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ATD Blog

The Difference Between Information Sharing and Learning


Tue Oct 09 2012


One of the unique benefits of the Internet is its capacity to quickly distribute information. But don’t confuse quick distribution of information with the long-term process of instructing someone in developing a new skills—whether that skill is psychomotor (one that you can observe another person perform) or cognitive or affective (ones that you often cannot observe directly because the skill is performed “internally” and often takes a period of time).  Some examples will explain the difference.

The Difference Between Information Sharing and Learning-e18bcf15d7acbfc1d0de85e56ccb3b88b8e05f9be831462c688a6f3818b61b98

Consider the following situation: A worker in a Toronto-based multinational organization learns that the president of the organization unexpectedly resigned. Shocked, the worker wonders what prompted the resignation and immediately sends notes to two colleagues who might have inside knowledge; one in New York and another in Vermont. Turns out, the colleague in Vermont had the inside track, but all he could tell was that “the reasons were personal” and the person who resigned “wasn’t saying anything else.” That information satisfied the curiosity of the original worker.


The Toronto-based worker later worked up the courage to ask the president about the resignation. Surprisingly open, the president explained that the resignation resulted from a work-related disagreement with the Board chair.

Although the process was social and involved the worker in Toronto learning something, it was a mere factoid that will make little or no difference to that worker’s long-term performance with the organization. Furthermore, the original “learning” was based on incomplete and incorrect information.

Now, consider a second situation. Worker A was finishing an important report for an organization. While chatting online with Worker B, who worked in a different area of the same organization, she learned of some information that could affect how the report would be received. As a result of what Worker B told her, Worker A changed one of the central arguments of the report and that, in turn, led to success. What might have seemed like gossip in another situation turned out to be a significant learning opportunity, and resulted in a significantly stronger report.

The distinction between learning and information sharing is essential when discussing technology for informal learning because technology has the potential to record, store, and transmit countless factoids. Some factoids are just information: facts and concepts that might have immediate application but have no long-term benefit (at least, not at the time when users receive the factoids). For example, why the president resigned from the position is an example of information. Some other examples: terms for the different menus in an accounts receivable application, names of all the people who work in the underwriting department of an insurance company, and references for all the different modules in a software system. This information tells users basic information.

In contrast, some factoids can lead to instruction, which not only tells, but ultimately provides learners with the opportunity to develop skills. When teaching unfamiliar skills, opportunities to develop skills must be explicit and include:

  • demonstrations of skills

  • exercises to practice skills

  • assessments of skills to verify that learners have acquired the desired skills.

These opportunities to practice, receive feedback, and demonstrate competence are hallmarks of formal learning. Integrating such opportunities into informal learning becomes tricky, though. In some instances, learners don’t need the same level or depth of demonstration, practice, and assessment. For example, when Worker B told Worker A about the situation demanding a change in her report, (upon hearing some factoids), she was able to immediately determine how to integrate the new information and proceed with work. In other instances, learners will still need to see a demonstration, practice with feedback, or assess themselves, but they don’t need all of these to develop skills.

Another factor muddying the waters is that learners may be at different phases of their skill development or have varying levels of awareness of their strengths and limitations (self-learners often under- and over-estimate their skills). These different learners might consult the same source of online content, however. Training and development professionals must provide learners with a variety of online resources so learners can appropriately mix and match them to develop their own skills.

Consider how Microsoft Office mixes various types of resources to help workers with different skill levels. Suppose a worker needs to learn how to perform a mail merge in which the system automatically personalizes a letter with names and addresses from a database. For some, the instructions in the online help might suffice. Others need a demonstration, and might try the “show me” video that demonstrates each step in the process. Others might like to try a practice mail merge operation and receive feedback that they are succeeding before attempting it on their own; such users would use a full tutorial.

As you consider how to use social media and similar technologies for informal learning, also consider whether learners typically approach the content provided by a given technology as information or instruction. More important, determine whether learners typically approach certain types of content as information, and if so, what additional measures need to be taken to ensure that it truly builds skills.

Tip: To learn about a variety of techniques for facilitating instruction and information sharing, see Chapters 5 and 6 of Informal Learning Basics. To learn about technologies for informal learning, check Chapter 7 of that book.


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