Saturday, May 8, 2010

Deciding between Formal and Informal Approaches

Our department has recently gone through - let's call it a bit of a "refresh."   As a result of this, we have been lucky enough to fill three positions with people who have instructional design skills and experience.   This is a nice supplement to the folks who are doing course development work in the department already.   Now we have a nice mix of experienced and novice developers.  We have some full-time instructional designers.  We also have instructors and facilitators who do some part-time course development work.   In any event, with the three new additions I'm excited by the capabilities we now have on the team.   Now I'm trying to figure out the best way to help the new people learn about our company and our processes. At the same time, I need to consider how we can do more to develop our novice course developers.

When our department was first formed (a few transformation projects ago!), we set up an instructional design standards committee.   I chair this committee.  Our work thus far has focused on outlining a course development process to ensure quality, consistency and efficiency for the learning programs that are produced in our department.   To that end we created a Course Development Map which breaks down our internal instructional design process into four phases:  proposal, design and development, implementation, and course maintenance.   The map outlines the steps in each phase and includes links to tools that can be used to complete some of the steps.   Along with the Course Development Map, we also created an Instructional Design Standards performance support tool to help specifically with developing instruction.  It includes guidelines for writing and evaluating objectives, suggestions for activities and interactions, skins for e-learning, templates for ILT workbooks and leaders' guides, and guidelines for fonts and graphics that align with our corporate branding and color schemes.

Okay, so here is my dilemma:

Our new instructional designers are all enthusiastic about contributing to the team.  All three have asked to join the committee.  We already have sufficient representation from each of the sub-teams in our department.  I'm concerned that if these new people join, the committee will become too large an ineffective.  This got me thinking: our process and standards are already in place.  We do tweak them from time-to-time based on feedback collected during various design projects, but we haven't made any major process changes in a while.  Perhaps we no longer need the top-down approach.  Instead of the committee, we might form a Community of Practice that would allow everyone to contribute and share best practices around instructional design and learn informally.  Our novice designers could learn from our experts; our new employees could learn from our tenured ones.

But is this really a better approach?  The new employees and novices might need more structure and defined learning goals.

It seems that my situation mirrors the discussions about whether or not to use formal or informal learning.   Similar to the tools created by our committee, formal learning is a great way to help novices learn the ropes.  It is structured, with clearly defined outcomes, timelines, and measures.  With this approach we can be sure our new designers will learn the things we want them to know.  On the other hand, the Community of Practice approach promotes informal learning.  It is natural, fluid and voluntary.  The outcomes are not as clearly defined but that may encourage deeper investment, learning beyond our minimum requirements, and creation of new knowledge.

 So, if you were in my place what would you do?


  1. I think a CoP is a great idea. They encourage members to constantly share with each other, rather than relying on formal events. Also, with a CoP you could bring in people from outside your group to share their knowledge and inject fresh ideas.

  2. Chester,

    I've been getting feedback on this through several channels. Most people encourage the CoP idea. They also point out that formal and informal learning is not an either/or choice. We can use elements of both.

    Thanks for your comment.


  3. I have been wondering about something similar in a current project - I am developing an orientation program for new starters in a new business, where the "experts" will only be a few months ahead of the learners. The brief has extended from the first few weeks, to how to get everyone up to speed as the new business technology comes on board over time.
    I like the idea of a community of practice infused with an apprenticeship model, where the 'instant experts' learn to coach others as soon as they have gained some level of competence.

  4. This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.

    Thanks for all your great posts.


  5. We did end up starting a Community of Practice group called Innovations in Learning. I'll have to post an update in my blog. Stay tuned...