The impact of informal learning has been documented, but many organizations still struggle to fully understand what makes informal learning work and how to leverage it to enhance workplace training initiatives. This dilemma arises from the very nature of informal learning — the fact that it is not and cannot be formalized in the traditional sense of the word.
A new report from AchieveGlobal discusses how 20% of workplace learning occurs formally, while a full 80% occurs informally. With this in mind, organizations that can leverage the informal portion of individual and group learning stand to gain a large advantage in employee development. It can be done, but it requires training professionals to change the way they think about programs, structure, and control. The key is to understand how informal learning really works, and what you can and cannot do to influence the way people learn on the job.
Informal learning is most effective when it reinforces formal training curricula. Even though 80% of learning may be informal, formal learning programs are still vitally important to guide employee development in ways that mesh with strategic goals and companies’ unique needs. Workplace training programs centered around trusted models and research, such as SOCIAL STYLE and Versatility, can serve as a foundation on which informal learning initiatives grow.
What Is Informal Learning?
Rather than being a purely rational and objective undertaking, scientists have discovered that learning relies heavily on emotions, individual perceptions, and shared experiences. Listening to the words of an expert can certainly convey meaningful information, but the deepest and most lasting learning experiences are often unplanned and unexpected.
People learn informally all the time without realizing it. Informal learning takes place whenever people absorb new information in an unplanned way, whether the information is productive or not. Learning occurs when an employee shares a new method she has developed to complete a task in less time, for example, even if the learners think they were just sharing lunch and having a conversation. Learning can also occur purely by accident. If a group comes together to find a solution to a challenge that threatens to delay a deadline, for example, social learning occurs when they find the solution together.
Since there are many different forms that informal learning can take, it is common for several forms to come into play at the same time, strengthening the same concepts. Consider the following example: An employee builds a mentoring relationship with a colleague in a senior position, and the mentor recommends a certain book to help the employee overcome a challenge. The employee reads it and reflects on what he has read before discussing interesting things from the book with other colleagues. Four forms of informal learning come into play here: mentorship, reading, reflection, and discussion, all reinforcing the same learning experience.
How to Leverage Informal Learning
Building informal learning into your workplace development programs requires you to rethink “control” in a learning context. The moment you force or prescribe an informal learning activity, it ceases to be informal and defeats the purpose of the exercise.
The key is to create and maintain a set of tools and voluntary activities that allow informal learning to happen organically. Freedom of choice and direction is paramount in these tools — employees must know that the tools exist and understand their value, but must never be required to use them. The tools and activities must provide clear and valuable benefits that compel employees to use them on their own.
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of tools you can put in place to facilitate natural learning:
– A monthly book club in which people discuss books that are relevant to recent training programs
– A voluntary mentorship program
– An online knowledge-base that employees can access any time
– Job shadowing options for people interested in applying for higher-level positions
– Opportunities for employees to teach their co-workers or lead presentations
– An internal social network
Although informal learning tools should be inherently valuable, employers can promote their use through positive reinforcement, recognizing and rewarding individuals who make the most effective use of the available tools. Positive reinforcement can encourage people to try social learning tools for the first time, but the tools must be compelling enough on their own to keep people coming back.
Social Learning Technology
Social learning has gained widespread popularity alongside advances in social media and communications technology, and many of the tools that support informal learning are necessarily driven by technology. Savvy organizations learn to leverage technology to support learning with tools like company message boards, internal social networks, video conferencing and online knowledge centers.