Exploring Informal Learning and Its Role in the Modern Workplace

What is Informal Learning?

Informal learning refers to the skills a person learns in an informal setting. In the workplace these skills can come from talking to other people, on-the-job experiences, working alongside more experienced employees, or even through trial-and-error.

What is Informal Learning?

Learning professionals estimate, people learn only about 10 to 20% of their workplace skills from formalized learning, and the rest comes from informal situations. What sets this learning apart, in at least the primary way, is that it’s often unintentional on the part of the learner and doesn’t have any predetermined objectives.

Most psychologists and learning theorists believe this route to gaining knowledge, skills, and information can be extremely powerful because it requires engaged participation, and information is acquired through creating or doing something. This builds neural pathways which can allow for greater retention than what might be seen stemming from traditional in-classroom training.

Informal learning almost always takes place outside traditional educational institutions; it isn’t professionally organized, and it’s often directly related to real-life problems and situations. It’s also spurred as a response to a natural function of one’s job, is spontaneous, and a sense of creativity characterizes it.

The term informal learning is frequently used as interchangeable with self-directed learning, but this isn’t necessarily accurate. Since informal learning tends to be related to concepts of unconscious activities, it varies from self-directed learning, which may be much less formalized than a classroom setting, but still contains some elements of structure and objectives.

Informal Learning Research

CARA, a corporation focusing on human performance solutions and specializing in custom learning, change management, and technical communication solutions to help people do their jobs more effectively, compiled research on the topic of informal learning, and found the following:

  • More than 70% of what we learn in life and the workplace is the result of informal and social situations. One example of this is language. As young children, we learn our native language through our home setting and socialization, rather than formal language classes.
  • Some of the most essential workplace skills come through informal learning including mentoring, coaching and job shadowing.
  • 81% of survey respondents included in the CARA research said social media offers “valuable learning opportunities for employees.”
  • 98% of respondents said social media is altering the way employees access information and learn.
  • 47% of people included in the survey said employee/team-initiated sharing sessions and collaboration, mentoring and coaching were the most valuable means of informal learning in the workplace.

Along with the expanding spotlight on informal learning in workplace training, there’s also important insights into the intersection between informal and socialized learning. This is perhaps one of the most important areas to understand, particularly as employers are seeking ways to bring this learning style into e-Learning and online training for employees. While informal learning doesn’t always have to happen through socialization, it is one of the most significant and valuable ways it occurs.

Comparing Formal and Informal Learning

Before we go further here, it is worthwhile to highlight some of the major differences in formal and informal learning.

  • With formal education, large groups are going to be presented with the same information, often at the same time.
  • Informal learning characteristically includes more hands-on activities and approaches to the training process.
  • Informal learning really requires a sense of trust be present for genuine knowledge transfer to happen.
  • While informal learning is largely seen as more powerful than formalized situations, there are potential obstacles, including the difficulty of measuring informal learning and determining ROI, as well as the challenges that come with determining where skills deficiencies exist and being able to target those. Informal learning may also present inconsistencies across a workforce.

Infusing Informal Learning Concepts Into Your e-Learning

For many training managers, the question that comes into play when talking about informal learning and its many advantages is how to make it work alongside e-Learning and more formalized training methodologies. Pairing formalized and informal learning can deliver the most comprehensive and effective training to employees, particularly with these strategies:

  • Informal learning ultimately just means learning through unstructured situations, so think about this when creating employee e-Learning or online training. While your e-Learning may include facts and how-to’s found in traditional training, it can also include socialized elements, such as the ability for coworkers to have discussions with one another during the training process. Present information or case studies, and then include opportunities for peer discussions through your e-Learning platform.
  • Encourage employees to conduct their own research and look outside the confines of the e-Learning platform to reinforce what they’re learning there.
  • Include a blog in your e-Learning and let employees contribute with their own writing as well. Employees will be able to learn by reading the thoughts and experiences of their coworkers, but sharing one’s own knowledge and experience can also be a valuable learning tool. With the creation of an employee blog, there will be a constant exchange of information happening to facilitate the advantages of informalized learning.
  • Hold webinars that encourage all employees to ask questions and share their thoughts about training. Webinars are an inexpensive and easy way to get everyone together to launch valuable debates and even foster feedback, particularly if your employees are geographically dispersed.
  • Consider creating your own internal social network and then using it in conjunction with your more formalized e-Learning materials. When you rely on an enterprise social network, you can avoid security concerns that come with encouraging employees to use channels like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but you still enjoy the natural learning benefits that come from the use of social media in the workplace.

There is no doubt that informal learning is catching the eye of corporate leaders and training managers. It’s something that’s already happening, but by gaining a better understanding of what it is and how it impacts the workplace, training leaders can then harness its power and work to use it alongside e-Learning and formal learning programs to strengthen their workforce and their competitiveness.

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