Workplace learning is like learning a second language

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”.

8 thoughts on “Workplace learning is like learning a second language

  1. Robyn McMaster

    Great analogy. With languages I have noted that you really do not get far without speaking and using them. Perhaps it is why I struggled to learn French. I knew the grammar, but I had no conversations to take it anywhere.

  2. Jane Hart

    Robyn, thanks for commenting. I think that 2nd language learning is actually one of the key places where social learning works so well – either f2f with people in their own country, or using social tools to interact with others – who may be experts or who are also learning the language.
    In the workplace too I think that “practicing the language” also takes place. When we are new to a job, we obviously have to “practice” it to become proficient at it. Perhaps I should have also added a bit about the need for making mistakes; in 2nd language learning I learnt as much from making mistakes – probably more – than from perfection, and can you can’t help make mistakes. In the workplace making mistakes is unfortunately not viewed as a positive learning experience; perhaps we need to change that too.

  3. Rachelplayfair

    Excellent observations, I wholly agree with respect to both learning in situ and over the web. As you’ve stated, apart from practice opportunities, the thing about learning socially or on the job or in the country (for languages) is that there are so many different inputs as opposed to a single trainer in front of a class. When it comes to social media tools, they’ve been a boon for second language learning as they’ve literally opened up the world to learners again, from so many different sources. The same for workplace learning. I’m amazed on a daily basis by what I’m continually learning from generous people all over the world who share their knowledge in so many ways through social media. I could go on and on… great post, Jane!

  4. Mattiaskareld

    Another great post. I have very much the same experience learning a second language, in my case English, as you have.
    But actually what I found really interesting came in your comment. There you are mentioning the importance of allowing mistakes. When I studied English at University level the faculty did not allow for any mistakes (mistakes was seen as a four-letter word). That made me so insecure in speaking English that I actually felt that I was becoming worse at speaking English during the two years I studied English.
    But what also happened during these two years was that I met a lot of great foreign exchange students from US and UK. And by spending time with them, studying, socializing, going shopping and maybe most important of all,, partying made me realize that I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was at using my English skills.
    My conclusion of this is that being among friends in an environment where mistakes are ok did more for my ability to use English than two years of University studies could ever have done.
    Keep up the fantastic work.

  5. Harold Jarche

    Unless a formal training program is exceptionally long (months/years) it cannot provide some essential components of developing any skill: practice, feedback & reflection.

  6. DCadogan

    Much of the training I am involved in designing is very focused, and those participating need to be up to speed with the vocabulary otherwise they will struggle to benefit.
    The dichotomy between formal and informal learning (in a work-based learning sense) is in general increasingly false, but in the sector I am most involved in (policing), there is a training cost-related drive to put as much as possible basic training / learning into a pre-join context.
    A knock on effect of this is that the learning done prior to joining the Service has to be accredited otherwise it has little transferrable value against other (accredited) learning post recruitment.

  7. Jane Hart

    @DCadogan Even though your company focuses on creating formal courses, this doesn’t change the fact that in ALL companies and industries, people learn more from working on the job and with one another (around 80%), and as I have shown in a very different way from attending a course. Although the requests for formal training from organisations will undoubtedly continue,this doesn’t change this underlying fact.

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