Adopting an Informal Learning Strategy: Some Things Are Best Learned on the Fly, Incrementally, Rather Than in Classrooms or through Structured Educational Systems or Processes

By Abram, Stephen | Information Outlook, October-November 2009 | Go to article overview

Adopting an Informal Learning Strategy: Some Things Are Best Learned on the Fly, Incrementally, Rather Than in Classrooms or through Structured Educational Systems or Processes


Abram, Stephen, Information Outlook


This issue's theme is "Learning and Training." There are loads of ways to do that formally. What with Click University and all of SLA's partners, you can earn degrees, continuing education credits, and certificates very easily (well, not that easily--you also have to attend the classes and do the work). But formal learning and training aren't what I'd like to discuss in this month's column. I want to talk about informal learning, including where to do it and what to think about it for the next few months.

Where does informal learning happen?

It happens in more ways than you may be consciously aware. Even though I focus on professional development, there's no rule that says it has to happen professionally, with professional colleagues or through a professional source. Indeed, sometimes you find out about things you need to learn--key stuff that's necessary to know for professional purposes--in the most unlikely places.

For example, mainstream media like TV and radio help us know when something new has moved from the early adopters to the civilians. Think of when you noticed that morning talk shows were on Facebook and MySpace and interacting with their audiences. Recall when you first noticed that CNN was so fully tweeted that it became annoying. Remember the great race when Ashton Kutcher was heading for one million followers, beating Obama and others?

This is an opportunity for insight and learning. You learn that something has escaped into the world of relationships and needs to be understood. It is an understandable expectation of librarians and information professionals that we will be able to discuss something like Twitter in the context of our host organization's needs and the public at large. Indeed, social media are now clearly essential for competitive intelligence and brand reputation research. So, you can find things to learn and know when they become a priority just by watching mainstream TV with a critical eye.

I also learn by sitting in lobbies, bars and coffee shops. I just look around. When did I first notice that most, if not all, people were looking at their phones at the end of their arms and not holding them to their ears? What was I seeing? Was it the emergence of Bluetooth earphones? Yes, a little. Were they checking the time? Sometimes, but they were looking at the handset for too long.

What I was seeing was the social emergence of texting, phone based e-mail and handset surfing. Over time I saw music, podcasts, streaming media, games, YouTube, and everything else hit people's phones. By the time these devices became pains in the neck in meetings, it would have been too late to adapt my game early enough to make a difference.

It is incumbent on librarians and information professionals to know about these technology delivery changes well in advance of their users. I've owned many different digital phones, and I can evaluate the consumer and business effectiveness of many of them. I find e-book readers in this part of the wild, too. What's next?

The family party or cookout is a great opportunity to see many different behaviors on display. These events are more multi-generational than our usual work environments, so I can see differences and similarities in how people talk, what they talk about, how they adapt to things like personal devices and Websites, and which social media they prefer. How many times have I returned from a party and been "friended" by someone who was there? More times than I can count.

Think of family members and acquaintances as indicators of both the consumer market and the diversity of employment situations and levels. You can see behaviors in, and hear opinions from, a wide range of people--everyone from soccer moms to audit partners (sometimes in the same person). This is especially useful if your information operations have a mandate to serve beyond your own staff or to develop Web sites for the public or your customers at large. …

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