Gamification versus Informal Learning: Competitors or Companions?

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2017


Gamification, the application of gaming approaches in wider applications, and Informal Learning, also known as Social Learning, are becoming very popular approaches for supporting transformational learning initiatives in organisations.

But is it a straight choice of one over the other or is there a way to take an approach which blends the best parts of both of Gamification and Informal Learning into something even more powerful? Have you ever asked yourself “How much of the essential knowledge I need for my job have I acquired through some kind of formal learning?” The answers are surprising.

For example research by my colleague, Jay Cross, and published in his excellent book “Informal Learning” shows that typical answers to this question are between 5 and 15%. When I ask this question to groups and teams in the UK the responses I get are closer to the 5% than the 15%. So what is the significance of this little statistic?

Firstly it means that you are probably acquiring 85-95% of your essential knowledge through what Jay would call “Informal Learning” techniques. In simple terms there are 3 main Informal Learning Techniques:

  • Trying things out and learning by making mistakes
  • Conversations with your colleagues and bosses
  • Self-motivated reading/research

You should recognise that these, often forgotten and disrespected, techniques are amazingly good for learning and ensure they are at the heart of your personal development plans.

Secondly it means that other people in your work network probably already know what you need to know. You can have 1:1 knowledge sharing sessions with your colleagues but an even more effective way is to do this in groups and teams. Look at Jay’s statistics again. If only 5% of "essential knowledge" learning is formal then any mixed experience group probably already collectively know 95% of what is needed for any task they might be asked to do.

So you need to recognise that your groups and teams are probably the biggest learning resource available to you and not just think about training courses and internet resources.

Thirdly the key skill in the whole Informal Learning space is how to find and unlock knowledge. In other words..... how do we (as individuals) know what we know (as communities)? In my experience there are 4 key ingredients to unlocking essential knowledge informally:

  1. Curiosity and Intent - You need to state up front to the group in a very specific and concrete way what you want to learn and commit to finding it? If you don’t know what knowledge you are looking for you how are you going to find it?
  2. Conversations - You need to create the opportunity for focused conversations with your colleagues which will provide enough time for uncovering this knowledge. Conversations are crucial – in my experience you only really “lock in” what you learned from reading a book or a playing a game when you talk it through with somebody. Socialising a prior experience is a great way to accelerate and maximise your learning.
  3. Dilemmas - One of the best ways to uncover essential knowledge is to ask a colleague, who is particularly good in an area you are interested in, what are the key dilemmas in their role and how they handle the trade-offs and shortages these dilemmas cause?
  4. Engaging Scenarios - Strangely enough - direct conversation about something is often not the best way to reveal it. An alternative approach where you react to pre-planned business scenarios relevant to the topic and discuss your decisions afterwards can often be more effective. Some of the best learning comes about when you are totally immersed in some form of scenario and you learn as a by-product. This leads us into the whole area of Gamification and game-based learning with the whole package of fun, pressure, scorecards, competition and collaboration

My Conclusion? It should by now be quite obvious that Informal Learning and Gamification, far from being alternative approaches to learning, can be blended together in a very powerful way.

Informal Learning can be amazingly effective however it’s far too important to leave it to chance or approach it in a casual way. You need to find ways to “formalise informal learning” without destroying its power. Gamification is one of the best ways to do this is with scenario-rich business simulations played competitively in teams to create rich conversations which Informal Learning can then harvest.

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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