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Review of 'Working Smarter: Informal Learning in the Cloud' by Jay Cross

By Peter Shea / July 2010

REVIEW: LITERATURE, TYPE: NONFORMAL/INFORMAL LEARNING
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As a recent newcomer to Massachusetts, I am struck by the number of old factory buildings that are still standing in this state. What is equally striking is how many of these factories have found new life as upscale apartment buildings and office parks. In a culture obsessed with what's new, there is a certain chic to living and working in spaces that have associations to the past.

If Jay Cross and his associates at the Internet Time Alliance have their way, traditional classrooms and schools may be the next architectural structures reconstituted as residences and places of business. Cross, a business and performance consultant who designed the first business degree program used by the University of Phoenix, is a member of a group of learning and performance professionals called the Internet Time Alliance, a consulting group that includes such learning 2.0 luminaries as Clark Quinn.

Cross's book, Working Smarter: Informal Learning in the Cloud is his second title about informal learning which he defines as knowledge acquisition brought about by "asking the person in the next cubicle, trial-and-error, calling the help desk, working with people in the know, and joining the conversation." Cross puts it thus: "This is natural learning: you learn from other people when you need to be able to do something."

Acquiring knowledge through informal contacts and casual conversation, as Cross indicates, is as old as the campfire. However, the rise of social networking technology and Web 2.0 tools have worked as a force multiplier, greatly enhancing the power of people to acquire knowledge. It is Cross's intent in this book to wake people—specifically business people—up to this fact.

Informal learning, he argues, should not be used to enhance existing training practices in businesses. It should replace the older practices altogether. Cross points out how ineffective traditional training often is, how despite the investment of billions of dollars each year Instructor-Led Training does not produce the desired effects. "During my own 30-year training and development career," Cross writes " I have seen many PowerPoint decks of 200-300 slides prepared for delivery over two or three days in classroom courses... Few humans can recall anywhere near that amount of information for later use, or even a fraction of it." (If you are ever in a room of strangers and need some shared experience to bond over, ask the other people in the room if they have ever been to a dull PowerPoint presentation.)

Cross's complaints about the inefficiency of ILT have been echoed down through the years by innumerable critics. What he adds to the conversation is the belief that a viable alternative to traditional training now exists thanks to Web 2.0 innovations. Working Smarter belongs to that genre dedicated to making the public more aware of how the world has been altered by digital technology (like Chris Anderson's The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, or Cass Sunstein's Republic.com 2.0.) Technology, these authors argue, does more than allow an organization to make existing practices more efficient—it changes the nature of the organization. "Businesses," Cross argues, "are evolving into networks." The older organizational model with its strict hierarchy is being upended by network technology in much the way gunpowder disrupted the hierarchies of the medieval world.

Whenever a period of significant transition occurs, there is an inevitable disconnect between the older generation and the new. Businesses today may be staffed by digital natives who have grown up with Web 2.0 technology but the management class is still largely composed of digital immigrants, men and women shaped by older (predigital) conceptions of work and learning. As such, Cross offers advice on how performance professionals can talk to executives about informal learning without scaring them off (avoid words like "social" and "informal" which, to executive ears, sounds like employees goofing off; use "collaboration" instead).

While this advice is sound, it requires more than a shift in vocabulary to get buy-in from decision-makers who would likely be uncomfortable with the radical change being proposed by Cross. Cross acknowledges this by recommending that change agents "begin with small-scale experiments, score some successes, and replicate them in other areas of the company."

While Working Better addresses an important subject, it is not without imperfections. I found myself wishing for a least one detailed case study examining how informal learning was successfully implemented in an organization. Cross briefly mentions major companies such as Intel and Sun Microsystems that have implemented informal learning—and the money saved or earned as a consequence of the new learning practices. However he does not examine in detail how these organizations went about it or what difficulties they encountered.

I think Cross has identified an important trend—one that will impact traditional schooling as well as organizational training. However, in this period of economic uncertainty, many organizations will resist relying on his advice until there is more hard proof of success from organizations willing to be the early adopters of informal learning.

I hope Cross and his colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance consider researching and writing a book about proven successes—in organizations large and small—of informal learning.

About the Author
Peter Shea is a pedagogical designer for Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts.



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