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Those of us invested in our own professional development can often find ourselves engaged in what I call ‘just-in-case ‘ learning. The trouble is, the time and effort we invest is often wasted. My mum used to say that I was full of useless facts.

Until the time came for a Trivia Night fundraiser and people were fighting to have me on their table. I’ve spent heaps of time doing just-in-case learning, absorbing all sorts of random things like a sponge. As I continue to grow up (and I’m not sure I’m there yet) I’ve found just-in-time learning to be far more helpful for my effectiveness.

In this episode I’ll weigh up the pros and cons of just-in-case learning with just-in-time learning and help you decide when each of these will best serve you.

Quick basics lesson. What do I mean by learning. If you’ve followed me for a while you will be familiar with the 702010 learning concept. If that’s new to you, go and listen to my interview with Charles Jennings in episode 35. Quickly as a recap, 702010 suggests learning happens in different proportions, based on the type of activity we are engaging in.

A small proportion is from formal knowledge and education, a larger amount from social interactions, our managers, mentors etc, and the vast majority of our learning comes from real life – just doing stuff in practice.

So let me begin by saying that my whole philosophy on development and growth is designed to support people like you to drag yourself away from the knowledge trap, traditional ‘learning’ or ‘professional development’ and into the more effective social and experiential learning realms. IN fact I’ll be releasing a free short course early next year on exactly that. BUT I recognise that many of us still think about learning as a formal knowledge based activity, consuming information.

So I want to meet you where you are at, if that’s the starting point, and help you improve how you do that. Just to be clear, this video just for today is specifically focussed on formal knowledge type learning, ok?

So what do I mean by just-in-case vs just-in-time learning? Well they are probably pretty self-explanatory. Just-in-case learning is the things we absorb as we go through life, as they pop up, or are placed in front of us. We pour this stuff into our head, which sort of goes into a ‘general knowledge’ folder in our brains, that we may or may not access again down the track. It’s there, just-in-case.

Just-in-time learning you could say differs because of or intent – we are very clear about what we want to learn, we have a target or a goal and we hunt it down – we are in charge. An important difference with this vs just-in-case learning is that we are learning because we have the intention for action – we have some idea how are going to use what we learn in some way shape or form.

Let me give you some examples. Remember these are just the formal knowledge examples, which is just a small proportion of our full learning potential.

Just-in-case learning includes reading the industry magazine we get each quarter, or an email subscription news service like legal updates or something. Scrolling through your linkedin feed is another example, just absorbing what comes up and clicking through to articles and posts. Going to most conferences can be like this too, where you might have intent about one or two speakers, but there’s a bunch of stuff you are just there absorbing because it’s on the program.

Now over to just-in-time learning. This might be searching a database for an article, or a legal code or something like that. It could be going to a specific training course or workshop. Or it might be reading a book specifically for a university assignment.

Just-in-time learning is learning that you are in charge of – you do it because it helps you take some specific action, you know what you want and you hunt it down. You might do the learning to prepare for an action next week, next quarter, or in a year’s time – but you know what you are working towards.

So let’s talk about the pros and cons of each, the defining characteristics in four categories which are Goal, Control, Effectiveness, and Growth. I’ve got a table summary of what I’m about to briefly explain in the free download for this episode which you can get just above this text.

So Goal. The goal for just-in-case learning is just to consume something, to fill time. The goal for just-in-time learning is much clearer, usually connected with our work, a performance plan or training needs analysis or something like that. We know what we want.

When it comes to who is in control, just-in-case learning leaves the control up to someone else – like an editor of a publication, our boss telling us to do something, a conference organiser or the algorithm behind the Linkedin feed. Just-in-time learning means we take most of the control ourselves – we decide what we consume, although the specific content is still up to someone else.
Together, goal, and control combined mean that just-in-time learning has far greater intent than does just-in-case learning.

Next we have Effectiveness. I define effectiveness of learning the extent to which our performance improves as a result. So you’ll realise that just-in-case learning is then far less effective because we have little intent. Like Lewis Carroll said, if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter which road you take.
That’s not to say that it won’t help you by chance down the track, but often by the time we need what we learned just-in-case, we need to brush up on it anyway. Just-in-time learning on the other hand should increase performance because we know what we want and how to do it.

Finally let’s think about how growth happens from each. This is a major differentiator. Just in case learning has the distinct advantage of allowing us to be surprised, to explore unknown unknowns, to find new horizons and ideas and perspectives and stories.
I touch on that idea in epsiode 58 called ‘Look up and out’. So when it comes to growth, I call this windy growth. Just-in-case learning as intentional as it is, means we get what we want, no more (and hopefully no less). But it’s based on what we already know, which can be limiting. It still helps us grow towards the goals we want, so I call this straight-line growth.

So this is not an either-or situation. Those of you who know me know I have a bias towards action. But I enjoy a random exploration of new things as well, I balance just-in-case learning with just-in-time learning. I feel like many of us get sucked into too much just-in-case learning and feel like our time is well spent – which it may not be. My hunch is that a little more just-in-time learning, coupled with good social and experiential learning, is a better recipe for our own growth and success.

So let’s reflect. How much of the knowledge based ‘learning’ of the past week or month or year has been just-in-case or just-in-time? Use the worksheet (download it just above this text) to jot down WHAT you’ve done, how much time you spent, and use the definitions to work out whether it was just-in-case or just-in-time. Be honest with yourself, see what the balance is, and decide whether this is right for you, and what you might do to improve your learning balance next year.

Getting that balance right will increase your learning and your performance to enable more positive, effective and rewarding action to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Seeya!