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How do organizations help employees learn outside of training or elearning?

Sherry Johnson Metz on informal learning

Sherry Johnson Metz, the owner and principal consultant at Lead Forward Consulting, knows how to put training programs together for organizations, but where she really excels is in training strategy development. Of course, training strategy development is very different from training development, and it actually may not include traditional training at all.

In today’s podcast, Sherry shares her thoughts on how organizations can create a culture of learning without needing to create actual training.

Introduction 

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of a training company called Endurance Learning, and today I am joined by Sherry Johnson Metz, who is the Owner and Principal Consultant at Lead Forward Consulting. We’re going to be talking a little bit about the idea of learning without formal training.

Before we get into all of that, I do want to mention that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool you can use for 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing live, instructor-led training. So basically you go in, you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, is it going to be in-person, is it going to be virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then Soapbox will instantly generate a training plan for you that has clusters of training activities designed to help you accomplish each and every one of your learning outcomes. If you want to try it for free, you can go visit www.soapboxify.com. Sign up, and you can try it out for two weeks, for free. Again, that’s www.soapboxify.com. All right. let’s get to know who we’re talking with.

So Sherry. Hello, how are you?

Sherry Johnson Metz: Hello. I’m very well, thank you.

Brian Washburn: Well, I’m excited to get into this conversation because a lot of what we talk about on this podcast, a lot of what you see on LinkedIn, a lot of what you’ll see through resources like ATD is all about formal training, whether it’s instructor-led or virtual or eLearning. And here we’re going to be talking more about learning without that formal piece. 

Six-word Biography

Brian Washburn: Before we get into that though, I’d love to have you introduce yourself to our audience with your six-word biography.

Sherry Johnson Metz: Learning without limits: collaboratively, impactful, experiential.

Brian Washburn: All right, so you got all six words in.

(BOTH LAUGHING)

Sherry Johnson Metz: That was a tough one.

Brian Washburn: So just for a little bit of background, for the people who are listening, you and I had an opportunity to connect at a networking event for the ATD Puget Sound chapter a few weeks ago. And then after the event, we connected on LinkedIn and then we had a virtual coffee, and I was like, “I love what you’re talking about. I love your approach and kind of some of the things you’re doing. Why don’t we do a podcast about this idea of learning without formal training.” So let’s talk about that. And the first question that I have for you is why do you even think it’s important to think about learning beyond formal training programs?

The Value of Thinking Beyond Formal Learning

I think we do a disservice to our learners because what I find disheartening is when you ask people what they want, they want more learning and development, but you ask them if they're getting that at work and they think, no, we don't do any training.

Sherry Johnson Metz: Well, it’s interesting because we think about ATD, all of us in the training and development profession, we have all of these great ways that we’re trying to do things better, faster, more efficient, more consistent. And yet, I think we do a disservice to our learners because what I find disheartening is when you ask people what they want, they want more learning and development, but you ask them if they’re getting that at work and they think, no, we don’t do any training.

Brian Washburn: Or we don’t, we don’t have the budget, right? I don’t–

Sherry Johnson Metz: We don’t have the budget.

Brian Washburn: Or my boss won’t pay for me to go to this conference.

Sherry Johnson Metz: I went to one three-hour class.

Brian Washburn: Yup.

Where did we lose our way in trying to create more of an organization that learns better

Sherry Johnson Metz: And so I think, well, we kind of did that to ourselves. Why did we set it up to be training and development in a structured environment? Something that– it’s sometimes it is the very right solution, but where did we lose our way in trying to create more of an organization that learns better? And if there was ever a time where you want people to be learning, this is it. More complexity. People move into roles. And instead of thinking about how can we do more formal training quicker, faster, speedier, which you can with all the technologies we have, but it’s like, what if we just started thinking about how could we do more learning and what would that take?

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And, this is really an interesting conversation because, you know, for people that have been in the field for any amount of time really, they have probably come across this 70-20-10 model that the Center for Creative Leadership really kind of came up with. And I know that people can debate it, you know, the numbers and how the numbers shake out or whatever. But the idea is that the vast majority of how we learn is through informal means, through stretch assignments, through lots of different things. And that’s where that 70 number comes in. And then the– there’s also some learning that comes through supportive relationships, peers, coaches, mentors, things like that. That’s that 20 number. And then, the smallest amount of time that we spend actually learning is through those formal learning experiences, that 10%. Through the smallest amount of time that we spend in a structured environment, and that’s that 10 number.

Are we teaching people how to learn? Are we creating structures and systems? So they go from actual knowledge to doing, to performing.

Sherry Johnson Metz: And even when we’re in that, what is it we actually enable people then to go and do afterwards? A lot of times we need to move the finish line that it’s not the training event that we need to care the most about. It’s what are they doing when they go back on the job? How are we preparing them? Are we teaching people how to learn? Are we creating structures and systems? So they go from actual knowledge to doing, to performing.

Brian Washburn: Mhm. Right.

