Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning...

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ABOUT JAY CROSS (CEO and Chief Unlearning Officer at Internet Time Alliance)

Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. The Internet Time Alliance, which he chairs, helps corporations and governments use networks to accelerate performance.

Jay has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix. A champion of informal learning and systems thinking, Jay’s calling is to create happier, more productive workplaces. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He literally wrote the book on Informal Learning.

Jay works from the Internet Time Lab in Berkeley, high in the hills a dozen miles east of the Golden Gate Bridge and a mile and a half from the University. People visit the Lab to spark innovation and think fresh thoughts. Berkeley is the birthplace of the cyclotron, California cuisine, and custom coffee roasting in the United States.

Jay is a change agent, futurist, speaker, and author whose insights and stories will expand your perspective and enliven your meetings. He distills lessons from cognitive science, social networking, business strategy, futures research, and psychology to boost sales, improve customer service, and spark innovation.

Jay is the author of Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and PerformanceWorking Smarter FieldbookImplementing eLearning, and Real Learning.

Jay has keynoted conferences in the U.S., Canada, Austria, U.K., Germany, Australia, Portugal, Belgium, India, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi. He travels the world, but increasingly delivers presentations and events virtually over the web.

Jay is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School. Jay and his wife Uta live with their miniature longhaired dachshunds in the hills of Berkeley, California.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.


1. Learnnovators: As the CEO and Chief Unlearning Officer at Internet Time Alliance, you have been on an incredible mission to help organizations work smarter by embedding learning and collaboration into the workflow. As we understand, the alliance is a coalition of thought leaders in human performance improvement. However, we think it (the alliance) is still a bit of a mystery to many people in the industry. Could you please share your alliance story with our readers please?

Jay: The Internet Time Alliance is a community of practice. Forming the Alliance community was easily the best professional development move of my career.

Ten years ago I reached out to Jane Hart and we soon invited Charles Jennings to join us, and not long thereafter, Harold Jarche and Clark Quinn. We are still learning from one another, one grain at a time on a daily basis.

We are continuously conversing on Skype and we meet online as a group every Monday morning to talk over news and gossip, chat about trends, and ask for pointers and help. Collectively, we have written a dozen books. Our collective site is http://internettimealliance.com/. Here’s what we’re tweeting today: http://www.internettime2.com/COLLAB-LEARN.COM/

Modern Workplace Learning (a term coined by Jane) fits perfectly with the work the rest of us are doing, not so much by design as through the co-evolution of ideas, emotions, and opinions over the years. It is impossible to attribute our commingled messages to any individual. I have learned so much from Harold, Clark, Jane, and Charles. Were I to lose that knowledge in some terrible accident, I would literally have nothing to say.

Aside from building on our intellects, we are so close we understand one another through osmosis. Conversation with these four shapes my worldview even though we do surprisingly little business with one another. They are my dearest friends. I am excited about attending our next retreat in Potsdam this November.

2. Learnnovators: You were one of the first proponents of informal learning, and have been preaching and helping organizations introduce the informal learning component into their learning and performance support initiatives. You have been saying for years that the future of learning is informal learning. In this context, how are informal and social learning transforming workplaces around the world today? How are organizations seeing this phenomenon? What are the trends? What are some of the successful examples?

Jay: I didn’t invent the idea. I first heard the term ‘informal learning’ from the late Peter Henschel, the then director of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), who told me:

“People are learning all the time, in varied settings and often most effectively in the context of work itself. ‘Training’ – formal learning of all kinds – channels some important learning but doesn’t carry the heaviest load. The workhorse of the knowledge economy has been, and continues to be, informal learning.”

For thirty years, I’d been designing, cost-justifying, and marketing formal training programs. Now this distinguished-sounding fellow was telling me that people learned more by accident. Back in California, Peter and I met at the Institute for Research on Learning to talk further about informal learning, communities of practice, anthropological research, and learning as engagement.

I reflected on how I had acquired my own professional skills: watching master performers, trial and error, bull sessions with friends, faking it, reading magazines… doing what I didn’t know how to do in order to learn it. Above all, just talking with people. Conversation was a more effective teacher than school.

