Shiny new technologies used by dusty old professions

I hadn’t planned on blogging about informal learning today, but an article in Irish e-zine Silicon Republic interested me, and I thought I’d bring it to you. According to the article Number crunchers find social media a ‘tweet’ surprise,  members of the Institute of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants (CPA) have begun using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to co-ordinate continuous professional education. The CPA is the educational, representative and regulatory body for over 5000 members and students. The Institute’s role is to:

  • Regulate CPAs in accordance with the law and the Institute’s Code of Ethics in the public interest.
  • Ensure that CPAs are constantly up to date in all matters relating to their professional work.
  • Maintain the highest levels of educational standards for new entrants to the profession.
  • Represent the interests of members where appropriate.

The CPA’s Suzanne Shaw outlined the reason for the emergence of non-formal and informal e-learning technologies in the Institute:

As one of [the bodies] in Ireland that train accountants and regulate them throughout their professional life, our members are predominantly split three ways: practitioners; entrepreneurs; and employees of businesses.

All of them are at the coalface of the current economic climate and many of them use tools like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to give one another practical advice about sustaining businesses and planning for a long-term environment. It’s a great way to get information out to people really quickly.

It seems that the CPA members are using Facebook and Twitter to share articles and information to keep each apprised of developments in their domain. Ms. Shaw again:

The beauty of social networking is it enables two-way communication or, if you want, one-to-many communication. The CPA uses it to gauge feedback on courses and products and adjust them accordingly.

One of the benefits of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter is that they are “ready-made.” The CPA’s experience is that they can concentrate on the business use of the technology without contributors having to worry about the technology per se. Despite being (by it’s very nature) a very traditional organization, the obvious business advantages of using these platforms for information-sharing seems to have eased the transition to using social media. There are a number of core uses of social media for learning in the CPA:

  • The CPA recently set up a space on Facebook for new students to get and share information.
  • In terms of professional use, with closed LinkedIn forums are used, so information can be kept confidential between members.
  • CPA accountants are using Twitter as a way of relaying information or lobbying issues.
  • Professional members make use of LinkedIn to keep in touch with each other, as well as business associates.

Interestingly, one of the main drivers of the growth in utilization of social media tools is that accountants’ clients are “pushing them to be more involved in online communication” according to Ms. Shaw.

It seems that once members are exposed to Web 2.0 technologies, they adapt their own information-sharing practices to include Twitter and Facebook. Ms. Shaw stated that:

Many share war stories and know-how in the forums. With CPE seminars taking place across the country, people not only meet up but can also keep in touch. Because people have hectic working lives and a home life to balance, they can’t get to every course or seminar, so they …use these tools to share notes and find out where the next course is taking place. Not every one can make it to the centre of Dublin after a day’s work, so we’ve started uploading video lectures. Students …are recording podcasts of lectures and sharing on places like Facebook. We estimate about 10% of our 5,500 members and students are using social media for continuous professional education. With Facebook, for example, they are truly engaging with one another. Many use it because they are that generation, others have begun dabbling. It can only grow from here.

Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells Cassius that

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune

Act IV, Scene 3.

In a similar vein, I would suggest that there are trends in the uses and the adoption of technology. The current global economic environment as well as the emergence and broad adoption of easy-to-use Read/Write Web tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn in society-at-large are profoundly re-shaping the ways people and organizations communicate.

As we know from Rogers’ writings on diffusion of innovation, people’s attitude toward a new technology is a key element in its diffusion. Roger’s Innovation Decision Process theory asserts that innovation diffusion is a process that occurs over time through five stages:

1. Awareness
2. Interest
3. Evaluation
4. Trial
5. Adoption

The final phase of the diffusion process is characterized by large-scale continued use of the idea or technology, and by “satisfaction with” (Diffusion of Innovations, 2003, p.2) the idea. This does not mean that the the individual or organization that has accepted the idea will use it constantly, rather, it means that the diffused idea has been integrated into their schema or metal model as a valuable asset or resource.

Scurvebellcurve Figure 1 Diffusion of Innovation curve
[Click to enlarge]

Individuals or organizations will typically go through these processes at varying speeds, depending on factors ranging from the cost, time, and effort required to implement the diffused concept, the return on the investment, how well it aligns with their previous experience with similar concepts, as well as the complexity of the idea or technology under consideration. By endorsing and supporting a range of well-tested, free-to-use solutions, that are currently very positively received in the public consciousness due to their apparent ability to elect presidents (Obama), overthrow despotic regimes (Obama again for Dubya Iran), and circumvent traditional media channels (Michael Jackson’s death). Such momentum is hard to ignore, especially when coupled with the economic imperative of clients demanding access to CPA members’ skills via social media.

