Unpacking the Title
Someday I may come to regret the choice of terminology in the title (so much coinage you probably think I own a mint!). And yet, hating the term “informal learning” because it connotes a fuzzy haphazardness, I had to create some clarification—thus the distinction between learning that learners direct themselves and learning where learners are nudged toward learning events.
Still, the most important terminology in the title is “subscription-learning web,” as it describes an inspired confluence of reinforcing learning components—that, taken together, boost learning beyond normal levels.
JD Dillon and Kaplan’s Problem
This story is about JD Dillon and his virtuoso turn at conducting the Kaplan Higher and Professional Education orchestra of learners. Kaplan, a world-leader in educational-support services, had a big problem. Dillon noticed it, but before he spoke up, no one at Kaplan thought much about it.
Just like all organizations, Kaplan employees were proactive in trying to do their jobs well. They went to training, they learned from their day-to-day experiences, and they learned from each other. The trouble was, Kaplan employees were human; they forgot stuff. So they got smart. They started creating job aids for themselves and documenting their knowledge to help themselves and their coworkers. They captured and curated their insights into separate SharePoint sites, helpful for colleagues within their work units, but completely estranged from others throughout the company.
Kaplan was growing too, causing inevitable growing pains. People would get promoted out of their areas, taking their institutional memory with them. More student requests came in, more student questions, more need for everyone at Kaplan to be able to respond quickly with correct information. The isolated SharePoint sites just weren’t cutting it. Employee knowledge wasn’t cutting it either. eLearning programs, as designed, were boring ineffective page turners.
JD got wind of the problems when the elearning guy quit and JD was elected to take his role. As JD searched the organization for information he could craft into solid elearning, he hit roadblock after roadblock. He couldn’t find the right information. He had difficulty locating those with the best expertise. He figured if he couldn’t find the information—as a guy who was tech savvy and bulldog persistent—certainly others at Kaplan were having the same problem.
First Building a Central Repository
The good news for Kaplan was that JD had been given a fairly long leash. He could try things. So, working on a limited budget, without asking permission, Dillon and his team worked with front-end users from throughout the company to build a relatively small 500-page wiki (using software called Confluence). Where other similar projects have crashed and burned due to lack of user participation, JD and his team acted aggressively as community managers of the wiki to encourage use, to promote dialog and discussions on the wiki, to smooth out rough spots, and generally, to ensure the wiki was actively used, updated, and understood.
To make a long story short, it worked! Within one and a half years, SharePoint was gone. Within five years over 70,000 pages had been created on the wiki!
Using a wiki alone wasn’t enough. First, not everyone was an everyday user. Second, even though knowledge might be captured on a centralized wiki with great search capabilities, often employees aren’t in a situation to stop what they’re doing and do a search. Employees who get phone calls from students simply can’t look everything up. A ton of important knowledge must be quickly available from long-term memory.
Targeted Knowledge Reinforcement Over Time
Fortunately—or maybe wisely—Kaplan’s new-venture funding had supported a startup called Axonify, and JD had been asked to utilize their tool. He took a look and decided it might work great to reinforce learning and extend employees’ ability to remember what they learned. Axonify is a subscription learning tool that provides people with questions wrapped in a gaming environment. As people play fun games, they are asked questions. Successful answers get more time or points that can be traded in for prizes. Although there were pockets of resistance due to the gaming element, a considerable percentage of targeted Kaplan employees joined in—on their own initiative. Fully 70-75% of employees consistently stayed engaged, continuing to strengthen their learning over time.
Of course, there’s a backstory. When the team first attempted to launch Axonify, the effort failed – quickly. With lessons learned, JD didn’t just roll out the typical questions and interactions on Axonify’s learning threads. He and his team developed rigorous rules for the way questions were designed. They limited engagement to five minutes and two or three questions per day. They focused on key information of the kind found in compliance training and product knowledge. They tied back the answers to the wiki pages that had been developed, pointing people to the wiki pages of relevance.
Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t just willy-nilly send learning nuggets to learners. First, they started with organizational management—to get buy in from important stakeholders. Second, they only sent questions that were relevant to the employees who were targeted. In fact, after the initial kickoff, they allowed employees to pick their own topics of interest. They also plied the organization’s political web, ensuring that people from up and down the organization were engaged.