Most learning about how to do a job is informal. If an organization is not addressing informal learning, it’s leaving a tremendous amount of learning to chance. Is that okay? Not any longer. This is a knowledge economy.

It’s not so much that the future is informal learning. That’s always been the primary way people learn to do their jobs.

My role was to point out to organizations that they were investing in the wrong place: formal learning.

Finally, organizations are waking up to the importance of informal learning. It tops the priority list of most Chief Learning Officers in America.

Many large organizations have embraced informal learning, often via social networks which make it easy for people to share what they learn and to collaborate to learn. Hundreds of companies believe in 70-20-10, which says most learning is experiential and informal.

3. Learnnovators: You are known to have a contrarian viewpoint on a lot of things about learning. We observe that you differ from many other mainstream L&D thought leaders. How do you compare and contrast your thinking and work with that of others in the field?

Jay: I believe in what works. Schooling, the model that most people support because they were brainwashed into it, is not the most effective way to learn. Where’s the reinforcement? Why do we forget so much of what we learned in school? Why do schools continue to measure performance with grades — which are as close to a random variable as you’ll ever find. Outside of the school environment, grades don’t correlate to anything, not wealth or happiness or success, so I question whether they’re the right target. Don’t get me started on testing.

Learning & development professionals often push what they can control. The informal realm is scary because it empowers the learner. That’s a loss of control for training departments and it makes them uncomfortable.

4. Learnnovators: It is so inspiring to know that you invented the term ‘e-learning’ on the web. However, you are of the opinion that most e-learning is ineffective drudgery. Where do you think we are on our e-learning practices in this age of workplace learning where workers learn the most from on-the-job experiences (informal), a little lesser from peer interactions (social), and the least from structured (formal) training programs? Would you agree that the traditional “format” of e-learning (one-way) is outdated and obsolete? How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support today’s workplace learning?

Jay: People see something like 70-20-10 or the 80/20 of informal to formal and assume I’m against formal learning. That’s not the case at all. The 10 or 20 or whatever portion of formal learning is vital, especially for novices or anyone just getting up to speed.

eLearning is great for learning some things; IT skills come to mind. eLearning scales. It’s an on-ramp for more self-directed learning.

Shovel-ware or putting books on screen bores people to death but some eLearning is engaging and works quite well. It’s just not the main arena.

5. Learnnovators: You were the first to introduce ‘informal learning’, and ever since, have been an authority on informal learning in the workplace. You say, “Formal and informal learning are both learning. They both involve building new neural connections in the brain and adapting to new conditions. They are very much the same. They co-exist.” What are your thoughts on extending informal learning into the workflow? How are today’s forward-thinking organizations faring in blending informal and social learning with their traditional formal learning programs?

Jay: First of all, let’s realize that formal and informal learning are not separate things: they are points along a continuum. All learning is part formal and part informal. The issue is how much of each.

All learning involves making neural connections. That’s one of the definitions of learning.

Informal learning grows out of the workflow. That’s where people spend their time and it’s where they figure things out (learn). Savvy organizations are increasing the amount of embedded performance support into work, enabling people to learn by doing.

6. Learnnovators: Like many, including us, you are fond of the 70:20:10 model (70% experiential, 20% working with others, 10% formal instruction). Do you agree with Charles Jennings’ view that there’s a ‘conspiracy of convenience’ between many L&D managers and business managers, which serves as a barrier to effective learning solutions? If yes, how serious is the situation, and what steps would you suggest to break this?

Jay: I agree with Charles 100%.

Conspiracy is a loaded term and I don’t think it fits here.

I would like to see L&D managers meet with business managers to agree on what needs to be accomplished and how success will be measured. Then I want the L&D manager to go back to the manager, assess the results, and figure out how to do better next time. They need to be partners.

Lots of L&D people have been beguiled by the notion of ROI. Most of what’s written about the concept is nonsense. The business manager is the arbiter. If she’s convinced the learning intervention led to improved performance, that’s about all you need.

