January 2012
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TD Magazine

The Yin and Yang of Formal + Informal Learning

Sunday, January 1, 2012

An intentional mix of formal and informal learning strategies might be just what your company needs.

In the East, it is said that people who are yin are creative, passive, and easygoing. When they tend to lethargy, they are encouraged to become more yang. On the other hand, those who are yang are seen as active, precise, and controlled. They are nudged to strive toward yin. It is acceptable to never find balance between yin and yang, but instead to always seek, reflect, and add elements of the other.


In the West, people say yin and yang but often mean yin versus yang, good versus evil. We think there is some of that going on with formal and informal learning. People get heated, choose sides, affiliate with one way or the other, and even debate the better form. If informal learning is the goal, do you know if it is appropriate for your organization and outcomes? Are your programs deliberately designed, resulting in selected informal and formal strategies?

Those questions are difficult to answer because informal and formal learning are not firmly situated in the lexicon. If your program was more informalor formal, for that matterwhat would it look like? On what do decisions about formality and informality depend? We urge you to consider both informal and formal methods, favoring conscious decisions that deliver an intentional mix of the formal and informal, of the yin and the yang.

The learning continuum

Meet learning professionals Fred, Isabella, and Mark. At one end of the continuum is Fred Formal. He manages training for a retirement unit in a financial services company. Fred has worked with subject matter experts to establish nearly 400 objectives associated with the provision of high-quality advice about retirement. Training, then, is devoted to helping retirement advisers certify on those outcomes. No wiggle room surrounds these outcomes. If a person wants a career as a retirement adviser at one of three levels of proficiency, he must prove he can pass tests based on the objectives. Speaking for the organization, verified by subject matter experts, and approved by regulators, Fred decides.

On the other end of the continuum sits Isabella Informal. She works for a university with a long, proud history of international programs. The new president tasks her with creating a program to encourage faculty to infuse international perspectives into their campus classes. Isabella and the president agree that faculty members are the best arbiters when it comes to deciding how to integrate international perspectives into their courses. Because she recognizes no single definition for an internationalized curriculum, Isabella relies on an informal approach.

Mark in the Middle is a learning executive for a government audit group. He and an advisory group affirm a core set of outcomes for which all are accountable. Beyond the required core, employees are urged to select and add goals congruent with their work challenges and the advancement of individual careers.

Freedom of choice

At the heart of informal learning is the freedom to choose. Employees very much choose in Isabellas realm, and they choose to some extent in Mark's. Not surprising, autonomy is double-edged, with some devoted to the program and others lackadaisical about it.

Such freedom can transform learning into a marketplace. Those who are responsible for the programs must devote themselves to delivering appealing experiences. No one would voluntarily study up on the irrelevant or boring; nor would a person be devoted to an online community with few updates. And who wants to spend time figuring out a clunky portal or wandering to find the answer on a product website?

Isabella's informal fare grows into a smorgasbord. She provides links to videos and podcasts about international programs, past and present; points to sample curriculum; and encourages students and faculty who are currently abroad to blog about their experiences. She sends out information about conferences devoted to such matters and offers funding for attendance. Faculty explore when, where, how, and how much they choose--they favor autonomy. When asked if faculty are using these resources and actively enhancing their classes, aside from tallying requests for conference funding, Isabella admits she is not certain.

Fred Formal decides how the retirement specialists will progress. They start with Retirement 101 and proceed to course 301, while being directed on what to do and in what order. In addition to scheduled face-to-face classes, virtual classroom events, e-learning, and online knowledge bases, tests serve as gates throughout. Fred's programs are well subscribed because they promise and deliver skills, knowledge, and career mobility.

Mark in the Middle elects to offer a blended program situated in the classroom and in the workplace, with alternative paths to achievement. He offers lessons and support delivered in many ways, including podcasts, knowledge bases, an e-coach, and virtual classroom experiences that are sliced, diced, tagged, and archived. Mark selects most of the outcomes, and employees decide how they will get there.

What is best for the enterprise?

Informal learning makes perfect sense for individuals like Stan who wants to mulch for the first time and Minjuan who is eager to polish her Mandarin. It is not the same for the enterprise.

The enterprise that gives the nod is charged with saying and sometimes proving what that nod signifies. What do we expect of a certificated food handler? What do we expect of a Boeing 777 plane mechanic? What is a state university representing about a bachelor of arts with a major in religious studies? The food handler, mechanic, and religion major do not decide. Rather, the state, Boeing, the airlines, regulatory bodies, and the university do.

Each enterprise is making promises to customers, employees, regulators, and the public. You have to wonder: If an entity truly commits to its promises and wraps its brand around these outcomes, can it truly be informal? Can the enterprise take a chance that the food handler or mechanic, or even the religion major, might be casual or careless about competence?

Isabellas program tolerates uncertainty. Will her informal program influence the faculty? What has Isabella built into the program to ensure engagement and progress? Can she point to colleagues who are making steady progress through engagement with her curriculum? Can she find the laggards? How will they self-assess? Without data, how will Isabella improve her informal program?

To Isabella's surprise and faculty dismay, a college committee inserted a new question into the end-of-semester course evaluations soliciting student opinions about integration of international content. Students across the campus reported that 23 percent of their classes included some or much international content, while 53 percent included none at all. As soon as the evaluation forms appeared, faculty hits on Isabellas website spiked. The president is pleased that professors are now showing interest in the initiative, and even suggests that Isabella consider applying for an award for their global offerings.

