Friday, December 22, 2006

The Strength of Weak Coffee

We write frequently about informal learning in our blog - that 80% of the learning that you do that is not structured in some kind of course (taught or self-taught). Informal learning is what happens when you are surfing the net looking for something, watching TV, in a meeting, even having coffee with someone that you do not know very well. All of these things can give us new insights, expose us to new ideas, help us update ourselves, and allow us to further develop and refine our own knowledge and ideas.

Informal learning for many people is completely accidental, it is not a deliberate learning process and in many cases is not even noticed (this blog is a conscious attempt to notice our own informal learning). Many companies and big institutions are trying to help their staff members be more aware of, and optimise, their informal learning opportunities for the overall benefit of the whole institution. They believe that having a "networked" staff inside as well as outside their doors will build their assets (their knowledge workers) and in the end, give them access to more of what they want. They create organizational environments where people are encouraged to go outside of their daily patterns, into more unstructured, creative spaces (whether virtual or real) and do their most important, inventive work there. The silicon valley IT companies' billiards rooms, free restaurants, and on-site gyms are more about inspiring creativity and conversation than for pure entertainment.

In Mark Granovetter's article, The Strength of Weak Ties he argues, "that individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends [or colleagues - ed]. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market..."

There are lots of ways that institutions can help foster informal learning, especially (as in my organization's case) for a large team of knowledge workers who are committed to the sustainability movement, and are expected to be visionary, substantive and work together across sectors and disciplines. Some of the ways that my institution has created this important space for exchange and updating has been weekly free coffee mornings that bring together people, many of whom do not usually meet, to share news and information. Another way is through subsidized cafeteria costs, which serve to bring staff together at meal times (rather than scattering to restaurants or their offices with packed lunches) to converse, update and brainstorm new ideas, and make necessary strategic links among a highly diverse set of programmes, projects and operations.

These initiatives have been valuable and could even be strengthened further. Without these kinds of meeting opportunities, informal learning might very well go back to being purely accidental.

As for the title, well, our office coffee is actually very good!