“Bibliographies were my first Internet.”—Kelly Smith, #lrnchat tweet

I’ve been involved with music, one way or another, my whole life, and while I’ve a good memory for lyrics I have always struggled with memorizing chord progressions. The other night at my local ukulele jam we were playing the old song “Pay Me My Money Down” for the hundredth time when Carla, next to me, happened to say: “The chord always changes on the word ‘money’.” Light. Bulb. Since then I’ve been much more attuned to finding patterns while I’m playing—and I’m already much better at playing without looking at the sheet music.

Think about a time a casual remark or random encounter set you thinking in a new direction. Or a web search for “personal learning network” led you to an hour spent learning about community management. Or remember the time a happenstance event set you on a new career path or a college major change. I find that learners in my “social media for learning” courses struggle with the idea of “supporting serendipity” more than any other: If it's serendipitous, then how can L&D support or encourage it?

How does serendipitous learning happen?

Sometimes life thrusts it upon us. Tracy Parish says downhill skiing taught her to roll and bounce. I learned about web design in a grad course suddenly staffed with a geeky pinch-hitter instructor who took the “technology in training” topic off in an unexpected direction. So far that course has led me to the publication of six books—and my current job.

Often serendipitous learning happens via “spinoff learning”—we’re learning one thing and happen to learn something else along the way. Matt Guyan learned about Google+ while exploring PLNs. Bigger? Clark Quinn learned about weather and the ocean bottom while learning to surf. I have found that years of tweeting has made the writing in my eLearning designs much tighter and more concise. My friend Marlo learned about making cookies, which led to her opening her own company, which led her to learning about web design. Broader? An improvisation coach says improv taught her empathy.

In 2009 Edutopia ran an interesting piece in which a number of well-known, accomplished people were asked to describe what they learned while learning about something else. Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, for instance, talks of finding her love of music while studying French. Owen Edwards, the author of the article, notes that “the educational road is unpredictable, full of bumps, unmapped detours, and sudden forks.”

What can we do?

Put rocks in the path

Many people describe their moments of accidental, serendipitous learning as “stumbling” over an answer or idea. So let’s give them things to stumble over. Encourage exploration beyond the traditional constraints of a course or other learning intervention. Enrich programs with suggested reading. Offer libraries, both physical and virtual, and make it part of your practice to refer people to them. Provide Amazon-like suggestions via systems like your LMS: If you liked this topic you might like that one. Offer interesting problems that encourage learners to work with and explore tools. Encourage them to take charge of their learning. If you’re already subscribing to a course library like a Lynda.com, encourage them to explore material that’s included in the catalog but to which they aren’t necessarily assigned.

Be a curator

Help stock the libraries—physical and virtual—and choose the suggested reading. If workers are likely to search a topic like “hiring talent,” then help get information in front of them that fits your own organizational culture and general protocols for hiring. Offer places to browse. Suggest ideas for maximizing the use of curation tools like Scoopit and Flipboard. Invite them to share in Diigo groups or shared Evernote notebooks. Forward backchannel recaps of conferences in their fields. Many, if not most, people complain about drowning in information. We can help with that.

Be a connector—and a participant

As with my ukulele example, proximity can play a big role in serendipitous learning. Just being around other people who are talking about something that interests you can lead you to new discoveries. So make learners aware of opportunities to connect with others. Make sure they hear about communities, both inside and outside the organization, with which they might find meaningful connection. (Last summer I was at a conference of government trainers, struggling with eLearning conversations, who were surprised to hear that there’s an eLearning Guild.) Draw HR people to #TChat. Let it be known to anyone who happens to blog—about work or otherwise—that there’s a weekly #blogchat. Show up for that yourself and participate with them. In other words, do what you can to open up the silo doors.

Encourage reflection

Encourage reflection by asking “How did you learn that?” and “What did you learn this week?” #lrnchat each week opens with the question, “What did you learn today?” Try using that to open a class, or a meeting, or as an item on status reports. Encourage writing and commenting and sharing. Ask them to teach, or help teach. Where you can, encourage them to take the road less traveled. Colleagues who have long commutes talk of finding alternative routes home, which comes in very handy when there’s traffic. So ask learners to help with something like redesigning a procedure or finding alternative sources of information or otherwise mapping some new path.

Is it all on us?

No. I suppose there are arguments to be made about types of people and their comfort levels. Some seem to more naturally be explorers and experimenters. Some seem more willing to accept new ideas by letting go of old ones. Some are naturally more reflective. Some seem to be hardwired for a growth mindset.

But I do believe we can find a way to increase chances. Be there when the spark happens and catch it before it burns out. Try to help with getting people the time and space they need to explore, connect, and reflect. Figure out ways to reward it: we don’t always show that we value the divergent. We can’t create or plan for serendipity. We can’t schedule accidents. But we can work to help create an environment in which opportunities can serendipitously occur.