7. Learnnovators: How would you reflect on Sugata Mitra’s view on self-guided learning that says ”Teachers (as we know them today) are redundant…there will be machines that can replace a good teacher, just as there will be machines that will replace a heart surgeon“ How would you reflect on the relevance of his concept of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE) in today’s workplace learning scenario where learning is mostly informal, social and less formal?

Jay: I have mixed feelings about Sugata’s work. It would be wonderful if we could just put internet-connected terminals in holes in the wall all over the planet and have children teach themselves. I was elated when he first described it. But those terminals went dark or were taken over by local hoodlum gamers. Over the long term, the experiment was a failure.

8. Learnnovators: Revolutionary changes have started happening in the hiring process in companies. One of the notable ones followed by Google (where self-directed continuous learning is the norm) is replacing grades and GPA with the ability to ’learn‘ as the most important attribute in prospective employees. This makes absolute sense in this fast changing world of today where innovation, creativity and ability to adapt play a significant role in deciding an organization’s future. What do you think schools and colleges can do to really equip students to meet the challenges of tomorrow?

Jay: That’s a giant issue and it’s a bit out of my area of expertise. The studies I’ve read suggest that the best college experience involves projects working in the community (back to learning by doing.)

I think Google has its head screwed on right. Academic performance is a poor predictor of success in the workplace.

9. Learnnovators: What kind of a shift in thinking do you visualize for building a learning system that aligns with the dynamically changing demands of this knowledge age? What is the role of learning and performance professionals in supporting learners in today’s workplaces where people have succeeded in managing or self-organizing their own learning (by finding ways to solve their learning problems)? How do you think L&D practitioners should change themselves, and more importantly, be the ambassadors of this change movement? In short, how should L&D empathize with today’s learners?

Jay: I’ve given up hope that L&D can pull this off on its own. They don’t have and will never have the resources to touch everyone in the organization.

We’ve been missing the gigantic opportunity: helping high performers learn to learn. L&D has traditionally focused on people who obviously need to know something to perform. They focus on people who are deficient in some way.

Improve the learning practices of high performers and you’re going to impact the bottom line. I’ve said for years that in our fast paced world, learning is the work.

Senior management needs to recognize that learning is the vital variable. It’s not L&D’s job, it’s the whole organization’s.

10. Learnnovators: As you would agree, most L&D professionals possess high levels of skills around the traditional training (formal learning) area. However, their skill levels fall short around the informal or social learning areas. What is your advice to L&D professionals for upskilling themselves?

Jay: I’m totally biased on this. I would tell them to attend Harold’s and Jane’s workshops, go to events like DevLearn, and experiment with social learning themselves. If you don’t do social media, you’ll never get it.

11. Learnnovators: As we know, today’s social media technologies are playing a significant role in facilitating informal learning in the workplace. However, insufficient buy-in from senior executives is touted as the primary reason for Enterprise Social Networks to fail in today’s organizations. Gartner says, “Through 2015, 80% of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and over emphasis on technology”. What are your views? How do you think we could tackle this?

Jay: I think Darwinian evolution will take care of this. Businesses that have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to social media, openness, sharing, transparency, and authenticity will not be in business much longer.

12. Learnnovators: You say, “Important as it is, informal learning doesn’t show up on the corporate radar because it isn’t recorded in industrial-age charts of account.” What kind of a shift in thinking do you visualize for building a learning system that incorporates the informal and social learning methods as part of the organization’s strategy? How do you think L&D practitioners should change themselves, and more importantly, be the ambassadors of this change movement?

Jay: This is more than a learning issue. Most of the value created for stockholders is intangible. This is a giant shift; most of it took place in the last ten years of the twentieth century.

Most corporate accounting values intangibles at zero. Learning is viewed as a cost that creates no value. Well, we’ve advanced since the Venetians invented bookkeeping but narrow-minded managers are still slaves to that way of looking at the world.

This is a flaw in the way business is transacted and there’s not much L&D can do about it. (Except to stop paying attention to consultants who tout old-school accounting as relevant in today’s world.)

