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Applying the 80/20 Principles – What Does It Mean for Formal Learning?

The blog has been a little slow lately as we have entered an intense period of travel. The upside to this is that long flights are great places to read and think (and a much more pleasant environment for this than the emergency room…)

On my flight yesterday I began reading Howard Gardner‘s book Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. This book was first published in 2004, and probabaly most people read it then. However, it is interesting to connect it with Jay Cross’ new book Informal Learning (2007). One connection jumped out to me immediately – that is the application of 80/20 principles. In Gardner’s book, he talks about the Pareto Principle (that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort). He states that this is a counterintuitive concept because people have an embedded 50/50 mentality (that we should spread our effort equally across all parts of an activity until we get to 100%). So if we want to optimise we should just focus on getting to 80% and not worry too much about the last 20%(unless we are brain surgeons or pilots), which actually takes the most effort to achieve.

Jay Cross talks about the 80/20 principle in informal learning – that 80% of our learning is informal and 20% is formal. My dangerous question as a learning practitioner is, if you put the two together, should we be skipping formal workplace learning altogether?

As a trainer and facilitator by experience, my first response would be “no”; somehow that does not feel quite right. However, it is a powerful question to consider if you are trying for increased efficiency. Also, I notice that professional development budgets in HR departments, no matter how small, are often linked to providing formal learning opportunities. Perhaps at least we could open those funds up to informal learning opportunities – like can HR help pay for Free Coffee Mornings?

4 replies
  1. Cecilia
    Cecilia says:

    For HR to offer free coffee mornings, they would first have to recognise the value of the informal learning that happens at that time. That might proof more difficult than just paying for ‘free’ coffee. By the way, that reminds me that you never see HR people during ‘free coffee time’.

    The meaning of informal learning is also something rather new for most people. Not to mention the value of it. Maybe the recognition of these new ways of learning will take time as it took time to recognise that there are different types of intelligence; not only the one measured with IQs. All these are more subtle ways of apprehending reality.

  2. jay
    jay says:

    Gillian, NO. Don’t give up on formal. It has its place. Also, formal and informal are variables, not extremes. There is no pure formal nor any pure informal.

    I’ve talked with Howard Gardner and read Changing Minds while writing Informal Learning. If anything, he would probably come out for many different ways to learn for many different kinds of minds.

  3. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Yes, Jay, you are definitely right about the fact that people learn in different ways. We asked 20 of our colleagues about their learning preferences and there rarely two identical answers. They did range from people who preferred lecture-style formats, and others who just wanted to talk to people.

    However, it is a different way of thinking for me, to consider the 80/20 principle and focus more of my energy on boosting informal learning opportunities (that is definitely a gap in our institution right now). Before when I identified a learning need, I would immediately design a training course (as they say, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). So I am happy at least to have a better look into my toolbox to see what is most appropriate for people.

  4. Oyebade, Bola A.
    Oyebade, Bola A. says:

    The formal learning is the pivot on which the informal hinges it therefore can not be wished away. However. Most people will really prefer not to be governed or restricted in learning which is what the formal method provides.

    Learning at ease and at ones level and pace may be very interesting thus the preference. In a classroom study I once discovered that people would rather not be tested after a session than be tested and find out that they have not performed to expectation. Formal learning assists in limiting the scope of learning whereas the informal has a wide range spectrum. Both are therefore quite instructive but the mix varies from person to person, environmental and economic factor. There is a contingency factor leading to the 80/20 principle

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