Depending on who you ask, 70, 80, or even 90 percent of what the average individual learns on the job takes place informally.
Some of this learning is intangible: on-the-job experiences, informal mentoring and networking with peers. But there’s also a significant portion of informal learning that comes about deliberately when the employee seeks out information to help them learn about a specific skill or product.
Nicole Bunselmeyer, principal consultant with Intrepid Learning, a learning technology company, says that this type of learning goes on with all of us nearly every day. “This is what you’re doing when you’re looking at something that sparks your interest, and you think, ‘I’m going to Google that!'” she says.
The problem comes when employees waste time and resources while struggling to find a specific piece of content that will help them with their inquiry. One way Learning and Development departments can help is take the time to curate valuable, well-vetted resources to help employees find what they’re looking for quickly.
“It helps us become faster and more efficient if we can leverage ‘best of breed’ things, find a way to contextualize, and share them out with the learner,” says Bunselmeyer. “Curation is probably one of the best skills a learning organization can hone.”
Blending Informal and Formal Learning
Informal learning resources can be built into formal learning initiatives. In this case, an employee may initially work through a course that’s built sequentially, and at the end the materials are opened up to be accessed as needed.
This is a model that Alan Betts recommends. He’s CLO of HT2, a company that develops online learning technology like course-curation platform Curatr. “What we’ve found works really quite well is a mixture whereby you put people through a course that moves over time, but at the end of that you open it up so that they can dip in and out, even if they didn’t finish the whole course in the first place.”
Bunselmeyer agrees, noting it’s important to tailor how information is delivered to the learner’s experience. “If they’re brand new to a topic, you might offer a way for them to move through it prescriptively,” she says. “If they’re more experienced with the topic, you might structure that content as questions, so the learner can quickly find what he or she needs to know.”
The key is to structure the initial course in bite-sized chunks of content that are easily digestible. Providing three 3-minute videos broken apart by discrete topic is much more useful to the informal learner than one 10-minute video that may cover a variety of topics.
Repurposing Content Within the Organization
Where should all this content come from? The good news is very little of it needs to be created from scratch. A good majority of what an organization needs may exist already within the organization, or can be found from trusted, vetted sources outside the organization.
“Once you can start to look at your existing content and see how it can be broken down into bite-sized nuggets, you can often leverage a ton of what you already have,” says Bunselmeyer. Most organizations end up creating huge amounts of content from each department, which ends up disorganized on a content management site like Sharepoint.
Those fantastic chunks of existing content end up useless because no one can find them. “It’s kind of like Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the end,” says Bunselmeyer. “Where they’ve put the Ark into the warehouse.”
She recommends searching for larger resources like white papers, and digging out short, digestible pieces of content. That way, instead of directing a learner to hunt through a 20-page document, the learner can easily find the content he or she needs.
Vetting Content From Outside the Organization
If the content needed doesn’t exist within the organization, both Bunselmeyer and Betts recommend turning to the trusted subject matter experts (SMEs) outside of the organization. This can be in the form of blog posts, or even videos like from places like TED-Ed, or Harvard Business’ YouTube Channel.
Not only is curating these resources more time-saving than producing them from scratch, it also provides content with more value than is possible to create within the organization. “Why would you try to do it yourself when you have the world’s experts, who are saying things in a very clear and appropriate way?” asks Betts.
Curating User-Generated Content in Real Time
A third source of valuable content comes from participants in the learning process. This isn’t a new concept – instructors in instructor-led training have always recommended books on the fly in response to a question, or highlighted an insightful comment in order to further their point.
In online informal learning environments, encouraging discussion is trickier. Curatr tries to build in that level of engagement, by offering learners experience points and badges when they contribute. “We nudge them to actually consider the topic rather than just hit the next button,” says Betts. “There’s a double-whammy effect of making a comment. First, it helps you remember it better because you’ve thought about it to comment. Then, it helps everyone else because they come along and see you’re excited.”
Learning and Development departments can foster this type of engagement by highlighting top discussion threads and elevating strong comments in forums, or through using a platform that allows peer voting on useful posts and threads.
In addition to organic discussion, moderators can also respond in real time to questions that keep appearing.
“We find that being able to share out something in an organic, semi-polished way is really effective because it was delivered at the moment of need,” says Bunselmeyer. “It can be more valuable than something that was responded to later on, created professionally, then shared out after the experience has happened.”
Tie It All Together With Context and Value
A great piece of content will do the learner no good if they don’t know why it’s important. That’s where creating context comes in.
“We always need to bring it back to the learner,” says Bunselmeyer. “It’s important to wrap these pieces of content with just enough information to explain why it’s relevant. Give me two or three lines that are scannable, that says: ‘As you watch this, think about these two things.'”
Curating resources for informal learning can create a powerful learning experience for the learner – but only if the content that’s curated offers high value. Otherwise, organizations risk their employees going back to inefficient Googling and hunting for information.
When curating content for your organization, says Bunselmeyer, “You need to be ruthless, and cut out everything that doesn’t provide value. Because curation is about allowing only the most powerful pieces to rise to the top.”