Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

14 October 2009

Ignoring Informal

Clark @ 1:54 pm

I received in the mail an offer for a 3 book set titled Improving Performance in the Workplace.  It’s associated with ISPI, and greatly reflects their Human Performance Technology approach, which I generally laud as going beyond instructional design.  It’s also by Pfeiffer, who is my own publisher, and they’re pretty good as publishers go.  However, I noticed something that really struck me, based upon the work I’ve been doing with my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance (formerly TogetherLearn).

The first volume is really about assessing needs, and design, and it includes behavioral task analysis and cognitive task analysis, and even talkes about engagement strategies in simulation and gaming, video gaming.  The second volume includes performance interventions, and includes elaerning, coaching, knowledge management, and more (as well as things like incentives, culture, EPSS, feedback, etc.  The third volume’s on measurement and evaluation.

All this is good: these are important topics, and having a definitive handbook about them is a valuable contribution (and priced equivalently, the whole set is bargain-priced at $400).  However, while I don’t have the book to hand to truly evaluate it, it appears that there are some gaps.

In my experience, some issues are not behavioral or cognitive but attitudinal.  Consequently, I’d have thought there might be some coverage.  There was a chapter in Jonassen’s old Handbook on Research in Ed Tech on the topic, and I’ve derived my own approach from that and some other readings. When they get into tools, they seem to miss virtual worlds, and they seem to have a repeat of the straw-man case against discovery environments (many years ago it was recognized that pure discovery wasn’t the go, and guided discovery was developed).  It bugs me that I can’t find the individual authors, but I do recognize the names of one of the editors.   But these aren’t the biggest misses, to me.

Overall, there seems to be no awareness of the whole thrust of social and informal learning.  Ok, so Jay’s book on Informal Learning is relatively new, and the concrete steps may still be being sorted out, but there’s a lot there.  Or perhaps it’s covered in Knowledge Management (after all, Marc Rosenberg’s been deeply involved in ISPI and wrote the Beyond e-Learning book).  Yet it seems a bit buried and muddled, and here’s why:

I’m working with a client now, and one of my tasks is surveying how they’re using social media.  A group responsible for technical training (and they’re an engineering organization) recognized that they weren’t able to keep up with the increasing quantity and quality of changes that were coming.  Rather than do a performance improvement intervention, they realized that another opportunity would be to start putting up information and inviting others to contribute.  They put up a wiki, and first maintained it internally, and then gradually devolved some of the responsibility out to their ‘customers’.

The point is, how does that fit into the traditional paradigm?  And yet, increasingly, we’re seeing and recommending approaches that go beyond the categories that fit here.  I wonder if their metrics include the outputs of enabling innovation.  I wonder if their interventions include expertise finders and collaboration tools. I wonder if their analyses include the benefits of ‘presence’.

Times are changing, faster and faster.  I think these books would’ve been the ideal thing, maybe 5 years ago.  Now, I think they’re emblematic of a training mindset when a larger perspective is needed.  These come into play after you’ve identified that a formal approach is needed.  They use a phrase of a ‘performance landscape’, but their picture doesn’t seem to include the concepts that Jay includes in his ‘learnscape’ and I as the ‘performance ecosystem’.


  1. Clark; here was my initial attempt at linking HPT & informal learning, three years ago:

    I agree that more needs to be done in showing the wide range of options to support learning and performance. It seems like a good theme for us to take on for a while.

    Comment by Harold Jarche — 15 October 2009 @ 2:10 am

  2. In planning the book, our intention was to present a research-based guide to practice. It’s a handbook of practice, not a cyclopedia or handbook of research. Thus, for example, there is no chapter on learning styles, but there is considerable attention to high-level problem solving and expertise. There is no chapter any kind of e-learning as such, or on video games, but there is are two complementary chapters on simulations and games, and a third on high-level problem solving. Informal learning is implicit in the general discussion of information-based, non-instructional interventions, which is a major part of Vol. 2. One could argue for a separate chapter on affective learning, but in training contexts this most commonly is part of the general design considerations surrounding motivation, confidence and persistence. These are treated as part of a number of the chapters on instructional strategies.

    We think HPT practitioners and instructional designers will find the entire 3-volume Handbook series to be a uniquely valuable reference. But nowhere does the flyer claim that these are the only books you need on your shelf!

    Rob Foshay

    Comment by Rob Foshay — 15 October 2009 @ 5:01 pm

  3. Rob, thanks for the thoughtful response. I think what’s there looks to be great stuff (particularly now that I found the tab that let me find the chapter authors), but I think it’s still the ‘formal’ model, and I’m trying to get learning organizations to take a broader responsibility.

    I’d have hoped for chapters on individual learning skill facilitation, and social learning skill facilitation, for example. How about ‘facilitating innovation & collaboration’?

    And, how about that situation I cited where an organization decided (and has been validated on) that a wiki was a better solution than more courses? Does that fit? I don’t see where, yet we’re seeing lots of situations where that’s proving valuable. I presume expertise locators come in V2 C15, but I don’t see where blogs and microblogs (e.g. Twitter and corporate equivalents) come in, yet they’re proving similarly to have organizational performance outcomes.

    Pedantically, I note, contrary to your statement, that there is a chapter on elearning (e-Learning, V2 C24, Watkins), and one on video games (or so I take a title that says: Video Game–Based Learning, V1 C13, Squire).

    Granted, it’s a crusade, but one that I think has important implications for organizations, and on principle I feel obliged to point out the opportunities, missed and extant.

    Again, thanks for the response.

    Comment by Clark — 18 October 2009 @ 5:03 pm

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