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November 17, 2006

Informal Learning

One of the more powerful presentations I have been attending at recent training conferences is on the subject of informal learning. Basically this is the learning that takes place outside of formal training events. Research indicates that the majority of learning takes place informally, to the tune of approximately 80% informal and 20% formal. This makes sense when you consider the activities that take place outside the classroom where employees are confronted with applying the skills they learned, which is when most of the questions begin.

The shocker came when the point was made that most training budgets are the flip side of this research in that we spend 80-90% of our budgets on formal training, which accounts for only a small % of actual learning. What I found most intriguing were how progressive training departments were providing structure to the concept of informal learning. This led to efforts within our own manufacturing plant which led to tremendous success. In brief, what we did was as follows:

Our current formal training activities include a strong blended orientation: on-line learning covering virtually every aspect of the manufacturing process, shortened and more focused ILT, focusing on the hands-on application of the competency being taught, rigorous and comprehensive certifications for all key functions, and floor training - including follow-up and/or specific training to help resolve identified issues on the floor. The results of these activities has been the development of a very successful foundation of training materials.

However, we realized that although we had captured so much of the needed knowledge employees required to perform their job, employees continued to provide us feedback consistent with adult learning principles, that they had forgotten a lot of the specifics they had learned earlier. At this point they were more reliant on their fellow employees and others for job related information. We realized that there was significant risk with this since employees were quick to share shortcuts or their versions of the steps required to perform the task in question.

The steps we took to provide more structure to informal learning were as follows:

  1. Structured OJT Checklist
    A generic checklist was created so that those providing on-the-job training would use to ensure that they covered all related material (e.g. safety, housekeeping, operation, quality) and then ensure that the employee was performing the job to expectation. A completed and signed form (by the evaluator and employee), had to be submitted to the training department in order to be checked off as "trained" for that position. We are in the process of installing electronic signature panels on each line so that these forms can be completed on-line and tracked more easily electronically without the cumbersome paper trail.
  2. SharePoints
    A SharePoint was created for common job functions (e.g. soldering) to provide employees with a collaboration tool on the floor. Since we had terminals across the production floor, this opened the idea of providing more resources closer to the point of application. These SharePoints are referred to as "Knowledge Centers" where employees can have access to training materials related to this subject. Manuals and other training materials were placed on each Knowledge Center, along with the ability to host a threaded discussion so that employees could be involved by asking questions or suggesting new ideas. They also requested access to our on-line modules on the floor, but this presented a challenge since access time to these modules was too slow to make it practical on these terminals. This led to the development of Quick Reference Guides
  3. Quick Reference Guides
    Since we use PowerPoint to as the content development application for our on-line modules, we discovered that by converting these modules to .html format allowed us to convert content into an easily accessible and indexed format. Since a lot of the content we had developed included step-by-step tutorials on how to perform specific tasks, we simply created in index page and pulled out only the step-by-step content from our existing modules, and converted to .html. These were then added to each Knowledge Center which allowed users to access specific information they needed in 3 clicks of the mouse. The usage of this information (tracked via SharePoint usage data) grew astronomically and employees raved about this.

Lesson learned. What we had discovered was that it was possible to provide employees with some simple and inexpensive structure to support their informal learning. We are now experimenting with using memory sticks and iPods to load content and video material so that we can provide training materials right at the point of application. Initial results have been very promising.

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Our current formal training activities include a strong blended orientation: on-line learning covering virtually every aspect of the manufacturing process, shortened and more focused ILT, focusing on the hands-on application of the competency being taught, rigorous and comprehensive certifications for all key functions, and floor training - including follow-up and/or specific training to help resolve identified issues on the floor.

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What we had discovered was that it was possible to provide employees with some simple and inexpensive structure to support their informal learning.

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We realized that there was significant risk with this since employees were quick to share shortcuts or their versions of the steps required to perform the task in question.

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The shocker came when the point was made that most training budgets are the flip side of this research in that we spend 80-90% of our budgets on formal training, which accounts for only a small % of actual learning.

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