Learning for Ourselves by Learning from Each Other – A Lesson from Jay Cross

Learning from eachother

With the tragic passing of L&D pioneer Jay Cross earlier this month, it feels fitting to pay tribute to one of the great thought leaders in learning arena and explore some of the concepts he helped define.  His insights and dedication to the progression of real and impactful learning for everyone helped create a revolution within the L&D sector, empowering individuals to take charge of their development and no longer rely on the provision of ‘formal’ training to enhance their knowledge. 

While famous for many reasons, including coining the phrase ‘e-learning’, the main focus of much of Cross’ work revolves around the onus being put on the individual to use their experiences and environment to learn, especially in the work setting.  Two of the main concepts that arose from this premise were Informal Learning and Real Learning, and these are a big part of the driving force behind the evolution in L&D that many organisations are seeing today.

Informal Learning

Informal Learning is essentially the process we naturally use to learn, it’s using the most basic elements of our brain processing and natural instincts to accumulate knowledge and put it into practice.  In practical terms it involves things like watching, listening and interacting with others to pick up a new skill or increase knowledge.  It revolves around a very social and natural process where people simply use their environment and the people around them to find out the things they need to know, even though they may not always explicitly recognise that they need or want to know something. 

Real Learning

Real learning is simply a progression on from informal learning, but often relates to the more practical skills one needs to cultivate.  Informal learning uses social interaction and natural processes to engage with and take in theoretical knowledge and information, things that can be written down or explained verbally and make sense.  Real learning, however is more about doing, it’s where people try things out for themselves and see if it works, and then assess, modify and try again.  This may come about after learning the theoretical concepts or it may follow on from direct demonstration by a more knowledgeable peer.  In the work environment, an example could be learning a new IT system by watching a colleague and then playing around with it yourself to learn the nuances.  In Real Learning mistakes are likely to be made, and because it’s often related to practical tasks, these may have real and tangible consequences; unfortunately this awareness of possible mistakes can lead to fear and reluctance to engage with learning and can hold people back in their development if not handled correctly.  This is a common issue seen in organisations where ‘perfection’ is the aspiration and mistakes are not tolerated.  This attitude rarely fosters a culture of learning and experimentation, and while it may help limit the amount of minor mistakes made, it also inhibits the development of staff and consequently the progression and evolution of the organisation.  An open and explorative approach is therefore more akin to the idea of Real Learning, and is also more likely to lead to substantial and positive change in a company.

Putting them into practice

Encouraging Informal and Real Learning in the workplace doesn’t need to be a major challenge, in most instances it’s already being used, and with a few minor adjustments it can easily become a widely adopted approach to workplace learning.   The following strategies may help in establishing this approach in an organisation:

  • Encourage collaboration – people learn best from each other, so by encouraging different teams and departments to work together on projects, big or small, it helps transfer knowledge, as well as building more cohesion between all staff.   
  • Let people make mistakes – this is going to happen one way or another so you might as well embrace it as a learning opportunity for your staff, rather than a reason to berate them and make them feel bad.  If people know that mistakes aren’t the end of the world then they will feel more emboldened to experiment, ask questions and innovate (obviously there are settings where mistakes will have more dire consequences than others).  When approached in this way mishaps can actually be seen as a positive thing; after all, a mistake could lead to a breakthrough you weren’t expecting – think penicillin.
  • Give feedback and encouragement – reinforcement is an essential element of how we learn in all areas of our lives, and it’s no different at work; if people don’t know what they’re doing right or wrong then they will find it hard to modify their behaviour, or will not recognise the need for further development.  Not giving feedback or encouragement is a sure way to stifle employee growth, and is easily avoided. 
  • Give people the chance to try things – this might be a new responsibility in their current role, or a promotion to a new and slightly more complex position, but when people are faced with a situation that is outside of their comfort zone, even just a little bit, then it compels them to accelerate their learning in order to shrink the knowledge gap and enable them to complete the task.  This is likely to lead to them talking to different people, asking different questions and trying new things; all essential skills to promote professional development. 
  • Identify the experts – there will be times your staff want to know something and will need to find someone suitable to help them, and in order to facilitate this it is important that managers, and ideally the whole team, have a good understanding of who has expertise in a certain area.  This makes it much easier for people to learn what they need to know from the most appropriate person and maximises the chances of successful learning. 
  • Make it a universal concept – Real and Informal Learning shouldn’t be a ‘thing’ you impose on your staff, it should be an organic process that is universally adopted and employed without them having to think about it.  If this isn’t already the case it will likely require a significant shift in the culture and processes of the organisation, and may take some time to come to fruition.  However the positive outcomes will certainly outweigh any discomfort felt during the transition.

The concepts above are not (or shouldn’t be) brand new ideas, and for many of us, although we may not have put a label on it, we instinctively recognise this approach as the way we learn best.  In L&D it may be more familiar as the 70:20:10 model, but whatever name you give it, the basic principles remain the same: people learn better when trying things out for real, and learning collaboratively from others, and that’s the reason for Jay Cross’ success in the field; he took learning and made it simple and accessible again.  ‘Formal’ learning (i.e. training courses or workshops) certainly still has a place, especially in the work setting where specialist skills may need to be taught, but in reality formal learning is only really going to have a the desired outcome if it also utilises Informal and Real Learning in its approach.  But no matter an organisation’s stance on formal learning programmes, Informal and Real Learning remain essential to promote an engaged, productive workforce that is enthusiastic about learning as much as possible and putting it in to practice, and that’s going to be good for everyone involved.