After a little tangle of events yesterday around our drive to bring back free coffee, the advice of Yoda somehow came through it all, “There is no try, there is only do”, and so we went for it. Although I feel a bit sheepish about quoting a film character, and a Star Wars one to boot, somehow it seemed to fit – we are hoping that the wave of support for this initiative will help us succeed in bringing this interesting informal learning opportunity back to our institution, in spite of some challenges.

We relaunched the Free Coffee morning in partnership with our HR department, with a new sponsorship component. Neither of our departments really has enough budget to support the activity completely, even sharing the cost. However, we decided to try and invite other departments to use the Free Coffee Morning for their own purposes – to inform people about a new initiative, to celebrate an International Day, to honour a retiring colleague, to take a survey of staff on a key issue, etc.

I wrote the sponsorship message with my fingers crossed, hoping that interest and support would be with us in bringing back this opportunity for people to leave their offices for an hour a week to have a coffee and talk to each other. Our partner was a little nervous too.

Well, a day later, the sponsorships are coming in, and it is exciting to see that people are getting really creative with their adopted days. For example, we have an anonymous sponsor who is giving the coffee to staff to help celebrate his/her birthday (we promised anonymity to the end); one department is going to celebrate the launch of a big publication that has a colour in the title (red) so everyone who wears red that day, gets the free coffee; another programme has just landed a 16million dollar grant for a major international project and will sponsor a morning to let people know more about it.

So far this is working, and if we are lucky, we will just need to cover a few odd weeks here and there. We can do that. It was a bit of a gamble, but we felt that staff were supportive. Let us hope that this continues and that the force of popular demand is with us… (Lizzie, don’t cringe!)

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?

Monday afternoon, a two hour session was held titled, ‘Learn Something New: People and Networking’. The objective was not to provide a taught course on Networking, but to create an environment where people can share and exchange about networking, and do it at the same time.

In one exercise people were asked to stand on a line on the floor which represented a continuum between two extremes. The question was: How do you feel about networking at meeting coffee breaks? The extremes were: “I love it!” or “I’ll go to the loo!” What we noticed was that a slight majority was going to the loo. One participant reflected that, for a networking organization, we are not all comfortable networkers.

Some suggestions were offered about how we can do more networking, and how we can help create work environments where networking and interaction is one of the key objectives. Longer coffee/lunch breaks? Open spaces in the agenda for interaction? Introductory sessions which serve to connect people and help them build relationships?

After this session, another 40 people know each other better (and can recognize each other by their ‘Learn Something New’ wristbands!). There is a reception tonight, let’s see how the networking goes…

A month ago (December 22nd), Gillian wrote a post about the value of weekly free coffee mornings in fostering staff networking and informal learning in our organization The Strength of Weak Coffee. Well, one month later we decided to explore the opinions of others in our organization on this topic. To do so, our team sponsored last Wednesday’s free coffee morning and, as staff flocked into the cafeteria, we explained that this week free coffee came at a small cost: In exchange for coffee – the completion of a brief questionnaire. What are the purposes of free coffee mornings? How do you feel free coffee mornings contribute to teamwork in our organization? What innovative ideas have been triggered during free coffee mornings? And, what did you learn over free coffee today?

As the cafeteria began to fill up, the exercise generated a lovely, humming buzz. What’s more, we were delighted to see that many people came equipped with pens – eager to share their thoughts, having been prepped by our email in advance. Perhaps more encouraging still was that throughout the day we were approached and asked for questionnaires by staff members who were unable to attend this week’s free coffee morning and yet still keen to have their voice heard.

A first look at the sixty questionnaires completed shows great support for free coffee mornings, with the majority of respondents citing their importance as a small ‘thank you’ from the organization and opportunity for staff networking and learning about matters of both personal and professional interest. A more substantive analysis is due, but for now I wanted to capture one additional outcome. Many staff commented on the exercise itself, pointing out learning about how to make the most of free coffee mornings in the future to engage with staff, about how enthusiastic staff are to express their opinions, and the importance of ‘social spaces’ and time for team-building and collaboration across ‘silos’.

So what did we learn? That a lot of learning in organizations takes place at unexpected times in unexpected places – informally. Often this has neither been noticed nor appreciated (either by the learners themselves or others). We need to continue to help notice and appreciate our learning by continuing to find ways to ask – and capture the answers to – the question: What did we learn today? This was a valuable purpose of this free coffee morning for us.

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!