September 2011
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TD Magazine

Jay Cross

Monday, September 19, 2011

Jay Cross is a champion of informal learning, working smarter, and systems thinking. His calling is to help business people improve their performance on the job and satisfaction in life.

Known as the first person to use the term eLearning on the web, Cross is the former head of the eLearning Forum and currently chairs the Internet Time Alliance, a brain trust of five thought leaders in the fields of social and informal learning, who help companies boost their collective intelligence and profitability through networks.


His books include Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, The Working Smarter Fieldbook, and the ASTD Press book, Implementing eLearning. Cross has written more than a hundred articles and is the author of one of the first blogs about learning, Internet Time ( Cisco, CIGNA, Eaton, IBM, Sun, National Australia Bank, Intel, Raytheon, Genentech, Novartis, HP, the CIA, Bank of America, Citibank, and Chase are among the organizations where he's helped slash time-to-performance.

He holds a bachelor of arts in sociology from Princeton University and a master of business administration from Harvard Business School.

Q| How did you first get interested in e-learning?

In 1998, I'd been in the training business and adult education for more than 20 years, and when the Web came along. I was blown away; I fell in love. Learning and the Web were made for one another, and I wouldn't let go of it. I was a man obsessed.

The Web didn't figure into the plans of the company I was with, so I left and began working on my own, talking with visionaries and writing about it. The CEO of the company that practically invented computer-based training, CBT Systems, shared the same vision. The company paid me to develop a marketing approach, write white papers, and legitimize eLearning. In this role, I became the head of the eLearning Forum.

Q| How about informal learning?

I remember exactly when I was introduced to informal learning--November 2000. I heard a presentation from the late Peter Henschel, who ran the Institute for Research on Learning. The institute had sent anthropologists to companies to look at how people learn to do their work. They found that most of learning was on the job: you learn from just trying things out or from asking the person sitting next to you. Essentially, you learn more in the coffee room than you do in the classroom. In that case, they found that 80 percent of the learning was on the job, not in training.

At the time, I thought, "Somebody's got to get this story out," because essentially all this learning is going on, but it's under the radar. There are ways to make it better, but nobody is doing anything because it's invisible and nobody's responsible. I've been preaching that message ever since.

Q| How best can L+D professionals harness it for an organization's benefit?

Chief learning officers who continue to let informal learning happen by accident are leaving money on the table. There's plenty they can do to make it better. For example, they can make expertise more accessible through profiles and social networks. They can replace lots of classroom training (frequently forgotten before it has a chance to be applied) with on-demand learning. They can replace wordy courses with intuitive graphics. They can replace cumbersome workshops with coaching sessions.

If people are going to learn on their own, you've got to give them time to talk. Conversation is the most important learning technology the world has ever seen. Conversations are the stem-cells of knowledge. Some organizations still box people up in cubicles and tell them not to spend too much time talking. Well, they are shooting themselves in the foot because that's the way people learn.

In the big Silicon Valley companies I visit, conference rooms are in such short supply that you've got to sign up days in advance to reserve one. They'd probably be better off with all conference rooms and no offices. When people are together, they learn.

Q| With all the talk about informal learning, in your opinion, where do formal learning programs fit in?

Informal learning and formal learning aren't two different things. They are points on a continuum of all learning, and the degree of formality can be more or less.

When people need to understand an entirely new framework or master a new field of study, the more formal approaches work best. You're not going to learn algebra or electrical engineering by hanging out at the water cooler. Later on, when you're up to speed and know the lay of the land, you just need to know what you need to know, to fill in the gaps. That's where more informal methods are preferable.

Q| How did you initially get involved with creating University of Phoenix's first business curriculum?

The founders of the University of Phoenix were a group of academics led by a renegade professor in San Jose. They started out to providing degree programs in public safety to police officers in California. Many police officers had two-year degrees, had taken a lot of certification courses, and only needed a few more courses to qualify for a four-year degree.

It was tough for a working adult to attend college in those days. Night classes were rare. College bookstores closed at 5:00 pm. Giving credit for experiential learning was rare. The Phoenix approach was radically different.

Where should they turn to expand on the success with police officers? Perhaps business. I had a background in market research, so they hired me to talk with the big tech companies in Silicon Valley and major banks in San Francisco. I reported back that a business degree program for working adults would sell like hotcakes. The tech companies and banks felt they were squandering much of their tuition reimbursement funds. Our programs would focus on pragmatic business topics; we would bring the university to the company and hold classes on site.

The professors said, "That's very interesting. You're a business guy (I was a new Harvard MBA at that time), why don't you develop the program?" Why not? I was young and confident.

I enlisted the help of working professionals in various business areas-- so if we were covering finance, I worked with finance professionals. If we're covering accounting, I worked with accountants. We built the curriculum using adult learning principles. There were a lot of small group exercises, and it was very hands on. Less theory and more practical throughout.

The group eventually moved to Phoenix; I wanted to stay in San Francisco. I probably left a hundred million dollars on the table by not becoming the director of marketing for this program that became The University of Phoenix, the largest university in the world. They have done quite well without me.

Q| What is one thing you'd like to see changed about the approach to workplace learning?


Work and learning are converging. Both have to be more participatory, less top down; we need to recognize learners as full participants.

We have copied too much from schooling. Schools assume students don't know much. That's a totally arrogant attitude in the workplace. This is one reason people resent trainers. Somebody comes in with, "Well, I'm going to show you how to do this," as if you're stupid or something. Well, no. It ought to be "Let's figure out how you can learn this in the most effective way possible." We need more facilitators and fewer instructors.

People who regard themselves as just trainers are cutting themselves off from the future. More and more learning is migrating to social networks. Training folks who are not really taking advantage of networks are abdicating their responsibility for facilitating organizational learning.

When people ask me what I do, I don't bring up training and learning. I say I'm in the business of helping people work smarter. I haven't met anybody who says, "Oh no, we don't want to do that." Of course, learning is an integral part of working smarter.

Q| Any new books or projects you'd like to tell us about?

I'm really, really excited about a new project called 21C Leadership.

I believe that the 21st century is an entirely new ballgame. People who are waiting for the economy to bounce back will be waiting forever. The global economy is going through a sea change. The Network Era is replacing the Industrial Age. The management processes we used in the Industrial Age are in large measure obsolete. There's this tremendous level of frustration because people are trying to deal with all these new challenges, but they are trying to deal with them with old mindsets, and that doesn't work.

21C Leadership is discovering the next practices. The new ways of doing things we're finding are more participatory, democratic, collaborative, and open.

Coming up with those practices is the easy part of the equation. Changing the behavior of hands-on managers and professionals is the tough part. We're creating books, apps, performance support tools, and more.

I intend to replace vestigial management practices. We're going to need places to test this out. If anyone's interested, I encourage them to get in touch.

Q| What do you like to do for relaxation or for fun?

I really enjoy taking pictures. I'm not a great photographer, but I can sort of sense when it's the right moment to push the button. I understand a little bit about composition, but I don't have $2,000 cameras and professional equipment. Still, I find great joy in capturing images. Going back over those images refreshes experience and knowledge; I get to enjoy things more than once. This drives me to see more of the world than I would have if I weren't always looking for the next shot.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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