However, a corollary to the curve described in Figure 1 (above) is the Gartner Hype Lifecycle illustrated in Figure 2 (below).

Gartner_Hype_Cycle Figure 2 Generic Gartner Hype Cycle
[Click to enlarge]

I would suggest that Twitter, Facebook etc are well on their way to reaching what Gartner describes as the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” associated with this type of innovation. It remains to be seen if the CPA can take this flood in the tide of technology and progress their non-formal learning initiatives, or if they will be “bound in shallows and in miseries” if they are unable to leverage the potential of this phenomenon.

Personally, I’d like to see more evidence of planning and strategy behind their informal learning activities. Based on the information in the article, it looks to me that new learning channels are added in an ad hoc fashion. Nothing wrong with this: it’s one of the advantages of a non- or informal approach to e-learning, but I would suggest that too much of a ‘make it up as we go along’ approach can lead to spreading finite resources too thinly for any of them to be truly effective.



Kennedy, J. (2009). Number crunchers find social media a ‘tweet’ surprise. Silicon Republic. [Internet] 29 June. Available from: http://www.siliconrepublic.com/news/article/13271/ [Accessed 29 June 2009]

Rogers, E. M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed.. Simon & Schuster International.


  1. Hi Brian,

    I have yet to make your acquaintance but will take the opportunity to respond to your blog, particularly to the last paragraph.

    The Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Ireland has been involved in education since 1943 and our approach, given the regulated responsibility of our members, is anything but ’informal and casual’.

    I point you to CPA’s CPE requirements document(http://www.cpaireland.ie/UserFiles/File/CPE/CPE_Requirements.pdf), which will give you some flavour of the lack of informality.

    CPA was the first of the ‘dusty’ accountancy bodies to introduce mandatory Continuous Professional Education(CPE) for its members. The format and content of our CPE programme, online or otherwise, is dictated by our members’ needs.

    How do we find out about their needs? How do we let them know what’s on? Well, it’s back to old fashioned marketing. We engage with them. We communicate. We create dialogue.

    Social media is just one way of doing this. A fad perhaps, but currently it is playing its part in a ( believe it or not), comprehensive communications plan. I am positive that next year will bring another medium and we will adapt accordingly.

    Unfortunately you miss the point completely. Social media is nothing to do with e-learning. It is merely one of many communication channels we successfully use to direct members to education and learning opportunities, class-based or online.

    Kind regards

    Suzanne Shaw
    Director Business Development, CPA

  2. Dear Suzanne

    Many thanks for taking the time to communicate with me. Firstly I need to apologize: as in many occupations (accountancy among them, no doubt), learning and development professionals sometimes use certain words and phrases in very specific contexts that extend their meaning beyond popular use. It simply didn’t occur to me that any of the terminology in the blog article text needed further exposition, and I regret that lack of clarity has caused you to object to and refute the remarks I made in my blog post.

    However, you have misquoted me, suggested that my article was inaccurate, and that I “missed the point completely” so I’m invoking my right to reply. I’d like to say that I hate having to do this, as it makes me come across as long-winded and boring, and I am neither. Nevertheless, I wish to address each of the remarks you made in your comment: I’d appreciate it if you would take the time to reflect upon what follows.

    First the misquote: you state in quote marks that I wrote “informal and casual” somewhere in my text. Let me be crystal clear about this: there is nothing “casual” about acquiring skills, knowledge, and expertise. I take the activity (and my part in it) very seriously. I did use the term “ad hoc” but in a completely different context, I will address this later.

    I would assert that you felt motivated to respond to me because you would argue for what Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm call the “perceived inherent superiority” (2002, p.2) of formal learning over informal learning.

    Let’s get this formal/non-formal/informal business out of the way, because it’s part of the first point you refuted. All learning occurs on a continuum (see Figure 1) with formal learning at one extreme, and informal learning at the other, and non-formal learning ‘in the middle.’ Now here’s the good bit, so I’m going to place this in a paragraph all on its own:

    Eighty percent of organizational learning takes place informally.
    Gartner Research (2008, p.1).