Just imagine. The loudest voice on the topic of ROI is a former banker who tells L&D professionals that intangibles don’t factor into the equation. Intangibles don’t matter to a banker because banks look to whether their loans will be repaid. By the time a company is in default, its intangibles have dried up. This is not the case with a going concern, where social, intellectual, and relationship capital make up three-quarters of the firm’s worth.

13. Learnnovators: We, like many others, believe that, in today’s learning landscape we need ‘learning rebels’ and ‘learning provocateurs’, and not mere ‘learning conformists’. Because we are going through a time of major transformation, a radical thinking that will help us get started on the transformation has become quite critical. In this regard, it is inspiring to have you around (as a crusader) to fuel thoughts and discussions around informal learning. What makes you passionate about what you have been doing?

Jay: I have to admit that I like pushing people’s buttons to get them to think about what’s really going on.

I owe a debt to the late John Sperling, my boss at the University of Phoenix when I was given the privilege of developing their first business degree program. John looked at what anyone else could have seen and said there’s something wrong here. Millions of people would like to complete their undergraduate education but colleges only catered to their traditional market of high school grads. College bookstores weren’t even open after 5pm. Classes only took place during the workday. John asked, “How can we make this better?” and created the largest business school in the world. Wow!

I try to follow in his footsteps. I find myself shouting that the “Emperor has no clothes.” Somebody’s got to look at things with innocent eyes and point out what’s really happening.

14. Learnnovators: We are excited about having reviewed your new book “Real Learning” – ’the missing manual for do-it-yourself learners‘, as you call it. We couldn’t agree more with Laura Overton (Founder & CEO, Towards Maturity) that this is a manual to empower self-directed learners in really practical ways. Could you give our readers a brief on your book that is also a part of a larger part of your Aha project please?

Jay: I’d be delighted.

Millions of knowledge workers and their managers have been told they are responsible for their own learning but have no more idea what to do than the dog who got on the bus (Now WTF do I do?). I want to turn them on to what we know about how brains work and get them off on the right track for their meta-learning journey.

Real Learning seeks to empower people to use their wits and increase their mental capacity. Real Learning helps workers build a sound learning process. “Teach a man to fish.…” Improving one’s capacity to learn pays compound interest for a lifetime.

Real Learning is for people and small groups of colleagues who are taking their professional development into their own hands. No instructors, no classrooms. It’s DIY learning.

For nearly half a century, I’ve helped learners through Learning & Development but L&D only reaches a small sliver of the workforce and their approach is episodic. It doesn’t do much to improve the organization. Most people are unaware that learning is even a variable. I’d like to help the people L&D never reaches learn to learn.

Personally, this is a way for me to pay back the people I have learned from over the years and to leave something of value behind as my legacy.

Forgive a stretch analogy, but I’d like to do for learning what Luther did for religion: make the sacred knowledge transparent. Bring things out in the open. (Luther’s big move was to translate the Latin Bible into something ordinary worshippers could read.)

Naturally, the Real Learning project has my fingerprints all over it. I believe:

  • People learn most from experience, not courses.
  • Informal learning sticks because it is need-driven and usually reinforced with immediate application.
  • Learning is ultimately the responsibility of the learner.
  • The world is changing so fast that staying in one’s comfort zone is not an option.
  • Learning scientists and neurologists have discovered many ways to improve learning but few people apply or have even heard about their findings.

15. Learnnovators: You have contributed a lot to the development of new ideas in workplace learning, and in getting informal learning recognized as an important feature of the learning landscape. What is your vision for the learning community?

Jay: I hope to inspire hoards of people to experience the Real Learning of having learned something significant and remembering how they did it. Again and again and again. Instilling motivation is the key variable for readers who sometimes need shock treatment to experiment and try new things.

With such a huge need, I’m counting on serendipity and newsworthy quirkiness to get publicity started. We’ll need pilot tests, too. That’s what I’m working on now. If you know of an organization that would like to have hundreds of independent learners getting better at what they do and has the ability to monitor feedback, invite them to join me for a pilot session.

Information about the Real Learning project is at http://ahasite.com.

Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Jay. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!.

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