A Brave New Pervasive World

Written by Kim Oates on May 2014

It’s a phrase that sounds more threatening than it really is: pervasive learning environments. Information is all around us, readily accessible, downloadable, readable and reachable. Today’s Internet users are able to satisfy their curiosity, learn something new, access instructional websites or videos, and consume new material instantaneously from the ease of their smartphone, laptop or tablet. In short, our own inquisitiveness drives our quest for information, rather than an assigned training track with prescribed courses. 

Pervasive learning is not a new idea, but it’s enjoying renewed popularity thanks to quickly evolving technologies in online and mobile learning. The ubiquitous nature of content makes independent and spontaneous learning easy.

For many workers, especially those in the skilled trades and those who are on the road and on the go, a pervasive learning environment nurtures the highly effective practice of merging work and learning. For example, an electrician might receive a job in the morning, pick up needed tools at and discuss the job with a distributor, and verify something from the tool manufacturers’ website before even before getting to the site.

A colleague shared another example with me, from another company:  

I worked with a group of billers on a training initiative a few years ago. Their job was complicated, quota-driven, and usually solo, with no support. Acquiring competence took a lot of time and practice.

We interviewed dozens of billers. Turns out some very costly, common errors were largely due to inconsistent training, outdated materials, and no time allotted for researching unfamiliar bill types. Getting help was an informal effort, since they were often trained with outdated materials if they were trained at all. These informal methods included calling other (often misinformed and equally poorly trained) billers, seeking previous examples of certain bill types, and referring to the outdated materials.

Because the company put these employees in a critical position without providing the pervasive learning environment they badly needed, there were lots of issues affecting revenue that came out of billing, and costly high turnover.  

The solution included creating a biller intranet, auditing and updating the support materials, adding context-sensitive help to the software, and retraining several super-users on standardized techniques that they could cascade out to their region’s billers. Right away, errors decreased, along with biller anxiety. The company supported learning in multiple areas and ways, helping to make it pervasive.

Companies that link work and learning through a variety of channels foster a culture of curiosity that contributes to a high-performing workplace. Pervasive learning thrives in companies that recognize the value of multiple training channels and modalities.

Many organizations encourage informal training methods as part of a successful growth strategy. Early adopters of learning culture may have even done so organically, beginning first with the transfer of tribal knowledge and evolving as company needs, technology and the industry warranted. Employees in today’s forward-thinking organizations typically engage in three types of learning: social, formal and informal.

Let’s look at how all three contribute to a pervasive learning environment and a high-performing culture:

  • Social learning encourages sharing of best practices and transparency among employees and departments. Companies can foster social learning, one where work-based learning is informed by workplace standards, through methods like informal seating arrangements that position teams to work collaboratively. Other tactics that encourage healthy information exchange include a shared intranet, wikis, or instant-messaging for immediate peer support.
  • Formal learning complements social learning because it allows for standards of practice, counteracting the risk of erroneous tribal knowledge. It can consist of classroom training, video-based instruction, eLearning or other coursework that follows an assigned path. It’s also an excellent method for ensuring consistency across all areas of an organization.
  • Informal learning occurs outside your organization’s prescribed training. Similar to social, it’s driven by curiosity and learner interest. It includes Internet searches, lunchtime blog reading, observing others on the job, or following industry trends.

Companies looking to create an engaged, active and high-performing work environment are embracing pervasive learning environments. The advances in technology – mobile, social, video, online – have added fresh focus to this important idea.

Tell us about your company’s culture of learning. What methods do you use to improve performance and retention? Do you see any risks to a pervasive learning environment?


Photo credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr



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