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Training in a Knowledge-based Economy

2009 April 10

A recent post at the SIOP Exchange from Jacob McNulty said this:

Training: in the world of Facebook, Google and You Tube, people are accustomed to getting the information they need when they need it. And the most tapped sources for this knowledge are typically someone’s personal network and learning on the job. What research opportunities exist for helping to understand how we can better support this informal learning? As we continue further into an economy reliant on knowledge and therefore knowledge workers, it’s my prediction that this trend will do nothing but grow.

Oh look!  One of my research areas.  I mention it here because I think many people don’t understand why people seek out these sources of learning when there is a perfectly good company training program available.  What makes Facebook, Google and YouTube more attractive than a company-designed program?  Simple.  Using these appears to save both time and effort on the part of the learner.

Say, for example, Johnny Q Employee is a computer programmer and needs to use a programming language that he’s never used before.  Does he start with a book?  Probably not – he would have to leave the office to buy the book, and then scan the book for the information he needs.  Does he seek out company training programs?  Only if those programs are convenient, comprehensive, and allow him easy access to the information he needs.  So instead, he unleashes some Google-fu to find online tutorials and references for what he needs to know.

The power of this?  Johnny already knows what he knows and what he needs to know.  Most formal training programs assume a common starting point for all employees.  So if the training designer designs his program to make sure everyone is on the same page, Johnny will be getting material that he is already familiar with – a waste of time.  But if the training designer designs his program to start at the average level of competence of the trainees, half of the trainees will be lost as soon as training begins.

By using Google as a training springboard, Johnny can start exactly where he needs to start.  This is not because Google is informal and the company programs are formal – it is because Google has more information than company programs do and in an easier-to-access format.  Theoretically a company could provide a comprehensive training program with more information on a particular topic than Google – but I question how realistic this is.

There is a large caveat.  Generally speaking, people are actually pretty poor at figuring out what they know and don’t know.  In studies of learner control (web-based training programs where you can choose the order and pacing of the material), people tend to perform more poorly on tests of knowledge gained after training programs where they had control, compared to those where the structure was predetermined.  So in reality, learners may spend more time fighting with Google to find what they want to find than if they had sat through the training program in the first place.

What is the balance?  How can formal training programs be best designed to take advantage of informal sources of information?  We don’t know yet.  But I aim to find out.

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  1. April 13, 2009

    Thanks for the post reference Richard; there are countless areas waiting to be researched regarding ‘training’ in the knowledge economy. Good luck on your transition to teaching…I look forward to learning more about your research findings.

  2. Lauren Duarte permalink
    April 17, 2009

    Hi, CSU I-O student here. You have to be specific about what type of learner control can lead to poor performance and for whom. Usually, control over content leads to poor performance for any learner. However, control over pace or sequence can be helpful for a learner with high cognitive ability and a mastery goal orientation. I’d like to give a “shout out” to Dr. Kraiger! :-)

  3. April 17, 2009

    That sounds an awful lot like ATI learner control research – I didn’t think there was any!

    The only stuff I’m really familiar with specifically on what you’re talking about is Kragier & Jerden (2007). They talk about the model you’re describing, but I haven’t seen any data on it yet. Do you have a citation?

  4. August 10, 2010

    Even if a company could put together a comprehensive guide, that information becomes outdated very quickly!

    The best way, as I see it, is to make formal training available on the basics — and then provide support for informal learning — however it happens, journals, conferences, Googling, webinars, forums, coaching for advanced learners.

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