June 24, 2013
social learning

Learning by Osmosis

I liken learning in an organization to osmosis.

At least I think it should be like osmosis.

The Oxford definition of osmosis can help us:

  1. Biology & Chemistry a process by which molecules of a solvent tends to pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one.
  2. The process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc. (eg. by some strange political osmosis, private reputations became public)

osmosisLearning therefore is part art and science. It can be a scientific process methodically laid out (i.e. a formal event of some sort) and it can be a manifestation of colour, creativity and vibrancy (i.e. serendipitous discovery). Learning by osmosis permits employees the opportunity to allow new ideas and concepts to fill our gaps through any type of passage or membrane. It is as much conscious as it is unconscious. And most importantly, learning should be thought of as pervasive.

In my book, Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization (Wiley, 2013) I define ‘Pervasive Learning’ as:

learning at the speed of need through formal, informal and social learning modalities.

Confucius once said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” This sums up what Charles Jennings has established as part of his 70-20-10 Forum mission and it aligns ever so nicely to my definition of Pervasive Learning as well.

We — as workers in the organization — learn by doing not by rote memorization. Learning fills us up (like osmosis) as we perform our roles, our actions and our objectives. We complement our intelligence and acumen through daily interactions but we also do so through ‘self-directed’ and ‘undirected’ methods utilizing formal, informal and social means.

Deft leadership skill is not trapped or boxed in by the leader. Knowledge is not found solely on a Trivial Pursuit card. Similarly, learning isn’t held hostage by the formal classroom event or eLearning module. We must open our minds — think through the pervasive learning reality of both the art and the science — and once and for all recognize that learning happens directly and indirectly, formally and non-formally, experientially and sequentially whether with people or without.

Pervasive Learning should not be treated as a commodity rather as a way of being. You don’t go to training, you learn wherever, whenever and however in an organization. We all should employ this model in an attempt to build engaging teams and companies who want to learn and to drive business results.

“Sally, did you get your two weeks of training this year,” asks Betty over lunch.

Sally responds, “No, I didn’t. I’m pretty sure my boss doesn’t care about my development or my career.”

As citizens of the organization, we must see past the fool’s gold of a classroom-only training mindset. It does no one any good.

We should all believe (and demonstrate the ability to) learn at the speed of need. Pervasive Learning is the switch from a ‘training is an event’ fixed mindset to ‘learning is a collaborative, continuous, connected and community-based’ growth mindset. It is for everyone in the organization.

I liken it to moving from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guides & strides from all sides’. If osmosis can be thought of as both a science and an art, we must unlearn what we’ve learned and redefine the way in which we learn in our organizations. We must instil pervasive learning as our new mindset.

The 70-20-10 Forum sets out to help individuals, teams and organizations make the shift to such a learning paradigm. The Forum helps shift the learning mindset to become pervasive, an art and a science, and ultimately … like osmosis.

I’m all for it. Are you?

Originally published to the 70-20-10 Forum. I received no compensation for such an endorsement. It’s simply my true belief.

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