Jay Cross: An interview by Bob Morris

Jay Cross

Jay Cross is a champion of informal learning, Web 2.0, and systems thinking. His calling is to help business people improve their performance on the job and satisfaction in life. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix three decades ago. He chairs the Internet Time Alliance, a brain trust of six thought leaders who help companies boost their collective intelligence and profitability through networks. They are currently refining informal/web 2.0 learning management approaches that accelerate performance.

Moreover, Cross has keynoted such conferences as Online Educa (Berlin), I-KNOW (Austria), Research Innovations in Learning (U.S.), Emerging eLearning (Abu Dhabi), Training (U.S.), Quality in eLearning (Bogota), LearnX (Melbourne), and Learning Technology (London). His published works include Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance as well as other books and countless articles. Every day, thousands of people read his blogs, Internet Time and Informal Learning Blog. Cross is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

“I’m the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. I believe in sharing; take what you find. Seeking a sponsor for developing a meta-view of what’s transpiring at the nexus of learning, cognitive science, and business.”

Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, Informal Learning, a few general questions. First, how do you explain the fact that many (most?) organizations spend so much money on formal learning but spend little (if any) in support of informal learning?

Cross: Formal learning can be somewhat effective when things don’t change much and the world is predictable. That’s what we saw in the command-and-control corporate world of the mid-twentieth century. Frederick Taylor told workers they weren’t paid to think, and efficiency resulted. You don’t want people getting out of line if they job is to do the same thing again and again.

Today’s world is the opposite in every way imaginable. Command-and-control is giving way to bottom-up organizations where everyone shoulders responsibility. Things are changing amazingly fast. Job know-how used to last a lifetime; now what you learn in freshman year in college may be obsolete by the time you graduate. People once had one career their entire lives; now the norm is six or seven. There’s so much to learn: more information was produced in 2009 than in all previous human history. Today’s work is all about dealing with novel situations. These days, you are paid to think.

Formal learning is patterned after schools. It’s factory approach to filling people’s heads with content. School doesn’t prepare people for life; training doesn’t prepare them for work.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what specifically can – and should — an organization do to support informal learning?

Cross: Informal learning is a means to an end. What organizations must do is trust and inspire their people to take responsibility and make decisions. When executives have high expectations of their people, they generally live up to them. Conversely, when they have low expectations, you get what we have now: half the workforce is not engaged in their work.

Once people are trusted, there are all manner of ways to encourage informal learning. Foremost, make it easy for people to converse and collaborate. We can encourage collaboration, problem-solving, and continuous improvement in a variety of ways:

• Focus on helping high performers and old hands work smarter; novices aren’t the only workers who need to learn
• Set up conversation nooks and put wi-fi in the cafeteria
• Do not punish people for failed experiments (if you never fail, you’re not innovating)
• Create a network that enables people to locate who knows what
• Apply the 80/20 rule to critical functions and seed communities of practice around them
• Make mentoring and coaching part of everyone’s job
• Use information technology to pull knowledge out of individuals and file cabinets, making it available to all
• Encourage people to narrate their work, documenting what they do to share with others
• Root out information hoarding; make sharing the norm (Some companies fire hoarders)
• Use social network analysis to locate and break bottlenecks
• Provide workers with smart phones, modern PCs, and internet access
• Seek opportunities to help customers, partners, temporary workers, alumni, and everyone else who works with the company work smarter
• Set up wikis and collaborative documents to avoid the proliferation of versions and confusion over what’s current
• Look for opportunities to reduce cycle time: the world’s not going any slower. Instant messenger, Twitter clones, podcasts
• Avoid duplication of effort in keeping up with news and research by providing shared information flows
• Reduce costs and increase relevance by replacing formal training programs with user-generated content
• Where possible, substitute self-service and peer learning for workshops
• Timeliness trumps perfection. Use amateur video and blogs to distribute information while it’s still fresh

Morris: In Return on Learning, Donald Vanthournout and his associates on Accenture’s Capability Development team claim that their firm achieved an ROI of 353% on its commitment to enterprise learning. Here are two separate but related questions: Although almost anything is possible, is this ROI plausible? Also, what is the most accurate and reliable to measure the ROI of enterprise learni

Cross: Is 353% ROI plausible? Sure. We’re accustomed to ROI numbers from projects that have already been rationalized, systematized, re-engineered, and so forth. There’s not much slack left, so you can only pull out a limited ROI. Informal Learning is for the most part unplowed ground. The value of linking people to knowledge and expertise is immense. I’ve seen companies make millions from five-figure investment

Enterprise learning isn’t what you need to measure. The only thing that counts is business results. The arbiter of business results is the executive who’s footing the bill. You can learn a lot about cause and effect by interviewing a sample of workers in depth. Given an adequate sample size, you can reliably generalize about the whole group.

