Where we really learn at work

My interest in social networks and how we connect first developed through research I did on learning in organizations.  Over the last 10 years, researchers have been focusing on informal learning - learning outside the classroom.  Current popular models suggests that as little as 10% of what we learn about how to be effective in our jobs comes from formal, classroom learning.  I was interested in seeing how formal and informal were connected. For my doctoral research, I worked find the linkage between formal and informal learning.  Because it was thebroader category of the two, I had to analyze informal learning closely for my research.   What I found was that informal learning was ubiquitous and social.

The best piece of research I found was done by Scott Tannenbaum when we was at SUNY Albany.  He surveyed 500 people across seven organizations, asking them to assign a percentage of their work-related knowledge to sources gleaned from earlier research. 

The findings have some interesting gems:

  • 10% of reported learning was from trial and error
  • 10% of reportedlearning was self-directed study or reading 
  • Like other research, about 20% of learning was attributed to formal classroom training, either in the organization or schooling, double the currently vogue benchmark. 
  • About 10% of reported learning was due to on-the-job training. 

A quick study will see that this adds up to about 50%.   The other 50% of learning is where the importance of developmental networks comes into play.  In Tannenbaum's research, just under 50% of learning came directly from other people: current or former supervisors; current or former coworkers; colleagues from different companies; even family and friends. 

The common reaction to this research is to decry how little learning is attributed to the classroom.  For my money, that buries the lead.  The big story here is that we learn most from the people around us - coworkers, bosses, colleagues and family.  Learning is social, and it happens not in a special room, but all over the place. 

Your experience probably reflects this.  When you have a challenge at work, what do you do?  You ask someone you think knows the answer.  When you are learning a new process, you don't wait for a class.  You ask your boss how she does it.  You ask your colleague how he gets thing done.  Whatever you are learning at work, the people around you are the most likely source for knowledge. 

It's worthwhile to note that this research was done in 1997 - before Google was on everyone's desk, never mind in everyone's hands.  Google does mean that we go to people less now.  You don't need Jason's expertise on early 1990's sitcoms to remember the episode of Just Shoot Me when that guy wanted to climb a tree.  The great Google will provide.  However, our reliance on Google makes it even more important to know who knows the information not online, like the key steps in getting things done in the office, or how to manage the emotional state of a key stakeholder you need to work with.  These very context-specific pieces of knowledge are where the people around us are invaluable, and why we still go to people to learn. 

So what can you do with this knowledge?  Get better at going out into your network looking for information, and get better at being a resource to your network.    For both of these, research by Rob Cross, at Darden Business School of the University of Virginia, shows traits of relationships that make it easier to share information. 

Over the course of two studies, Cross went into multiple organizations and asked people what characteristics made them more likely to go to someone when they needed information.  The three he found were

  • Knowing what information they knew
  • Valueing their information as being expert, or at least more expert than your own
  • Thinking the person was Accesible to you; that they would answer your question in a timeframe that was useful.

When it comes to going out to your network, make it a point to learn what people know.  Find out who has expertise in specific aspects of the organization, work processes and stakeholders.  It is important that you set out to learn what people know, rather than to learn who knows the things you want to know.  The first is flattering and taking an interest in people.  The second is manipulative and making people instrumental to your goals.

When it comes to being a resource to your network, being accessible is a great way to be valuable.  When people do not know what you know, it may take a while to help them discover that.  When people reach out to you not knowing how accessible you are, it is easy to show them how responsive you can be.  A general rule to follow is that if it takes less than five minutes, do it in the next few minutes.  If it takes longer, let the person looking for information know if you can respond and how long it will take for you.   

We learn from each other, and in the age of Google, the knowledge we get from people around us is more valuable because of its non-robot-indexed nature.  So go out and find out what people know and are expert in.  And be a willing teacher and resource for knowledge.  This will make you both quicker at finding information when you need it, but also cultivate a strong developmental network.