In a recent comment on my blog I compared learning in the modern day workplace with learning a second language. The more I thought about this analogy, the more it worked quite well to make my points about what workplace learning is all about and how social and collaboration tools fit in. So here is a fuller comparison.
I learned German at school and actually went on to study it at university. In school I was taught the rules of German grammar and spent a lot of time building my German vocabulary mostly through memorization. But it wasn't till I spent time in Germany that I REALLY learnt how to speak German. There I was able to get the "feel" of the language as I was immersed in it everyday. I heard it spoken all around me, I had conversations with people, I watched German TV and I read German magazines and newspapers. Sometimes I consciously made an effort to broaden my vocabulary by reading financial or economic articles, but most of the time I was unaware that I was absorbing so much about the language. In fact I can recall a couple of occasions when I heard myself say something in German and thought, "I didn't learn that at school"!
Now, we didn't have Learning Management or Course Management Systems in my day when I was at school! But if we did, then it would probably have been used to try to manage what I was "learning", by that I mean recording my results in tests, etc which would have been used as an indication of how well I had learnt the rules of German grammar or the extent of my vocabulary. But even if a LMS had existed, it certainly is a ludicrous idea to think that it could have come with me to Germany to track all the conversations I had or overheard, all the TV programmes I watched, or all the magazine and newspaper articles I read. And even if that HAD been a posssibility, it certainly wouldn't have provided any indication of what I had actually learnt, for as I mentioned earlier, much of the time even I was unaware of that myself. But the evidence that I HAD LEARNT was clear enough - in my IMPROVING FLUENCY in the language.
And, this is actually the same in the workplace too. Here training is often provided to teach the "rules" of the business, e.g. policies, procedures, use of systems, and even things like how to negotiate with difficult people. But just like learning a second language the REAL learning takes place in the workplace, when you are immersed in the business: in conversations, in meetings, in reading documents and reports, in listening to podcasts or watching screencasts. Once again, some of the time you will consciously set out to find out about something, but most of the time you are absorbing new information and acquiring skills quite unconsciously.
In many organisations nowadays an LMS is used to track and monitor how much you know (or rather can remember) about the business rules you have been taught, and in some it is also used to provide a record of any necessary compliance and regulatory training . But just as it was ludicrous to consider trying to track all my activity whilst I was in Germany, it is similarly nonsensical to consider trying to track all the activity and interactions that take place in the workplace in order to monitor employees' "learning". The only place where your learning is "managed" is in your own brain, and the only relevant evidence that learning has taken place is in your IMPROVING JOB PERFORMANCE.
Now, there is actually one BIG difference between learning a second language and learning in the workplace. In Germany I was surrounded by native (ie expert) speakers of the language, who didn't have the same need or interest as me in improving their fluency in the language! Although many, of course, provided me with help and support, it was up to me to get the most out of being in Germany. The workplace is different, here we are all in the same boat. Of course there are also experts - in their fields of interest, or those who are "good at their job" - but we all pretty much have the same goal: to do our jobs well or better. And it is this common goal that we need to encourage and support, rather than try and track and monitor and manage activity in traditional management systems.
Here of course is where the new social and collaboration tools have a part to play, as they are able to support the sharing of tacit knowledge as well as resources, and also enable collaboration between individuals. In a previous posting I explained that I thought a top-down approach to implementing a social and collaboration system would not work. Although many people are already quite happily sharing and collaborating with one another to learn and work together; others will participate too once they see the value of it, but compelling them to do so and monitoring and tracking their every move, is not the way forward. Social and collaboration tools should be available to be used as and when needed and appropriate - much like the telephone which we use to communicate with someone when we need to.
Although it will undoubtedy take a little time before the sceptical are convinced that social and collaboration tools are important workplace tools, I predict that it won't be too long before many others consider these tools in the same way that we view the telephone and email - as vital for job and organisational productivity.
Finally a word about Social Learning. Up to now I've deliberately avoided the use of the terms "formal" and "informal" learning. But it should be clear from my descriptions above where the formal and informal learning takes place. [If not: Formal learning is when I learnt German in the school classroom, and where I received my training on the business rules. Informal learning is when I learnt German in Germany itself, and in the workplace doing my job.]
The social and collaboration tools I have mentioned earlier for the workplace are therefore being used as much for "informal learning" as they are for working. In fact, at the Internet Time Alliance we consider working and learning to be practically indistinguishable.
Social Learning in the workplace is therefore ALL about "working smarter".