Tag Archives: informal_learning

Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.


Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Learning on the road

I am the first to admit that I can be a bit of a stick beak. When I’m on the train for the morning commute I just can’t help but glance up from my book occasionally to see what my fellow travellers are up to. This morning my seat companion was doing something that warmed my little learning geek heart – she had a self-paced “Learn to Speak Spanish” book. Oh joy! People are still learning for fun in their own time!

In my day-to-day practice in the corporate LOD world I can sometimes become despondent about people not wanting to complete their development plans (a world of issues there, I know), not wanting to devote time to learning but at the same time whinging that they never get to go to anything like so-and-so at the next desk. It can be all too easy for me to forget that these same people are quite probably taking evening classes in origami, learning a language or turning to YouTube to learn a new crochet stitch.

We’re all learning all the time, whether intentional (like reading a book to learn Spanish) or unintentional (watching a reality cooking show and picking up a few tips along the way). The issue is convincing people of this and that learning at work need not be particularly effortful since it is something they are, in all probability, already doing.

It occurs to me though that maybe it’s like kids and vegetables. Maybe it’s better to “hide” the learning in other things that people enjoy more? Like the child who will happily eat spinach in a lasagne but claims to hate the stuff maybe learning practitioners need to get better at creating informal learning experiences that embed learning in practice and so make it just part of the everyday. The big question is how to do that in a world of compliance training, certificates and ROI. Watch this space.

Learning Non-believers

Have you ever had a run-in with a learning non-believer? Those people who still train like it’s 1989 and have no idea why you might be trying to do things differently? We all know these people. I had an interaction with one such person yesterday and it got me thinking about how the world of learning has changed and why we need to change with it.

When I first started in the L&D world I was a lowly instructional designer. The most cutting edge things back then were the very early attempts at e-learning. In the course of only eight years since then e-learning, just one small part of learning and development, has taken off and you can now find every possible permutation of e-learning. It changes as rapidly as the world around it. Face-to-face training does not have this kind of flexibility. We can design flexible programs, beautiful programs with many interactive activities and opportunities for practice but will this be enough in such a rapidly changing world?

In a word, no.

The world, and organisations, change so frequently these days how can we possibly hope to design valuable learning experiences that help our learners navigate this world? How can we ever expect to get our head around a topic when it all changes so much? Once upon a time the trainer was an expert who taught others what they knew. That’s how the apprenticeship system worked for hundreds of years. These days the experts are usually the learners. The modern organisation is coplex and dynamic. It no longer requires us to deliver content that we are “accredited” in or consider ourselves experts in. Our expertise is not in the content we teach but in learning and learners. Our learners and our organisations need us, as learning and development professionals, to give them the skills to learn for themselves, to critically analyse, ask questions, seek knowledge.

Organisations and learners don’t often realise this for themselves unfortunately. It is emcumbent upon the learning and development community to show them what they can do and how learning and critical thought can make a real difference. It’s not as tangible as an attendance list from a course but the business and individual learning outcomes will be far superior.

So what happens to the non-believers in this world? Sadly I think they, like the dinosaurs before them, will be left behind. Superceded by newer and better adapted learning professionals. Now, honestly ask yourself – am I still a trainer or a learning enabler?

To learn more about informal learning and complex organisations you might want to look at the following blogs: