If informal learning constitutes an important way in which we learn, adapt and grow, it is important to be able to describe when, where, and how such learning occurs. Only then can we determine how the organization might provide or improve an enabling environment.
We can begin such a process by recalling “aha” moments of significant learning or problem-solving that occurred outside of formal training contexts – and then asking questions about how we identified the problem, what strategies we used to tackle it, what surprised us, and, of course, what were the outcomes.
The “aha moment” is a point in time, event, or experience when one has a sudden insight or realization. It has also been referred to as the eureka (“I found it”) effect. The “aha” moment is a kind of coming together of learning, made compelling because the solution identified may allow for perfect alignment with work. For most “aha” moments that we can recall, the problem at hand is recognized to be exceptional in some way.
Such incidents are significant because they demonstrate:
- the central relevance of informal learning to solve real-world business problems we face;
- the ways in the “aha” moments of incidental learning often represent significant leaps in our ability to reframe, tackle or solve problems;
- that informal learning is embedded into the work and therefore does not require stopping work to learn; and
- informal learning outcomes foster complex, sometimes profound growth of individuals and teams, improving performance not just for the problem at hand but for a set of capabilities that can then be applied to future problem-solving.
We have difficulty recalling the sequence of events and learning process that lead to such moments. The “process of learning through experience is so routine, that it becomes almost automatic and part of our tacit knowledge” (Watkins 2013:18). There is no time to reflect on what or how it happened, and no obvious incentive to do so. The sudden realization and its implications are so strong that the context for it is promptly forgotten. We retain lessons learned and are able to describe how these were applied in their work, but find it more difficult to identify and reflect on the learning processes at work. Our minds focus primarily on the take-away or the lesson and their implications, the knowledge outcome we can use.
And yet, “if we are to capture and retain such lessons, deeper reflection is essential so that we can tell others what we learned” (Watkins 2013:18) and so that our organization can recognize the value of such insights and provide an enabling environment for them. Any learning that is retained solely by the individual is likely to be lost if and when the individual leaves, and unlikely to improve the knowledge performance of the organization.
Watkins, K., 2013. Building a Learning Dashboard. The HR Review 16–21.
Photo: S.S. Eureka, paddle steamer “Eureka” seen at the San Francisco Maritime Museum (Dave Wilson/flickr.com)