Morris: Now please focus on Informal Learning, published in 2007. You observe, “Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning: asking the person in the next cubicle, trial and error, calling the help desk, working with people in the know, and joining the conversation. This is natural learning – learning from others when you feel the need to do so.” You then suggest, “Training programs, workshops, and schools get the lion’s share of the corporate budget for developing talent, despite the fact that…this formal learning has almost no impact on job performance. And informal learning, the major source of knowledge transfer and innovation, is left to chance.” To what extent (if any) has that situation improved in recent year

Cross: The situation is improving because workers are adapting to what their work requires. They aren’t being given power so much as they are simply taking it.

Also, networks are having an immense impact. People are connecting across silos and between organizations. Customers are conversing with employees. Partners are talking with the mother ship. Networks are routing around organizational roadblocks. Famously, networks subvert hierarchy; it’s happening all around us.

Morris: Here are several of your key points. “Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route.” This seems like a formula to create organizational chaos.

Cross: Managers have a lot less control over workers than they think. Most workers are already choosing their own pathways. We need to facilitate this, not fight it.

Morris: “Executives don’t care about learning; they care about execution.” Execution is an on-going process, not a transaction.  The phrase “learn by doing” may be a cliché but it remains true, especially in terms of what can be learned from what doesn’t work. Don’t most executives realize that?

Cross: I imagine most executives realize we learn from our mistakes. Nonetheless, they continue to chastise workers for making mistakes. By the way, most formal learning takes place in events; most informal learning is part of an on-going process.

Morris: Here’s another quotation from your narrative in Informal Learning: “It’s not who you know that’s important; it’s who those others know.” Presumably you are referring to social networks within which teaching and learning are constant and collaborative.

Cross: I wrote this in the context of what sociologists call “the strength of weak ties.” This is broader than simply learning. The meme began when a researcher discovered that people in Silicon Valley got their jobs not through friends but through their friends. If friends of your friends, people you’ve never met, gain weight, you are much more likely to gain weight, too.

Morris: “Most training is built atop the pessimistic assumption that trainees are deficient, and training is the cure for what’s broken.” Is that now true of “most training”?

Cross: From what I’ve seen, most training continues to be remedial. The message is to perform adequately rather than to “be all you can be.”

Morris: “Imagine having an in-house learning and information environment as rich as the Internet. You’d have blogs, search, syndication, podcasts, mash-ups, and more. You’d also have a platform just about everyone already knows how to use.” Does such an environment exist?

Cross: Several companies have done precisely that. Since most net applications are open source, it’s not that difficult to create an in-house version of the internet. Of course, loading it up with content is another matter.

Morris: In the final chapter of Informal Learning, you suggest that “a platform to support informal learning is analogous to landscaping a garden.” How so?

Cross: When you landscape a garden, you begin with a vision of what’s to come. You reshape the land a bit but basically you need to take into account the climate, rainfall, sunlight and so forth you are given. Then you plant seed. Some come up well; others fail. You nurture the healthy ones. You move things around to achieve balance. It may take years, but eventually you have a beautiful thriving garden.

I encourage the same approach when working with a workscape, that is, the learning-related aspects of an organization’s culture and infrastructure. Vision, experimentation, looking out for the whole, realizing you’re not in control. Stuff happens.

Morris: Now please gaze into your crystal ball. Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what is the single greatest opportunity for advocates of informal learning?

Cross: I don’t really advocate informal learning any more than I advocate power tools. They’re both great when properly applied.

That said, the greatest opportunity for organizations that embrace informal learning is fostering a dedicated, knowledgeable, charged-up workforce who work together to create value and enjoy doing so.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Cross: “Jay, what have you been up to lately?”

I’m working with five peers. We bat around ideas and learn from one another. For an independent like me, our interactions are fantastic. We have formed the Internet Time Alliance. You can see what we’re up to here.

We just released a book, The Working Smarter Fieldbook, that focuses on what management needs to do to take advantage of the new world of work. It’s an ”unbook”: a new version may appear several times a year. It will ruffle a few feathers but I expect it to have impact.

And I’ve set up a video studio at my home office and am having a ball working with it.

You are cordially invited to check out all the resources at these websites:






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