Sherry Johnson Metz: And that I’ve always been fascinated with because it’s how I learn. And it’s the way– people just are– I went to that training class and then you wonder why you’re not getting the results that you want. It’s like we just have to take it to that next level of what did you expect people to be doing? Where do you want to move the needle in the organization?

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Sherry Johnson Metz: What are some of the things that you’d want to see people doing better or differently?

Brian Washburn: Yep. Absolutely. And so, let’s talk about this a little bit more, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in terms of strategies that you might be able to share with us that can be used to provide informal learning opportunities for employees, right? So if we’re not going to say, “Okay, well, attend this training session on Wednesday at 2:00 PM in the conference room.” Or if we’re not going to say, “Hey, you know, take this class on the learning management system or whatever.” What strategies can organizations use to provide informal learning opportunities?

Strategies to Provide Informal Learning Opportunities in the Workplace

Sherry Johnson Metz: Well, when you were saying 70-20-10, I wanted to share with you what I had just read, which is a really cool way to think of it. And it’s, teaching or talking about or shifting our culture about just saying like we all need to learn better. So the quote that I heard was, “When you need to learn quickly, learn from others.” And you think about what do we already do? If I get stuck on the job, what do I do? I go to my network, I go Google it, I go ask somebody, right? So if you want to learn something quickly, learn from others.

“If you need to learn something deeply, learn from experience.” And again, I spend– I think when we do a training event, one simple strategy is to really be clear what is it you want people to be doing when they hit the ground running? Do they understand what their goal is? What do they have to be better at? And do they understand what happens when we try to change anything?

It's going to feel awkward. You're going to feel uncomfortable, but that's how you know you're actually starting to do something better or differently.

We don’t really spend a lot of time talking about mindset. You know, any of us– you use a new cell phone, you try to be a better coach, you want to manage a project better. Sounds good on paper. Here’s what you do. You can go and find some tips. But then you actually start to do it and you start to think, “Ay, yi, yi, I’m not very good at this.” You run into a speed bump. How do you help people to prepare themselves to say that’s your learning edge? It’s going to feel awkward. You’re going to feel uncomfortable, but that’s how you know you’re actually starting to do something better or differently. So what are you going to do in that moment? And if we could help people both be really clear on the goal and understand the mindset that they’re going to have to override when we just want to go back to what we know, we want to resort to our old habits.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Sherry Johnson Metz: We want to think I don’t want this anymore, right? And so then you get into what the other strategy is then what are you going to prepare in the system to make it easier for them to keep trying? Give them opportunities to try it out, some confidence. So again, what are you doing to help that person’s manager know what to do? Create a safe runway to try something out. Simple things like even without technically the training event is talking about, “Hey managers, here’s some questions you can ask your people at all of your one-on-ones.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. So you’re starting to get into some tips specifically that go beyond the person who needs the developer skills, right?

Sherry Johnson Metz: Yeah.

What Changes in Organizational Structure and Culture Can Foster Workplace Learning?

Brian Washburn: Their manager can play a role in this too. What organizational structures do you think and practices like this, like giving supervisors, you know, maybe a checklist or questions to ask or things like that?

Sherry Johnson Metz: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: What other organizational structures or practices can be implemented really to begin cultivating this culture of learning?

You create a community of practice where it's going to be safe to talk about where you hit a speed bump, what you learned, what happened...

Sherry Johnson Metz: One of my favorite ones is thinking of a community of practice. And a community of practice could be people that are like-minded. And the example that I had the most success with, or one that stands out in my mind, is we were in implementing a new project management system and there’s like– you have to learn the system. Like what is this? There’s the project team, there’s the gatekeepers, there’s the whole process, but how are you going to make sure people develop expertise in this? Well, you create a community of practice where it’s going to be safe to talk about where you hit a speed bump, what you learned, what happened when you went to that executive board and they gave you the thumbs down? How did you go back to the drawing board?

And so having this community of practice as a way to create that learning as you go, it’s not– it’s a structure. It’s sponsored, but it’s self-directed, peer-led, and people want to do it because they’re trying to get up to speed on a new, very important system that’s important to the company. So that’s one way.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Sherry Johnson Metz: Accountability partners, you know, people love– you talked about mentoring, right? As that 20%? That’s a classic one, right? Well, how common is it for someone who’s new to a role or new to a process? We do those peer buddies where I’m like, “Here’s your buddy. Tell me about the culture here.” Well, why don’t we use the same approach when we’re trying to figure out anything that’s kind of new or challenging? Playing with that mentor-mentee – who’s learning from who? How do you create a goal about learning? How do you even leverage learning from somebody else? Are you even showing people how to do it and then giving them permission to spend time doing?

Brian Washburn: So we’ve talked kind of conceptually about this or some ideas that could be good practices. Can you share an example of how you may have helped an organization continue learning without that formal training piece?

An Example of Informal Learning in the Workplace 

One of the things that we created was a mentor-mentee relationship where we wanted the people new to the company to be the mentors, and they menteed senior leadership about what it was like to be an employee here, so, right? You kind of flipped it.

