Informal learning - The ultimate guide

What informal learning is, what the benefits are, and how to apply it at your organization

by Kasper Spiro

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We learn nearly all the time. Through conversations, videos, quick reads, reflection, sharing, and other ways. Traditional definitions may confine the scope to a designated place, like a school or a workplace. That’s where formal learning happens, which has limitations.

Informal learning breaks these barriers and unleashes the unlimited potential and seamless avenues for learning. When we apply this paradigm to corporate learning, L&D must blend both worlds to realize the real benefits. While formal learning might help set the direction, informal learning helps execute it in its own rhythm and style.

It promotes the notion of a lifelong learning culture that can significantly meet the skills gap. The role of L&D rests in nurturing this inquisitive understanding to explore and learn more. This can mean providing the environment to unleash the social learning and self-learning side of the employee.

Informal learning definition

Most professionals are familiar with formal learning. It’s usually delivered face-to-face or through online training, with L&D departments setting goals and objectives on behalf of employees and creating courses and classroom training for them.

The background of informal learning

Informal learning occurs away from a structured, formal classroom environment. It comes in many forms, including viewing videos, self-study, reading articles, participating in forums and chat rooms, performance support, coaching sessions, and games. There is usually no formal structure, curriculum, expert trainer who teaches students, or legal recognition of completion like a certificate or diploma. Informal learning is a style in which the learner sets their own goals and objectives.

Since the early days of e-learning, L&D has mainly focused on formal learning, with Learning Management Systems (LMS) as a tool to push learners’ content. This took up a significant share of the L&D budget. The late e-learning pioneer Jay Cross, best known for his workplace learning approach, did a lot to promote the idea that there’s more to L&D than formal methods. His view was that learning is not about transferring knowledge but about performing and working better.

Nowadays, employees have the internet to find the information they require. So they are used to satisfying their own learning needs. Hence, many L&D departments are moving their focus away from formal learning. Thanks to Jay Cross and others’ groundlaying work, organizations shift their attention and budgets to informal learning instead.

Formal training is essential for businesses because each industry has an established set of rules and procedures that employees must follow. For instance, compliance, security, and onboarding are some of the mandatory and popular HR training programs in a formal classroom setup. But informal learning covers a vast ground for employees outside the scheduled agenda. It offers an excellent opportunity for the HR department to create processes to monitor and optimize employee development. And that’s just one way in which companies can embrace informal learning.

The main differences between formal and informal learning

Formal learning

  • When: planned and scheduled 
  • Who: organization decides whom to train and whom to not 
  • Why: because organization outlines the requirement 
  • What: on topics decided as per organizational goals 
  • How: through formats, content, duration. The style is designed by HR or L&D

Informal learning

  • When: unplanned and impromptu
  • Who: anyone with an interest to learn 
  • Why: self-driven and inherently desired to learn 
  • What: partially aligned with organizational goals and primarily aligned with learner interest 
  • How: learner tailors it to their taste and time 

Informal learning theory

Even though informal learning has an unplanned and flexible nature, there are theories that backs it up. The theories about it lay out how informal learning can be applied and used to improve employees’ every day work on the short and long term.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning describes how learners diagnose their needs, formulate their goals, devise their learning methods, and handle learning independently without any support from formal learning regimes.

Workplace learning

According to this school of theories, informal learning that occurs in the workplace context is related to an employee’s job and is usually not planned by the employer. It is about employees developing and improving skills and growing their knowledge while they are at work.

Social learning

Social learning is a spontaneous practice rooted in everyday behaviours at work, and outside of work. Peer interactions, like conversations, imitation, observing, are a catalyst to foster social learning and contribute to the sharing of knowledge.

The 70:20:10 model

All ways of informal learning are closely related to our popular 70:20:10 model for L&D. In fact, it is part of it and adds the value of the first two parts of the model that state that:

  • 70% of the learning happens on the job
  • 20% happens through social interactions

That means that 90% of learning comes through informal learning, at and outside of work. The other way of learning, the most traditional way, formal learning, only takes up 10% of all learning.

Why informal learning is important

Informal learning influences L&D in several ways and we can point out four trends that are rooted in informal learning practices and have a real impact.

From formal learning towards informal learning

Informal learning is the opposite of formal learning, which is usually delivered face-to-face or through online training and typically controlled by L&D. Informal learning is not planned or organized top-down. It just happens whenever it’s needed.

From a top-down approach towards a bottom-up approach

A traditional, top-down approach of L&D delivering and administering training is shifting rapidly towards a bottom-up approach. Companies now encourage workers to be accountable for their learning. Bottom-up or employee-driven learning is at the heart of informal learning.

From a learning approach towards performance support

Performance support focuses on improving work, while training focuses on the learning required to do the job. This requires contextually-embedded tools and content that employees use in the moment of need, without interrupting their workflow. This is a significant trend in the L&D space. Learning in the context of work without a planned agenda is a classic trait of informal learning.

From a knowledge focus towards a skills focus

There’s a significant difference between having the skills to do something and knowing how to do it. A key trend in L&D is to prioritize skills over knowledge because it’s essential to be able to apply something, to show different behavior. As mentioned above, informal learning activities fit easily into a workday and are associated with solving the problem at hand spontaneously. This is related to working out one’s actionable skills to get the job done.

Examples of informal learning

Informal learning occurs in many ways and takes a lot of shapes. Mainly, there are five examples of how employees can practice informal learning:

  • Example 1: facilitate semi-formal forums that encourage knowledge-sharing.
  • Example 2: curate content that allows employees to pick resources of interest or help them perform better or address a problem.
  • Example 3: coach and mentor or buddy up to a new employee while they learn the ropes.
  • Example 4: informal expert speaking sessions by employees or guest speakers.
  • Example 5: volunteering.

