Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Dangers of Informal Learning

I place this in the category of the dangers of putting too much emphasis on informal learning. There was obviously no emphasis on documentation which is a key ingredient in top-down learning which is the key to formal learning. The Sunday Herald of Scotland reports that the U.S. and Great Britain cannot refurbish Trident missiles because they "forgot how to manufacture a component of the warhead."

Plans to refurbish Trident nuclear weapons had to be put on hold because US scientists forgot how to manufacture a component of the warhead, a US congressional investigation has revealed.

The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) "lost knowledge" of how to make a mysterious but very hazardous material codenamed Fogbank. As a result, the warhead refurbishment programme was put back by at least a year, and racked up an extra $69 million.

Somewhere along the line a decision was made by upper management not to document the process; relying instead on existing personnel to remember and to record.

But vital information on how Fogbank was actually made had somehow been mislaid. "NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency," the report said.

This is occurring increasingly throughout all sectors of our economy, especially now when managers are struggling to make ends meet without having to layoff more personnel then absolutely necessary. But at what cost? How much knowledge will be lost as senior employees accept buy-out packages to retire early or high-end achievers leave during or ahead of cutbacks?

I blame management for not seeing the value of documenting their processes and providing employees with the time and the means to document their best practices during the "good" times before this economic downturn. Too much tribal knowledge was left ungathered because we thought the good times would never end and we would always have our tribal elders to pass on their knowledge through informal learning practices.

Well, what these economic times remind us is that even though we have moved way beyond the hunter/gatherer ancestors we are still held thrall by seasonal changes. I fear that as economic winter sets in a great deal of knowledge will be lost.

Hat tip: Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds

The Sunday Herald - Scotland's award-winning independent newspaper


Downes said...

This is clearly the exception and not the rule.

If we are to believe the story (and there is a lot about it that leaves me sceptical) the knowledge lost was not even written down anywhere.

This is not a failure of informal learning, it is a failure of a security system so secure that important facts are not recorded anywhere.

Not that, personally, I see anything to regret in the loss of knowledge of how to make thermonuclear warheads.

dmcoxe said...

Granted this is an extreme example, but I believe it is symbolic of what is happening throughout the workplace.

Maybe I've worked in a bunch of dysfunctional corporate workplaces in my 30 years of employment, but one thing that I found is that there seems to be an overt dependence on informal learning on day-to-day work related issues. They are little items that don't seem significant at the time but they add up to a great deal of time and money when employees have to hunt down a senior associate to get help. It cuts into the employee's time and the expert's time, all of which costs the employer money.