A new study from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario that looks at how people learn technology in organisations finds formal methods are least common. Hands on and peer-based forms of informal and incidental learning occur most often.

"People tend not to learn from formal support," said Deborah Compeau, professor of Management Information Systems at Ivey who co-authored the study with Ivey PhD graduate Barbara Marcolin and Athabasca University professor Alain Ross.

The study looks at how people learn information systems and found a prevalence of informal and incidental learning taking place, said Compeau. "The idea that learning happens via training is questionable and we knew that going in and we supported that with our findings," she said.

The study also identified six types of learners: purposive planners, explorers, visionaries, problem solvers, reluctant learners and pinballs. The January 2010 issue of Impact published by the Ivey Business School defines the categories as follows:

  • "Purposive planners are very structured and self-disciplined in their approach. They plan carefully and with a lot of attention to detail, and once they've made their plan they act on it."
  • "Explorers find time to learn on their own because they find it fun or useful. They might for example, stop in the middle of a task and spend some time looking at menu choices or drilling down into new areas."
  • "Visionaries are people who find out about new technologies and think about what these could do for them personally and in their organisations. Visionaries are sometimes explorers. They tend to be lateral thinkers, and look at technology from a very strategic perspective."
  • "Problem solvers are not necessarily interested in technology, but are very interested in mastering their workplace tasks. They tend to have a strong task-oriented mindset."
  • "Pinballs are people who don't think about learning, but simply bounce around between technologies, picking up knowledge while they're being buffeted about. They tend to do a lot of incidental learning, and some actually become quite capable users of technology."
  • Reluctant learners "are people who don't really see the value of technology in their jobs. They simply focus on what they have to learn to survive in the organisation."

Individuals don't necessarily fit into only one category. The interesting thing about the categories is that they tend to overlap, said Compeau. Some categories may relate to what someone does, while other categories might relate to how that person thinks, she explained.

Explorers and planners are the two most common categories that nearly everyone fits into on some level, visionaries are a little less common and pinballs fall even further down the list. Reluctants are very uncommon, said Compeau.


Almost all categories of learners are present in IT, according to Compeau. "Do people within the IT department learn differently? We actually found they didn't," she said. But the one type of learner you won't find in the IT department is the reluctant learner, she said.

"Working in IT, the constant pace of change means that learning is a necessity in the job, so I think you have to be a curious, learning oriented person in general to survive in the IT field," said Compeau.

The study also looked at what drives people to learn about technology and found some IT workers didn't find IT particularly fascinating. "I would have expected that all the people we talked to in IT would have scored highly on interest as a driver... that really surprised me," she said.

Another surprise finding was the basis for how people rate their competency in using IT. While people give a very clear answer to the question of how competent they are in using IT, many base this rating on a comparison to the person sitting next to them, said Compeau.

"What I know versus what you know is one measure of competence, but it is not a very good measure if we are trying to be pro-active and get potential out of the technology," she said.

Some employees rated their competence based on how well they performed their jobs, but those who rated competency in terms of the potential of the technology (such as knowing a certain percentage of the features of a particular software) represented the smallest group, she said.

"If you are trying to be pro-active and realise value from your organisation's information technology, you need people to define their competence in terms of the potential," she suggested.

The researchers also found a fairly consistent pattern of what Compeau referred to as an "upgrade dip," which is reflected by a drop in competence when new technology is introduced in an organisation.

When it came to complex enterprise systems applications the organisation had adopted, there were huge drops, she said. Employees that felt they were good at their jobs found they couldn't do it anymore because everything took so much longer, she explained.

This is an expectation management issue, according to Compeau, who suggested business manage their expectations of employees in order to avoid stressing them out and de-motivating them during rollouts.

But rollouts aren't the only time organisations need to pay attention to learning, Compeau pointed out. "My first [piece of] advice is pay attention to this all the time, not just when you are rolling out something new," she said.

The Richard Ivey study is based on a survey of 250 employees across various departments at a large petrochemical company and 21 in depth interviews with select employees at the same organisation.