With the advent of social media and ubiquitous technology tools, there has been a large push in some circles for an increase in informal learning. Learning that occurs between co-workers and colleagues sharing institutional knowledge and procedures seems like a great idea to strengthen bonds within the company and to help reinforce critical knowledge within the organization.
And, while this type of knowledge can be valuable to organizations and help create a culture of learning, there is a downside. Often, people who mean well or who are trying to help can accidentally provide wrong or misleading information. It starts innocently but can soon spiral. Incorrect information often reflects the beliefs of the people who convey the information and not necessarily the facts of the situation or the policies of the company. By perpetuating false information about SOPs, government regulations or even company policies, those trying to informally educate their co-workers might confirm wrong ideas, incorrect procedures and inaccurate company policy. And inadvertently pass on that information to new employees.
For example, we’ve all played some version of the telegraph or telephone game where one person receives a message and then whispers a message to the ear of the next person. Then that person whispers to the next person down the line until the last person announces what he or she heard. Often the message announced by the last person is nothing like the original message. This is a danger of informal learning. Messages can become distorted, changed or modified over time and then passed on from one person to another.
It’s not that informal learning is necessarily bad but it needs to be balanced with formal, accurate statements about what are the proper policies and procedures. The goal of a formal compliance training program is to ensure that a consistent, accurate message is repeated again and again so that there are no misunderstandings, no incorrect interpretation of company policy and no inadvertent harm or danger to employees, customers or the public. While informal learning has its place in a corporate learning strategy, so does formal learning. In fact, formal learning channels are the only real way to ensure that messages are not misconstrued.
Employees may not embrace formal learning with unbridled enthusiasm but the need for formal learning in a world with thousands of messages and priorities bombarding employees on a daily basis has never been more critical or needed. Make sure that any informal learning channels are built on a strong foundation of formal learning messages and instruction. Otherwise, who knows what the “whispered” compliance message might be at the end of the line.