Mark's learners are expected to demonstrate competence on the core outcomes. He tests through sample problems and occasionally observes based on a checklist. He also relies on regular feedback from the groups and people the auditors serve. Marks program doesnt feel all that informal to the enterprise because key outcomes are set and measured in authentic ways.

Fred's approach relies on tests and error rates. He works in a tightly regulated environment with objectives derived through systematic analysis and tests born of those objectives. When laws change, he works with subject matter experts to update the outcomes and the tests. That isnt about to change because it is how the enterprise and regulatory bodies require it to be.

Be mindful about each method

Fred, Isabella, and Mark are accountable to their organizations and their colleagues--not to the schools of formality and informality. Their devotion is to design, not designations, and to performance, not purity.

Are Fred, Isabella, and Mark executing with a rich slate of possibilities in mind? Have they chosen systematically? Have they questioned habits and examined options? Do they know where they stand on informal and formal learning--and where they aspire to go?

Do you?

To encourage mindfulness about informal and formal strategies, we created a small tool called YinYang. The goal is to build awareness derived from knowledge about the yin and the yang of informal and formal learning.

Look at the yin and yang within your current approaches. This is an opportunity to examine these two perspectives on learning and performance. Start with the informal. Explore the yin (left) column of the table on page 49 for a list of informal approaches. Are there any new approaches on the yin list or any you would add? Are you using most, some, or few of these approaches?

Next, explore the yang (right) column for its suggestions about more structured strategies. Is this how learning typically works in your enterprise? Are you doing most, some, or few of these strategies?

Discuss these approaches with colleagues and customers. Determine if your efforts are more formal or informal. Are you pleased with where the preponderance of your strategies reside? Are you inclined toward yin or yang, or do you favor strategies associated with both? Do any particular strategies appeal to you? On which list do those favored strategies reside? What interests your colleagues and customers? Are these preferences appropriate for your situation and requirements?

Rely on the YinYang tool to consider the factors that drive design. With a particular initiative in mind, use our 15-question online module to determine whether more formality or informality would best serve your organization (see sidebar on page 50). Most of all, the YinYang tool helps you think about the question of suitability.


Recommendations for Isabella, Fred, and Mark

Adding a single item to the course evaluation has rocked Isabellas world, and she now is more open to formal strategies. This stance is supported by the YinYang tool. After examining the yang side of the table, Isabella decides to add an information curator, a professor who is experiencing success at adding international perspectives to her classes. This curator will refresh materials and communicate with colleagues to seek their concerns and successes. The curator might establish a faculty committee to develop a self-assessment device to help individuals track their progress. Isabellas improvements are devoted to providing faculty with a diverse and defined view of how international classes work.

For Fred, the YinYang tool confirms his reliance on formal approaches. He could be complacent, but he is not. Instead, his awareness of the formality of his program encourages him to consider informal strategies. He identifies possibilities in the yin side of the table.

Fred reflects on the benefits that community, collegiality, and conversation might bring to his specialists as they prepare for certification tests. Now Fred's participants are students or graduates. The enterprise would profit from a culture that brings together current and former participants.

If Fred wants his learners to establish lifelong learning habits--something thats important in a business that is competitive and volatile--he should think beyond singular reliance on testing memorized material. He decides to distinguish between what participants must know by heart and what they can seek as needed. Testing might take two forms: unaided, as it is currently, and aided by access to knowledge bases.

Mark favors a balanced approach, favoring no one way or the other. The YinYang tool urges him to look for more informal means to support the auditors. What most interests Mark is what will strengthen the auditors' performance in regions across the country. He decides to deliver advice and updates on smartphones, and he is particularly interested in experimenting with location-based services that will tailor advice to state requirements too. Is he becoming more informal, as the tool suggests? Mark is too busy to worry about the label.

Yin and yang in the enterprise

Thought leaders Bob Mosher, Jane Hart, Jay Cross, and Roger Schank carry the flag for informal learning. Schank posted this to his blog on June 20, 2011: "At some point people, and by this I mean school boards, governments, universities, and average citizens, have to get over the idea that there should be any requirements at all in school."

Cross compared informal with formal approaches: "Informal learning is effective because it is personal. The individual calls the shots. The learner is responsible. How different from formal learning, which is imposed by someone else. "

Most of the workplace learning that is recognized in the enterprise is formal. While we're not here to carry a flag for it, we recognize why it is the way it is, and why requirements, specifications, and defined curriculum characterize practice. It's no surprise that advocates of informal learning so strongly advocate for change, for moving the ball up a steep organizational hill.

We endorse thoughtfulness about both informal and formal learning. This, we hope, yields tailored programs that suit the opportunity and organization, and result in a mix of elements from both camps.

Al Bird said, "Informal learning is, by nature, elusive."

In this article, we've tried to make it a bit less so, and to turn contemporary enthusiasm for informal approaches into thoughtful design, better programs, and better participant experiences.


About the Author

Allison Rossett is professor emerita of educational technology at San Diego State University and has served on the International Board for ASTD. She blogs at www.allisonrossett.com

About the Author

Frank Nguyen is a learning executive who specializes in transforming learning organizations through strategy and technology. He has led enterprise learning for Fortune companies including AIG, Amazon, American Express, Intel, and Sears. Nguyen has published extensively on the intersection of e-learning, instructional design, and performance support. He is a recipient of the Learning Guild Master and the ISPI Distinguished Dissertation awards. His work on compliance training, learning strategy, business transformation, and technology have been recognized by Brandon Hall and Chief Learning Officer. Nguyen has served on a variety of learning industry committees for Adobe, ATD, BJET, Brandon Hall, eLearning Guild, and ISPI.

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