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How do you influence Informal Learning?

There is a lot of talk these days about informal learning. It is estimated that as low as 10 per cent of the knowledge and skills that adults learn on the job is through formal learning. Formal learning includes the structured courses or workshops that learners take either in a classroom environment (either physical or virtual), online through Web-based training or using other self-paced methods. Another characteristic of formal learning is that it almost always has some form of evaluation, and often the training itself is mandatory.

In contrast, informal learning is exclusively self-directed. Learners decide what and how they would like to learn. For this reason, organizations traditionally have not factored informal learning into their training budgets. In fact, most organizations don’t even give any thought to the informal learning and development of their employees. But with new research showing the amount that is learned informally, that is starting to change.

These days, more learners are aware that they have to be proactive to remain effective in their jobs and competitive in the job market. And with the advent of the Internet, more learning opportunities are available to learners than ever before. Organizations don’t have to worry as much about motivating employees to constantly increase their knowledge and upgrade their skills. However, they should have some influence on the informal learning process. If as much as 90 per cent of their employees’ learning is informal, do organizations really want to leave it all up to chance? And what is the role of an organization in the learning and development of employees?

Since the very nature of the informal learning process is non-structured, it is important not to try to control the process for the learners. However, there is much opportunity to encourage and support this kind of learning process. Some ways that an organization can support informal learning are to support learning opportunities and to create environments where informal learning can happen. For example, an organization could:

  • Set up a mentoring program where newer employees learn by observing the behaviours of more experienced staff and by practicing in the presence of their mentors
  • Provide places where employees can meet with the expressed purpose of sharing knowledge (including cross-functional events)
  • Provide experts that can be reached by phone (help desk), email, or through a broadcast board to answer questions relating to specific job functions
  • Create a knowledge base, such as Wikis or BLOGs, where employees can post work related information such as FAQs, articles, and tools (preferably one where the learners can rate each item posted)
  • Provide the collaborative tools that make it easier for a dispersed workforce to network
  • Support participation in professional communities (by way of paid membership or time off to attend events)
  • Provide employees the time needed to incorporate informal learning into their jobs
  • Communicate the organization’s position on informal learning and employee development (publish all the options supported by the organization)

The most effective methods would surely have to incorporate the best practices for learning, which include discussion, practice and feedback. Keep this in mind when planning the ways the organization supports informal learning.

By focusing on informal learning, organizations win because it creates a broader range of knowledge and skills in the organization, encourages creativity, and it sends the message that the organization values each individual member of the workforce - not just one specific skills set. In contrast, consider the cost of staff turnover due to discouraged and unhappy employees. Also, supporting the informal learning process is another way to direct the focus to the knowledge and skills that align with the needs of the organization - now and in the future.

Of course, there will always be a need for formal training for the knowledge and skills that organizations consider mandatory. But organizations these days need to remember that training is not learning. It is only a part of the learning process.