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

4 April 2011

Snake Oil and (April) Fools

Clark @ 6:19 AM

For April Fool’s of this year, we (the Internet Time Alliance, with large credit to Jane and Harold) posted a message on our site:

The Internet Time Alliance (ITA) has spent much of the past year on a mission.

We have located and assembled a huge collection of informal learning content.

Today we’re publishing it and offering a free subscription to all individuals as well as corporate rates.

“Without content there is no learning. Repositories of informal learning content
such as this will underpin
much of the social and informal learning over the
next 5 years.”
Lois Kean, CLO, Polar Foil LLC*

Sign up today for the ITA Informal Learning Collection!

Clicking the link took you to another page where we explained:

The Ultimate Content Collection for All Your Informal Learning Needs!*

*Nothing but snake oil here, folks.

The Internet Time Alliance can help you navigate the snake oil and work smarter with Informal and Social Learning. Any time after April Fool’s Day, that is ;)

While the ad was a joke, the issue is real: folks can still believe that there’s no learning without formal content. That may be true for novices, but those who know what they’re doing and what they need can very well learn from resources they find on their own, and from each other!

The content may be out there, or it may have to be co-created, but it can’t be in the hands of formal designers and it can’t all be found in the corporate resources.  As things get more complex and faster and more unique, the need for access to others and the rich resources of the internet are a bare minimum.  There’s a role for formal learning and formal content (e.g. performance support), but supporting learners to have access to a much richer suite of resources than an L&D team can design can really empower people. Moreover, having them help each other and create new understandings and knowledge is the key to making progress in this new, faster, world.

We’re seeing companies succeed with these approaches, in small instances and across the organization.  It’s not that there isn’t a role for formal content, it’s just that, as my colleague Charles Jennings talks about, the 70:20:10 rule (individuals tag valuable learning as coming 70% from the workplace, 20% from mentoring/coaching, and only 10% from formal leaning) suggests that our investments in effort and support are not matched to the value of the contribution.

You do want to go beyond just formal learning. It may seem we go over the top, but I’ve found that if you want to get people to Y, you have to talk about 2Y to have any chance. If you just talk about Y, you’ll get them to .5Y.  And we really believe that the benefits – a more positive workplace, a more nimble organization, greater innovation and problem-solving – significantly outweigh the relatively low costs.

So, what’s it going to be, snake oil or social and informal learning?

*Lois Kean is an anagram of SnakeOil and Polar Foil is an anagram of April Fool


  1. Hi Quinn.

    Whilst I applaud the sentiment, your piece reads a little like: ‘There are still people who think the internet is a fad. But the internet is important. Businesses are getting real value out of it. We should be doing something to support it.’ Informal learning is learning. Formal learning is generally a set of practices owing much to historical accident and used by businesses for risk management. I have been on some great courses recently – the best are almost entirely informal in design. It transpires that the informal learning debate is really just the old ROI one in disguise. I for one, would like to be involved in informal learning – because I would like to be involved in learning. But let’s not kid ourselves: informal learning doesn’t need us learning professionals; we need informal learning.

    Comment by Nick Shackleton-Jones — 4 April 2011 @ 7:22 AM

  2. Quinn,
    ITA is a great resource for my personal thinking. It’s with Harold that I discovered this expression “snake oil salesman” (camelot in French). Formal learning is often closed. Informal learning is difficult to quantify. Why don’t we talk about iterative learning ?

    Comment by Frederic DOMO? — 4 April 2011 @ 3:07 PM

  3. Nick, thanks for the feedback. I agree that it should seem obvious to support access to the internet, but the reality is that lots of organizations have all sorts of filters and limitations. And I disagree that it’s just the ROI debate in disguise. To me, the ROI debate is about actually looking for impact, which many don’t. The informal/formal one is different. Here’s it’s not whether we’re checking the impact of the formal learning, but it’s also saying we can’t create all the resources needed, and that our people can be creating new ones that they need.

    And, separately, if you’re finding constructivist learning in your courses, great, but that’s not informal learning. The instructor is creating a space, providing goals, scaffolding progress. It’s using natural learning, but it’s not informal. think we agree at the end, we need informal learning.

    And Frederic, formal learning done well is open, and informal learning doesn’t have to be hard to quantify. I certainly don’t mind iterative learning, but am thinking more about a trajectory along a continuum from formal to informal. Does that resonate?

    Comment by Clark — 5 April 2011 @ 11:49 AM

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