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Paul Matthews

People Alchemy Ltd


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Compelling evidence for informal learning


Paul Matthews tells the community why informal learning is so important.

The other day I was chatting with a senior learning and development person in a large multinational company. He had started reading my recent book on informal learning and was asking me for ways he could convince the senior people in his business to buy into the concept.

Like many companies these days they were restructuring and shuffling people about, and inevitably some of those people were being shown the door to pursue other opportunities. He had just finished a small project where he had surveyed people within the company to ask them what risks they identified as a result of the current restructuring programme.

Some interesting information came out of this survey, and by far the biggest risk identified was the knowledge that was walking out the door when people who had been with the company for many years were taking a package and leaving. I would guess that this would be a common concern for almost every organisation out there. What about your organisation? What do you lose when a long-serving staff member leaves?

"If training is the solution, then loss of knowledge as people leave could hardly be considered a major risk."

He mentioned the survey as a side comment, and said he could have predicted that result even before he started. He saw this survey as a distraction from his real role in learning and development. What I saw instead was that he had actually created some compelling evidence to support his campaign to get buy in to informal learning.

I was struck by the seeming inconsistency between the awareness of this risk of knowledge loss, and the apparent lack of awareness of the critical role of informal learning. If the core knowledge that people have in order to do their job has been obtained in a training room or in some other formal learning situation, then similar training of those employees who are still with the organisation would solve the problem. If training is the solution, then this loss of knowledge as people leave could hardly be considered a major risk.

It seems the knowledge that people are worried about losing is that knowledge that has been gained through informal learning, and is therefore not so easy to replace. In fact it is not so easy to even identify what that knowledge is.

That reminds me of a quote from Lew Platt when he was CEO of Hewlett-Packard; “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive”.

It is clear that senior people (and budget holders) are aware of the importance of what they might call experiential learning. They also seem to be aware that this type of learning is usually a very individual thing, and the knowledge and skills learned in this way are often not so easy to disseminate more widely in an organisation.

However this is changing with the advent of new thinking around the processes that lead to informal learning, and all the new technology tools that can enhance and make those processes much more efficient than has ever been possible.

So the point of this article is to suggest to you that the risk of knowledge walking out the door might be a useful way to open the informal learning conversation with senior people in your organisation.

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He is also the author of the brand new bestseller "Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times". Paul blogs at

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