Every great leader of an organization focuses on helping their team grow into experts in the field. But there are many ways to train employees into experts, and choosing the right method is an important decision. Formal vs. informal training has been a debate for decades, but you don’t have to choose one or the other.
Formal training is structured, organized learning that is often (but not always!) done in a classroom setting. This closely mirrors academic education in most instances. Informal training is unstructured learning, usually done on the job or in a casual mentorship program. Both can offer significant benefits, and both have drawbacks.
Formal vs. Informal Training: The Pros and Cons
Formal learning is defined as a “systematic, intentional” way of training someone. This always involves an instructor figure. You can perform formal learning in-person or virtually, and it can be face-to-face or through a pre-recorded workshop. Things like onboarding training and or mandated compliance training programs are considered formal training.
Reasons to consider using formal training elements in your office include:
- It is easy to track what training each employee has been through, which may be necessary for CEUs or compliance reports.
- You can more easily test employees on what they are learning and expect specific results based on the curriculum offered.
- This can be the best way for some people to learn if they prefer being taught through a presentation.
- It is often more time-effective, as all the training is done in shorter, dedicated sessions.
However, there are some reasons that formal training isn’t for everyone:
- Formal training can feel too structured for some learners, especially those who do not come from a traditional educational background. People who prefer to learn by doing may find this method of learning to be detrimental.
- You will have to vet instructors and materials to ensure it aligns with the processes your organization uses.
Informal learning, on the other hand, offers other positive things to your team:
- Informal learning can happen anywhere, at any time. If you carefully create a training and learning culture in your office, informal learning can even happen around the water cooler.
- Informal learning takes advantage of the individual strengths of each team member. If someone learns best by doing, they can practice with projects. If another person learns best by watching examples, perhaps they can watch the first person practice.
- Informal learning encourages people to become experts rather than skimming topics with “just enough” information for compliance.
But, like formal learning, there are some drawbacks to informal learning:
- Informal learning does require that you be more proactive about monitoring what your employees are learning. With no set curriculum or structure, it’s essential to ensure that employees get the best information.
- There are no immediately apparent goals set with informal learning. Again, it requires you to be proactive in helping your team set educational goals.
- Because informal learning is unplanned, it can be harder to track time spent on training activities.
But the debate between formal vs. informal learning doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can incorporate both into your organization.
When to Choose: Formal vs. Informal Learning
Knowing that you can encourage a culture of both types of formal vs informal training, the next question you may have is: when should I offer formal training, and when should I encourage more informal training?
The best way to answer this question is to look at the different training situations’ needs. Do you need a measure of the time spent or knowledge gained? For example, if you are offering safety training that must be reported to a compliance board, you need exact numbers on time spent training and perhaps even official test results. In this case, you’d want to offer formal training with a certified instructor.
Onboarding is another area where it’s a good idea to have formal training. You may not need a record of time spent, but you do want to ensure complete uniformity in the information that all new hires get. This ensures that everyone understands your organization’s go-to processes and brand voice precisely the same way.
Product training could be another area to offer formal training. But what about informal training? This unstructured learning may be best suited for developing more profound expertise in technical skills while on the job. Soft skill training, where the objective is to gain actionable knowledge rather than comply with specific needs, is also an excellent area to encourage informal training.
Formal vs. Informal Training Methods
Knowing that you intend to offer both formal and informal learning opportunities is the first step. Now you need to determine what types of each you’ll put into place.
Some ways to offer formal training in your organization include:
- Seminars, webinars, or other types of recorded training. This can be done with a hybrid or virtual office as well as in person.
- Live training. You can bring instructors to the office or send your team to training events.
- Academic education. Many organizations offer tuition reimbursement if employees choose to improve their skills through a formal degree.
Some ways to offer informal training include:
- Creating a forum for employees to share what they know. This may mean a simple digital channel for discussing projects or having regular meetings where employees can talk about what they are learning.
- Offering access to resources like professional tools and software for employees to direct their own learning.
Putting Formal and Informal Learning Together
The most successful teams in any industry are those that put a focus on continual learning. While the debate of formal vs. informal education carries on, combining the two in your organization is a great way to take advantage of the benefits of both. In many cases, the strengths of one type of training can make up for the downsides of another.
As long as your employees feel supported in their training, you will see the benefits of both informal and formal learning.