Sherry Johnson Metz: Well, with the– one of the things that we created was a mentor-mentee relationship where we wanted the people new to the company to be the mentors, and they menteed senior leadership about what it was like to be an employee here, so, right? You kind of flipped it.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. That is– it’s like “opposite land,” right?

Sherry Johnson Metz: It’s “opposite land.” So instead of thinking about, “We need to make sure we’re acclimating everybody and we’re going to push our culture on you,” the senior leaders needed to appreciate what it was like to be swimming around in this fishbowl. So that was a program where we had senior leaders saying, “Yes, give me a mentor.” And so they created that relationship. And over time, what the senior leaders learned is that, “Okay, I need to be more humble. I need to show a little bit more vulnerability.”

And what came out of that was a couple of things. This whole idea about naming what you learned from an oops or from a mistake, you know, a mistake moment. And there was also this funny little– they also identified something they had to do where they wanted everybody to knowledge-share, but people were like, “Nobody’s rewarded. If I say, ‘Hey, I have a new idea of how to do something,'” now I have to lead the project and now the burden’s on me. So I remember we flipped it and we started to say, “You have to go and seek out ideas from other people.”

So it became kind of funny in this organization where they started to talk about the cool things they were doing, and they always had to give somebody credit. So before I could say, “Here’s what I just did,” I’d say “I called Brian and this is his idea.”

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

It doesn't sound very formal and official, but it's those things that kind of start to change how people think of in terms of a learning organization.

Sherry Johnson Metz: And so they started to really incorporate cultural changes around “I now give people credit for ideas. I now talk about what I learned from a mistake.” So those are, again, it doesn’t sound very formal and official, but it’s those things that kind of start to change how people think of in terms of a learning organization.

Brian Washburn: With that specific example, were you a consultant that came in from the outside that suggested this? Or were you working internally to the organization? I’m just trying to imagine people listening, thinking, “Oh, that’s a cool idea. My organization would never go for it.” How did you approach it and how did you get the organization to agree to do something like that?

How to Get Your Organization’s Support for Implementing Culture Changes

Sherry Johnson Metz: Well, and again, I think it’s funny that you would say, “oh, my organization would never go for that.” Because again, I think that’s part of the challenge is to kind of talk about how much– how important is it for us to be more of a learning organization versus waiting for the training department to do all the work? Because it was I’ve done it both ways – I did it inside a company where I worked for over 20 years. We started to play with this saying, “You give us your people for a day, and then they go out and work on the job. Maybe we should partner on this, you know. Maybe we should be together in terms of building the skills and competencies.”

But it’s also something that I’ve created strategies with consulting companies to be able to talk about. And oftentimes, it’s because we’ve already created a program, but then there’s this question about like, how are we going to make sure it sticks? How are we going to make sure we have more impact? So it’s being willing to play with some of those ideas. And oftentimes, especially when a company doesn’t want to outsource a lot, they’re kind of open to, “Well, show us how we can do more of this ourselves. We want to roll up our own sleeves and kind of figure this out.” So they’re willing to play.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

People don't wake up and ask for this. That's the thing. But it can evolve if you keep asking the right questions. How are we going to make sure that people feel like there's an environment here where they can learn new things?

Sherry Johnson Metz: But it’s usually a part of a– there’s gotta be a support for a bigger– we need better leadership. We need more people that are more productive in teams. I mean, it starts with something. It’s not like they– people don’t wake up and ask for this. That’s the thing. But it can evolve if you keep asking the right questions. How are we going to make sure that people feel like there’s an environment here where they can learn new things?

Brian Washburn: It seems like this, this topic of learning without the formal training could go on and on, and I’m sure that it has in many circles. Unfortunately, we’re out of time here.

(BOTH CHUCKLING)

But Sherry, thank you so much for giving us some time today just to share your thoughts, but also your experiences. And hopefully, it’s planting the seeds for others who are listening, whether it is kind of that reverse mentor program or just thinking, “Shoot. Yes, people can learn without having to create a new module or things like that.”

Sherry Johnson Metz: Yeah. And share the accountability, right? Make it more collaborative. Give people some ideas. People will oftentimes really surprise us in ways that they would prefer to learn if we just kind of give them a little bit of flexibility in terms of how they want to do it.

Brian Washburn: Before we go, how can people find you if they are curious to know more?

Sherry Johnson Metz: Oh, I’d love for people to find me on LinkedIn – Sherry Johnson Metz – you can connect with me. I’d love to talk more about informal learning and all things related to amplifying the value and impact you get out of training and development initiatives.

Brian Washburn: Well, Sherry, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you everyone else for listening. If you know somebody else who might find today’s topic about bringing informal ways to learn into the organization, please go ahead and pass this along. If you want to make sure that you catch every single podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify, wherever you listen to your podcast. And even better would be if you were to give us a rating or give us a like. If you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, you can get a copy of What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training at www.amazon.com. That is a geniusly written book by yours truly.

And above all, until next time, happy training everyone.

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