April 19, 2013

Today’s Companies Need Informal Learning Programs


Once upon a time, many American companies dedicated a significant amount of their time and resources to training their employees. One standout example, IBM, as far back as the 1930’s, was famous for their employee education programs that were in large part responsible for IBM’s success. Times have changed.

Companies today are spending increasingly less on their internal training programs. In these times of managing to quarterly revenue numbers for those all-important quarterly earnings statements, few companies are willing to set aside the necessary time or money to engage in the types of workplace education that would not only contribute to their bottom line, but also increase productivity, decrease turnover, and lead to much happier and dedicated employees. This is very short sighted.

As I talk with people across the employment spectrum in a wide cross section of industries, many report the same phenomenon. New employees are expected to jump into their new job roles already possessing a full set of pertinent skills and knowledge. Longtime employees report little ongoing education or training. It seems that rarely does a company take the time to invest in its employees anymore.

Observing corporate behavior over the last few years, I contend that few companies are going to be willing to institute more classroom-based training programs because they’re costly and require extensive resources to develop and deploy. Perhaps informal learning programs can come to the rescue, at least somewhat.

I believe a new high-level job category needs to be created – Informal Learning Officer (ILO). Perhaps some of today’s CLO’s (Chief Learning Officers) focus on informal learning, but I believe that informal learning is important enough to warrant its own separate job and title. So what would an ILO do?

ILO’s would be 100% focused on fostering effective and inexpensive informal learning initiatives throughout a company. These folks might oversee mentor programs, peer knowledge sharing strategies, learning resource repositories, lunchtime brown bag seminars, discussion forums and groups, project-based learning, training managers in how to encourage and assist with their team’s learning objectives, and so on. Just as importantly, ILO’s would evangelize informal learning and empower employees with the self-education skills and mindset that are quickly becoming the most vital elements that determine a person’s success or failure within a company.

Any CEO’s or other high-placed business executives reading this? Please consider creating an ILO within your company. I think you’ll see both a happier workforce and a healthier company.

For another perspective on this topic, read Vivek Wadhwa’s strong argument for more American workforce education in this TechCrunch post. Wadhwa makes a compelling case for a complete rethink on the priority of educating the American workforce better and the American corporate landscape would be wise to listen.