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Pursue Informal but Absolutely Intentional Learning

Growth only comes — and stagnation is only overcome — by learning. We grow because our abilities grow, our knowledge base grows, our expertise grows. At the most basic level, this is how people expand their capacity and ability.

We’ve known this for a long time, and we once knew how, institutionally, to support that learning. During the industrial age, people grew into their jobs using a ratio of learning that became ingrained in our cognitive function: 70-20-10.

Informal coaching used to drive 70 percent of learning

In the pre-digital, industrial workplace, 70 percent of your learning came from on-the-job experience: the real-life practice of actually doing something until you can do it better. This practice was supported by informal, person-to-person coaching — the proverbial conversations around the water cooler, the lunchbox lunches, the coffee truck outside work. In these moments, workers who did the same job during the day, or who worked together to achieve a common purpose or produce a common product, would compare notes, talk about what was frustrating to them, and offer each other solutions to problems. So that was 70 percent of the practical learning that occurred in companies, and it was essential to the growth of each worker and for the whole of the company.

The 20-percent piece is the more formal oversight of managers: annual reviews, monthly meetings, performance evaluations. In these moments, superiors would take the time to consciously provide feedback to workers in a structured way. Ideally, this wouldn’t be adversarial but helpful: constructive feedback.

Then the last 10 percent of learning happened in formal training sessions.

But how times have changed! Bottom line: In the new environment, you can’t count on your company to take care of you, to mentor you or even provide you with the most basic knowledge you need to do your job. So you better have time to curate your own coaching, your own learning.

What worked before absolutely does not work now because of a radical shift in the working environment. Take, for example, the biggest piece of the learning pie, the 70 percent, on-the-job learning piece. Today, those down moments are more and more fleeting. With quarterly earnings pressures, we all have put so much pressure on raw productivity that nobody has time to think twice about how to make time for a casual conversation in the middle of the day. We’re all doing five jobs at once. Moreover, we’re doing those five jobs in a digital environment,working across the world with our collaborators, with our co-workers. There’s no chance of bumping into someone around the water cooler in a digital environment. The old, orchestrated accidental-learning mechanisms have disappeared in the postindustrial world.

Your manager doesn't have time to coach you anymore

Why? We’ve taken out the all-important middle layer. Your manager doesn’t have time to coach you anymore; he’s also doing five jobs at once. He’s no longer just your manager; that’s only one of his jobs.  The manager’s job, according to Fredrick Winslow Taylor — one of the pioneers of industrialism and modern management theory — was to distribute and dispense resources, mostly physical resources, but also learning and knowledge, amongst his workers for the maximum benefit to the company.

It’s obvious that’s not how we do things anymore: Production of goods has given way to creating value from information as the dominant economic model. The ranks of middle managers have been purged. Those middle managers once nurtured, coached and mentored recruits in the relatively simple demands that manufacturing and a slower pace of change placed on workers. Middle managers knew the history of the organization and who might hold the answers to the tough questions. But in the continuing zeal to strip cost out of companies, middle managers became overburdened and/or assigned people to whom their own expertise does not usefully extend. Not only are they too busy to be really intentional about the learning and development of the team, they simply can't master the vast array of information flow in order to help you.

HR's 10 percent solution falls short

The poor folks in HR were given the task of fixing this problem, of disenfranchised, disengaged employees who were feeling disconnected from the larger organization. But they didn’t even really understand what the problem was, because coaching used to occur organically. So instead of saying that people need new ways to relate, they say we “need more training” and squeezed more budget into the 10 percent piece, which was already fine.

We are now forced to cultivate the 70 and the 20, which you, the individual, need to be in charge of. All the existing models of professional development are zombies left over from an economy based on assembly lines and raw materials, not information and innovation. Today, while HR departments fiddle with formal professional development requirements, most learning in the workplace will come as the result of intentional individuals who seek to cultivate relationships with supportive peers and mentors.

How to curate the remaining 90 percent needed for success

Welcome to the Intentional Age, an inevitable by-product of the Information Age.  Individual intentional learners, acting as independent agents who realize that it’s up to them to get the training they need, can take charge of their careers. No longer coddled by their organizations, no longer taught what they need to know to get promoted, no longer given routine access to mentors and coaches, they have to take responsibility for finding the sources of information they need and building networks of people who can teach them to prosper and help the organization thrive.

The irony is that in this new age — even though most companies are bad at fostering it —innovation and creative thinking are essential. Once companies only needed to manufacture products at a given rate and price to remain competitive; now, competitiveness requires continual and brilliant innovation and speedy implementation. Companies need inquisitive, self-aware and motivated employees — the kind of self-direction that makes you more valuable to the company.

Since only 10 percent of the learning required for rapid innovations occurs in formal settings, like classrooms and professional development courses, it's up to you to foster relationships with people who know your field, to foster deep conversations between intelligent people. This is informal learning, and it can happen at any moment of the day and be a product of any relationship. You can meet your needs via strategic formation of new relationships. Informal learning thus depends on the constant pursuit of that most rewarding aspect of human life: communication.

The same ratio is in place — 70-20-10 — only now you have to curate, instigate and design that 90 percent, which used to occur naturally. You now have to go out and passionately cultivate those relationships. You have to connect with people who can advise and coach you. You have to ask a manager to schedule a lunch with you a week in advance just so you can have the kind of conversation that used to occur seamlessly.  But it’s worth it.

John Dewey, an educational reformer who was an early proponent of informal learning, said, “All communication is like art. … Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.” In other words, when we take our relationships for granted, and let ourselves sink into a mindless routine and fail to have good conversations, our learning stops.

This blog series will help you foster the right relationships and have insightful conversations. Together, we can be intentionally curious, voraciously seek knowledge and live fuller lives through innovation, passion and ever-growing expertise.


Drew Tewell's picture

"We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you've got ambition and smarts, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession, regardless of where you started out. But with opportunity comes responsibility. Companies today aren't managing their employees' careers; knowledge workers must, effectively, be their own chief executive officers. It's up to you to carve out your place, to know when to change course, and to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years." (Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself, Best of HBR 1999)

This post reminded me of this quote. In our post-industrial age we must take responsibity for ourselves, our careers, and our professional development. Thanks for sharing, Keith!

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