JD’s team didn’t stop there, they developed new questions on new topics by diagnosing learning needs. The community managers from the wiki looked for confusions, intensive discussions, areas of clear need. The team looked at student support data to determine where students needed the most assistance. They reached out to different teams, asking them to identify the most critical information.
As the question-streams grew, a buzz was created, with people talking about the questions and the games in the halls, at lunch, and on breaks. JD was a bit surprised by the overwhelming response. When users were asked why they engaged, the answers varied. Some liked to see their name on the leaderboard. Some liked to get all the answers correct. Some liked to win swag, including things like office supplies, mugs, or an hour with the CEO or another organizational leader, etc. Some liked to take a break and reset before getting back to their regular tasks. Some liked to learn information to help them to do their job better. Wisely, JD’s team captured testimonials about why people liked to play. They had VP’s and new hires; folks up and down the line. As the persuasion research makes clear, people are more persuaded by people like them, rather than from someone unlike them (i.e., someone in training).
The subscription-learning questions and the wiki became self-reinforcing. The more questions were asked, the more people used the wiki. The more the wiki was fleshed out with information, the more the subscription-learning interactions could be developed.
Prompting Additional Employee-to-Employee Learning
Based on these successes, JD and his team went further. They wanted to change the culture—to encourage employees to learn more and more from each other. They did two things in this regard. They began using an online social workspace (Cornerstone) as a way to get people learning together.
Second, and again working under the radar, JD’s team began capturing informal video with folks in the organization. They had two goals. One goal was simply to get people talking to each other and learning from each other. For this, they began creating short 15-minute web shows, where a host would connect and facilitate discussion with folks from throughout Kaplan. In one telling incident, management found a disparity between expected process and the workplace reality while previewing an upcoming webisode. Based on this information, the process was simplified, clarified, and improved.
The second goal was more complex. Sometimes there are skillsets or procedures that don’t lend themselves to one right answer—or to a discrete algorithmic process. When you work closely with a wiki, you begin to notice what information is stable, certain, and clear and what information is fuzzy, contingent, and/or controversial. By getting people to answer simple questions about how things work on camera, JD’s team could get 15 viewpoints on an issue. They’d then put these 90-120 second answers on the wiki—so again, the wiki became a central repository.
Logistical difficulties made it prohibitive for JD and his team to measure the impact of their interventions on critical learning results and on-the-job success. As JD reflects now, while he wanted to use stronger metrics, he had to be satisfied with anecdotal evidence, data on learning engagement, and management feedback.
The End State
When JD left Kaplan recently to take the next step in his career, he felt good about what he and his compatriots had accomplished at Kaplan. Sure, there is more to be done—there always is—but they’d accomplished a great deal. They virtually eliminated page-turning elearning programs. They stopped defaulting to a training-first approach to learning. They got rid of isolated islands of knowledge and created a vibrate repository for institutional know-how. They created methods and practices that encouraged people to learn from each other. They developed an effective reinforcing mechanism to help employees keep key information top of mind.
Many Affordances for Repeating Sustainable Learning
I started this piece by critiquing the term “informal learning.” The Kaplan story shows why the term is so inadequate. There was very little that was haphazard. Nor was the learning initiated solely by learners. Indeed, it took a very active group of learning professionals to create the structures that enabled learning. They utilized new tools, they created rigorous rules-of-engagement, they played a beautiful game of stakeholder management, they aligned their practices with the learning research, they prodded and nudged and cajoled.
By combining the potency of a managed wiki, a social workspace, video, user testimonials, ongoing needs assessment, and a dedicated subscription-learning tool; JD and his team created a web of learning affordances that made it easy—if not irresistible—for people to learn from each other and help others learn; all the while sustaining their knowledge and creating a culture of learning.
To me, the major lessons learned are these:
- It takes a team of dedicated learning professionals to create the structures and impetus for improved on-the-job learning.
- A dedicated subscription-learning tool can support and integrate with forms of social learning. It can also support on-the-job learning as well.
- Learning tools will ONLY be successful IF (a) they align with the human learning architecture, (b) they are actively supported by a team of folks, especially in their inaugural stages, (c) they are supported by stakeholders with political power, (d) instructional-design wisdom is utilized to use the tools in a way that boosts learning, engages learners, and supports remembering, and (e) they are not used in isolation but are instead utilized in an intentional web of learning affordances.