The following situations show how employees can apply these examples of informal learning.

  • Sharing the highlight of how you closed a deal as you wait for a Sales team review meeting with a colleague.
  • Sharing the best practice that helped you spend less time on a file you produced.
  • Showing a new colleague how to use the in-house project management tool as you notice him struggling with it on your way in.
  • Sharing a newsletter you’re subscribed to with your colleagues because it has an article that resonates with a challenge you had discussed in the monthly review meeting.
  • Checking online for tips to help you manage new team members.

How informal learning occurs in the workplace

Informal learning approaches are common throughout most work environments. They can happen in the break room or the hallway just as frequently as in the conference room. These are a few illustrations of informal learning in the workplace:

  • A salesperson shares a sales tip with a co-worker by the water cooler.
  • An employee’s voluntary participation in a coaching or mentoring program.
  • A co-worker showing a new employee how to use the company’s intranet.
  • An account executive learns about a competitor’s products through social media.
  • Team collaboration among production employees to ship a large order.
  • Participation in online discussions.

Informal learning strategies

Feel like you want to embrace informal learning at you organization more? Great, we can only encourage that! Apply this strategy to make it a successful experience for everyone.  

 Let employees co-strategize the plan

Informal learning is devised and executed by employees without any guidance or from L&D. It is entirely driven by employees who wish to learn and solve the challenges at work using their self-discovery or social skills. This self-paced tempo works wonders as long as you align it with your business goals. Hence, it is vital to keep the communication transparent with the employees regularly, inform them about goals, identify skill gaps, and collaboratively decide which activities are useful to meet your goals.   

Build the ecosystem and repository for consumption and tools for sharing

Informal learning thrives by having the right information at hand at the right moment, which requires a support system. On the one hand, it is essential to provide easily accessible and findable information to employees to support their job performance in the work context. On the other hand, it is equally important to provide the tools for them to share their best practices, which in turn feeds the knowledge ecosystem.

L&D can create the structure and initiate content into it, but in general – the best and most useful knowledge comes in from the employees. Hence, providing the right content creation tools to capture the knowledge as short nuggets of content or resources is crucial for a healthy content system.   

Involve your managers and L&D

Finding information, solving problems, getting advice from colleagues, trying new solutions – these are some of the inadvertent processes happening informally on the floor. The modern workforce doesn’t seek or wait for consent to get going, and L&D and the managers must come together to create a structure for the informal learning happening on the job. As managers and L&D have the bird’s eye view of the overall business goals, the teams, employee strengths, and projects, they are in a great position to map the right people to the right opportunities of learning.   

Initiate programs: mentoring, social groups, stretch assignments

Social learning activities like mentoring are a brilliant training ground for many employees to leverage a veteran’s knowledge. L&D can facilitate informal learning, and seasoned employees can share their knowledge and pass their wisdom to less experienced colleagues. Similarly, roping in employees into new assignments beyond their normal remit of work can be hugely inspiring for them to learn and grow. Leverage on your LMS or LXP or intranets’ collaboration features to provide connections, discussions, curation, and active participation.  

Monitor the progress

It’s important to measure all your work’s progress, so you can steer it in the right direction. But how do you do that? Here are a few ideas: 

  • You can set up smart data analytics into your tools to monitor the resources’ usage and engagement. 
  • Get NPS or qualitative feedback on the learning programs initiated.  
  • Measure with KPIs. Are your employees able to perform the same tasks faster or with a much lesser error rate, or perhaps increased sales? The key lies in tying it to your key performance indicators.  

Benefits of informal learning

Informal learning is precious for your organization. It comes with various benefits, such as:

  • Employees drive it and therefor gives them a better sense of control and autonomy.
  • Employees drive their informal learning with their motivation, so their focus and timely completion are assured.
  • You can personalize learning because employees can choose to use their preferred sources, channels, methods, and learning styles. They even decide what they want to learn.
  • Informal learning is a continuous affair because it is self-driven and happens on the job.
  • Learners are more fulfilled because it is their pet project to explore and learn, and not forced by the organization. Consequently, it could be more fun and interesting for them.
  • Learners can choose to expand and pace as they want because it becomes rewarding for them (including the content, the depth of study, the time spent, etc.).
  • There is no pressure of tests – neither for the taker nor by the giver.
  • Because it’s a self-driven approach with assured intrinsic motivation and completion rate, effectiveness is high.

Informal learning and impact on content and tools

While it is an accepted fact that informal learning could happen for any duration and context, you can usually find the optimal moments for it when employees are in the flow of work. Picture this: you are onboarding a new employee to the core products with e-learning modules. He or she may want some answers about the products’ application side before, during, or after the modules. They could be preparatory, on the fly, or a follow-up. This is the opportunity for L&D to nurture the informal learning drive in the employee by providing the nuggets of information or the tools to check or people to connect to get questions clarified.

As a starting point, we often advise L&D to channel the existing expertise of senior employees and capture it in consumable content forms and formats. These quick doses of information will be beneficial while solving an issue at work. What are these forms, and how can L&D create them? The answer rests in the natural and informal behaviors of how subject matter experts typically share their knowledge. They share quick links or crisp how-to procedures or reference guides, or short checklists on various aspects of their work.

The idea is to capture these knowledge capsules and disseminate them to wider networks closing the knowledge gap faster. L&D must invest in the right content creation or authoring tools to be able to capture and share this tactical knowledge that can fulfill the performance support needs of the organization. The tools must be easy to use for busy employees who can share what they know informally. This experience should be as seamless and fluid as their own informal, impromptu, spontaneous learning moment itself.

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