be sure, but it’s certainly informal.  Trying to “formalize” this “informality” is crazy.

Dublin’s conclusion:  choose from all the tools available; use the best ones for the problem at hand; and don’t label it.