“Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the class room” -- Jay Cross.

Jay Cross spent the last four years talking to managers, technology vendors, consultants, and researchers who support informal learning, as well as developing his own frameworks highlighting informal learning in business environments. His new book, Informal Learning provides access to his efforts and is full of stimulating ideas for getting the most out of critical knowledge in our organizations.

I had the pleasure of talking with Jay as he developed his book. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with others who believe just as strongly in the value of informal learning. Ted Cocheu and I developed this figure

based on work we were doing in a global Fotune 100 science/technology company. We illustrate that, depending on the learner’s current competence, formal and informal learning have different values. Think about the last time you had to sit through a formal class session on a topic where you were already had a good background. Now think about this situation and add the limitation that you don’t have access to your Blackberry or an open Internet connection. You were probably (1) bored, (2) asked questions that we’re ahead of the rest of the class – possibly disrupting the flow, and (3) spending a lot of time thinking about what a waste of time this was for you. If you’d had an internet connection you could have been digging deeper into the material and then you could have asked key questions of the presenter during the break. This second behavior is informal learning.

Novices need a structure/scaffold on which to build their base knowledge. Formal learning is ideal for this. Text books have chapters that build on one another, classroom sessions have lesson plans that flow from the basics to more advanced material. e-Learning presentations provide a little more autonomy, but still are built around presenting a particular kernel of knowledge.

As expertise grows, value is more likely to be gained from learning on the job, just-in-time learning (e.g., finding what you need on an intranet or the web, when you need it), collaborating with a community of practice, etc.

Choose your learning format, or that of people you are mentoring, to match the level of competence in the topic.