    You will note that the continuum illustrated below is on a horizontal axis, and that there is no hierarchical distinction between the learning modalities.

    Figure 1. The Learning Continuum
    The Learning Continuum

    It’s apparent that a dichotomy exists between the paradigms of formal, goal-directed training programs and informal “learning at the water cooler” (Grebow, 2002):

    it is difficult to make a clear distinction between formal and informal learning as there is often a crossover between the two

    (McGivney, 1999, p.1).

    For much of the forty years since the terms were first coined (Coombs, 1968, p.1.) there has been a great deal of debate as to the nature of formal, informal and non-formal learning; the components of each of the paradigms, their boundaries and their overlaps. It’s an ongoing discussion in L&D, but at this juncture we can say that the distinctions between them have been recognized by the EU and the OECD among other organizations. The European Commission state:

    Learning takes place in different settings and contexts, formal, non-formal as well as informal. Learning that is taking place in the formal education and training system is traditionally the most visible and the one likely to be recognized in the labor market and by society in general. In recent years, however, there has been a growing appreciation that learning in non-formal and informal settings is seen as crucial for the realization of lifelong learning, thus requiring new strategies for identification and validation of these ‘invisible’ learning outcomes. However, definitions and understandings of what counts as formal, non-formal and informal learning can vary between countries.

    (Valuing learning outside formal education and training)

    At EU level, the following definitions are used:

    Table 1. Definition of learning types

      Formal Learning
      Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

      Non-formal Learning
      Learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to formalised certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

      Informal Learning
      Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/ random) [my italics].

    Regarding your own organization, I notice that in Continuing Professional Education, under the section entitled ‘Unstructured CPE’ (p.3), it is stated that:

    Unstructured CPE can be defined as any form of informal learning or development of day to day working skills achieved through self-study and/or informal training. Unstructured CPE can be measurable but is not verifiable [my italics].

    Personally, I support Alan Rogers’ view that a ‘new paradigm’ for learning exists, in which “most programs [are] partly formal and partly informal” going from formal to informal and from informal to formal in both directions along a continuum. Both forms of education are important elements in the total learning experience” (Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm, 2004).

    As you remarked in the Silicon Republic article “It’s our job to support our members at each point in their career.” Implicit in this statement is support for the ongoing, formal, certified professional development initiatives that are required to ensure your members achieve and retain the appropriate knowledge and skills to undertake their professional activities competently. I didn’t question this facet of your activities at any point in my article.

    Equally I’m sure you design, develop, and implement your formal training initiatives based upon Training Needs Assessments and Skill/Gap Analyses to remediate deficiencies in your members’ current skillsets and knowledge.

    The next point I’d like to clarify concerns e-learning, social media, and the Read/Write Web (or Web 2.0). E-learning has been characterized as:

    The continuous assimilation of knowledge and skills by adults stimulated by synchronous and asynchronous learning events – and sometimes knowledge management outputs – which are authored, delivered engaged with, supported and administered using internet technologies.

    (Morrison, D. 2004, p.4)

    So while you confidently tell me that “Social media is nothing to do with e-learning” I have to tell you that you’re wrong: it has everything to do with it.

    I suspect you perceive e-learning to be that old pageturner-with-audio stuff that characterized e-learning 10 years ago, and is still occasionally foisted upon organizations like the CPA for compliance and regulatory reasons.

    You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but believe your own reasoning faculties and reflect on Don Morrison’s above definition carefully. You’ll see that e-learning ‘checks all the boxes’ that characterize social media.

    As you state, social media are a great way to communicate, engage with, and create dialog between communities of practice. This is what makes Web 2.0 technologies – and it’s associated products like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as related technologies like on-demand video, such valuable and effective learning channels. According to industry analysts Forrester:

    Learning 2.0 – or informal learning – means that employees take charge of their learning. Specifically, employees decide when they need information, where to go for information, and how to get information from other resources.

    (Schooley, C. 2007, p.3)

    This approach delivers learning right when people need it via:

      Delivering small pieces of searched for learning content
      Providing collaborative interaction support
      Making job aids, reference sites, and materials readily available
      Bringing contextual learning to specific tasks while workers are on the job

    Suzanne, forgive me if I’m incorrect, but is this not exactly what your organization is doing?
    And finally we get to The Point That I Apparently Missed.

