Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 36;   September 5, 2012: Intentionally Unintentional Learning

Intentionally Unintentional Learning

by

Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
A map of the Internet ca. January 2005

A map of the Internet ca. January 2005. Each line segment connects a pair of nodes. Learning something by accident on the way to learning something on purpose is a common experience of users of the World Wide Web, which resides on the Internet. In my view, though I certainly have no data, the Internet is likely the world's most complex support device for unintentional learning. The Web, Email, Twitter, Facebook and many other Internet-based media provide opportunities for unintentional learning. Exploiting the Internet's capability for supporting intentionally unintentional learning might someday be a well-developed and widely adopted human skill, no doubt supported by applications based on the Internet. Image courtesy OPTE.org.

We usually associate learning with the young, the naïve, or newbies. As sophisticated adults or professionals, we tend to regard ourselves more as having learned rather than as learning. The truth, of course, is that maintaining sophistication or professionalism requires continuous, lifelong learning, including learning about learning itself.

Intentional learning entails deciding to learn about something specific. We read about diseases of houseplants to try to determine what's wrong with the schefflera; we practice telling a new joke to improve our delivery; or we take tennis lessons to elevate the strategic part of our game.

In this culture, intentional learning is highly valued. We hold in high esteem achievements such as degrees and certifications, and we grant or lend resources to help those pursuing those degrees and certifications. But while we do value intentional learning, that valuing is most specific, as evidenced by the specificity of the goals of these activities. Degree-granting institutions must themselves be accredited. And the marketing literature of most training programs includes sections titled "What Attendees Learn" or "Learning Objectives" or even "Measurable Outcomes."

Even so, it's likely that most learning is unintentional. We accidentally discover keyboard shortcuts in Outlook; a colleague relates tidbits of market intelligence that explain the CEO's latest announcement; we witness a miscommunication between two colleagues and resolve never to use that particular phrasing again ourselves.

Because unintentional learning is so productive, a natural question arises: What if we intentionally create opportunities for unintentional learning? Intentional learning without specific goals offers several advantages.

Prerequisites are less restrictive
Since the goals are non-specific, prerequisites for unintentional learning in a given field of knowledge relate more to the will and ability to learn than they do to specific capabilities in that field of knowledge. This enables the learner to explore more broadly than learners who use a more conventional goal-oriented approach.
The learning is less biased
The more specific our learning goals are, the less likely we are to acquire knowledge unrelated to those goals. And that unrelated knowledge can be more useful and beneficial than what we set out to learn in the first place. Just as goals provide direction and focus, they also bias the undertaking — that's how they provide focus. And just as there is a place for goal-oriented learning, there is a place for less-goal-oriented learning.
Spectacularly beneficial discontinuities are more likely
When we open When we open our minds to intentionally
unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive,
"aha's" become more likely
our minds to intentionally unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive, "aha's" become more likely. And these unexpected insights can be the sources of the spectacularly beneficial discontinuities that lead to life-altering choices in the personal domain, or disruptive innovations in the business domain.

As this day closes, perhaps you'll reflect on what you learned today. Maybe you'll notice some things that you didn't intend to learn when this day began. And tomorrow, maybe there will be even more. Go to top Top  Next issue: Solutions as Found Art  Next Issue

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendTXYfGUOjLNsaGPlner@ChacMRGztpXZyiKzqLIUoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
A hiker in the La Primavera calderaCommitment Makes It Easier
When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
Bill Moyers — host of the PBS program Bill Moyers JournalAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain ForestTeamwork Myths: I vs. We
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
An egg sandwichThe Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I
Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvzmdXiefVBqfKZgkner@ChaczJPXMoWVIVBWPLbYoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.