Interview with Dr. Yael Ravin, IBM Worldwide Research in Learning and Workforce Management

Dr. Yael Ravin leads IBM’s worldwide research in learning and workforce management. She heads the IBM Institute for Learning and Organizational Performance, whose mission is to infuse innovation into IBM’s products and services. Through technical expertise and world-leading science, the Institute creates thought leadership, prototype technology, and intellectual property and drives IBM’s technical vision for the future of learning and the optimisation of workforce. Prior to this role, Dr. Ravin managed and undertook research in the areas of computational linguistics and knowledge management. She has published two books, numerous technical publications, and holds several patents.


OEB: How would you define the nature of informal learning?


Yael Ravin: The easiest way to understand what “informal learning” is is by describing what it is not — it is not classroom-based; it is not instructor-led; it is not taking formal courses through a learning management system (LMS). Informal learning doesn’t involve testing and certification. It’s everything else… broadly it refers to all work-based activities that result in knowledge and skill acquisition. Informal learning involves collaboration: providing opportunities for novices to ask questions of experts, for people to be mentored, and for everyone to ask about and share knowledge and information. Informal learning typically happens within the context of work – it is learning in small chunks, just enough for what is required for the current project or task. When you engage in informal learning, you typically put the learning to use immediately.


OEB: Eighty percent of our learning at work is informal, yet eighty percent of the investment is still in formal learning. This is quite a challenge for training managers as well as for learning providers. How does IBM face this challenge, and can you observe a change of attitude on both sides?


YR: There is significant investment on both sides in mechanisms and technologies that facilitate informal learning, such as blogs, wikis, even instant messaging. You see many of the learning providers expanding their offerings from just LMSs to a broader set of tools that include collaboration and knowledge management tools such as expertise locators. A big change for training managers is the realisation that they need to work closer with people in their organizations who are responsible for knowledge dissemination. We see knowledge management departments merging with learning, which is very good. Under this broader approach, everyone can contribute content, based on personal knowledge and experience. We see more and more training managers allowing non-instructors to contribute. A good example is multi-national companies that have started depending on volunteers to informally translate learning material into other languages. They realize that It is faster and cheaper.


OEB: Most workers and employees, and also their managers, put more emphasis on ‘problem solving’ during their hours of work than on ‘learning’. How can learning and training providers react to that?


YR: Problem solving is a great way to learn if you can take the time to reflect during and after the fact about the experience. So allowing teams to debrief, facilitating discussions among the more experienced team members and the novices, or allowing team members to review their work with mentors, is an excellent way to turn work into learning. Also, employees should be given time after the completion of a project to capture best practices and lessons learned for the benefit of others.


OEB: IBM has developed a reference architecture for learning. Could you explain what is special about this infrastructure and which solutions it offers for the above-mentioned problems?


YR: An infrastructure that supports informal learning includes a variety of collaboration tools. It also enables easy web-based access to all content, not just courses. This means it should have excellent search tools and sound meta-data schemas for organising content. In informal learning, we assume that workers are in charge of their own learning needs, so the infrastructure should make it easy for them to find what they need. It’s best if the infrastructure integrates formal and informal learning as much as possible, so that people can leverage either, depending on what they need. We describe the details of the IBM reference architecture for learning in a white paper. We advocate a service-oriented architecture that enables a learner-centric environment, where learning is delivered in context and where learners can freely share through collaboration.


OEB: Dr. Ravin, Many thanks for your time.


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