    Is social media a “fad”? No.

    Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory tells us that the technology is maturing and has entered the Mainstream Adoption phase. My view is that the shift in information transmission we’re seeing will prove to be as socio-culturally important as the invention of movable type 500 years ago.
    You say that social media is

    one of many communication channels we successfully use to direct members to education and learning opportunities, class-based or online.

    I say that it is a learning channel – as you yourself said “Many share war stories and know-how in the forums”: this epitomizes informal (e-)learning in action.

    I think now I can reiterate my point (remember the “ad hoc” reference?). The purpose of the blog post was to highlight the issues associated with adding new learning / social media channels without a strategy, a plan, a goal, and a set of learning outcomes. Now, as we know, ad hoc according to Webster’s Online Dictionary means “for the particular end or case at hand without consideration of wider application.” As I concluded my article:

    …it’s one of the advantages of a non- or informal approach to e-learning, but I would suggest that too much of a ‘make it up as we go along’ approach can lead to spreading finite resources too thinly for any of them to be truly effective.

    Or, more prosaically, if you don’t manage, and maintain your content delivery channels effectively, you will see fall-off in use, and enter what Gartner call the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ where:

    [technologies] fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable.

    Consequently, they are abandoned. In online circles this is called “blogrot” named after the estimated 125 million out of 133 million blogs that are not updated regularly (Technorati, State of the Blogosphere, 2008). To counter this, organizations need to actively manage and maintain their content and their knowledge, or can peter out and ultimately cease to be of value.

    The purpose of my post then, was to commend your informal e-learning activities, but to temper that commendation by highlighting the requirement to keep up the momentum surrounding these activities, for if your initiative fails, it becomes that much more difficult to re-implement similar programs in the future. Indeed, I consult for institutions including UCC and the ECDL Foundation, assisting the development of their learning programs, so I have a substantial amount of experience in this domain.

    I hope this detailed missive clarifies matters; I look forward to making your acquaintance at some point in our respective careers, and I wish you every success in your ongoing learning and development initiatives.

    Best regards,

    Michael Hanley

    Certified Public Accountants (ND). Continuing Professional Education. [Internet] Available from: http://www.cpaireland.ie/UserFiles/File/CPE/CPE_Requirements.pdf [Accessed 1 July 2009]

    Colley, H., Hodkinson, P., & Malcolm J. (2002) Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. a consultation report [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/colley_informal_learning.htm [Accessed 28th January 2009]

    Coombs, P. (1968) The World Educational Crisis, New York, Oxford University Press.
    Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge, in Coffield, F. (Ed.) The Necessity of Informal Learning. Policy Press. Bristol

    European Commission, Education and Training (2009). Valuing learning outside formal education and training. [Internet] Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-policy/doc52_en.htm [Accessed 1 July 2009]

    Holford, J. Patulny, R. & Sturgis, P. (2005). Indicators of Non-formal & Informal Educational Contributions to Active Citizenship. A Paper Prepared for the European Commission by the University of Surrey. [Internet]. Available from: http://crell.jrc.ec.europa.eu/ActiveCitizenship/Conference/05_Surrey_final.pdf [Accessed 1st July, 2009]

    Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2009). Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning. [Internet] Available from: http://www.oecd.org/document/25/0,3343,en_2649_39263238_37136921_1_1_1_1,00.html [Accessed 1 July 2009]

    Grebow, D. (2002) At the Water Cooler of Learning [Internet] Available from: http://agelesslearner.com/articles/watercooler_dgrebow_tc600.html [Accessed 30th February 2009]

    McGivney, V. (1999) Informal learning in the community: a trigger for change and development NIACE. Leicester.

    Morrison, D. (2004) E-Learning Strategies: how to get implementation and delivery right first time, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Rogers, A. (2004) Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/biblio/non_formal_paradigm.htm [Accessed 30th January 2008]

    Rozwell, C. (2008) The Business Impact of Social Computing on Corporate Learning. Gartner. [Internet] Available from: http://www.gartner.com (subscription required) [Accessed 1 July 2009]

    Schooley, C. (2007) Informal Learning Connects With Corporate Training Programs. Forrester Research. [Internet] Available from: http://www.forrester.com (subscription required) [Accessed 1 July 2009]

  3. Thanks Ben – much appreciated! Your dissertation is OK; I, on the other hand, have a little copy editing to do…
    Best regards,

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