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Free resource: Informal learning tool


This month, James McLuckie of Eden Tree provides the community with a resource to harness the power of informal learning. We'll let him explain...

Informal learning accounts for 80% of all learning in organisations and happens without any intervention from managers. However, it may not always be as effective as it could be. This guide highlights some actions that can be taken by an organisation to improve the effectiveness of informal learning. Also included is a diagnostic tool to help uncover where the informal learning that is already taking place can be made more effective, and identify how this can be done.


What is informal learning? 

Informal learning is the unscheduled, spontaneous way that most people learn how to do their jobs. It is the learning that takes place during conversations, social interactions and the search for information.
The nature of informal learning prevents control over the content being exerted by management. Instead, organisations should ensure that informal learning can happen quickly and workers are able to access information they need when they need it.
1. Find out how informal learning happens in the organisation
Before any interventions can be made to support informal learning, the current informal learning activity needs to be understood. The easiest way to do this is to carry out a simple analysis of how workers go about learning in the workplace. This can be done using one or more of the following methods:
Focus groups/interviews
By talking to people about how they carry out their day-to-day job and identifying where they access the information that helps them, it will help to build a picture of what resources workers use and also which ones they don't. Questions should uncover where/who they turn to when they are stuck, how they improve their performance, and what information/knowledge resources they use on a regular basis.
A questionnaire can collect much of the same information as the focus groups/interviews, in a more time efficient manner. However, the responses will often be less comprehensive without the ability to ask follow-up questions or clarify answers.
A more time-intensive but potentially more revealing method is to conduct observations of people while they work. In the course of carrying out their job and getting answers to work related queries a worker may:
  • talk to colleagues face-to-face, by phone or by email
  • use the internet/intranet to source information
  • refer to other information resources such as a shared computer drive or paper based work manual
  • contact subject matter experts
Observing this activity and recording it will provide a fairly accurate picture of how informal learning happens in a team/department/ function.
The information collected during an analysis will provide a useful account of which informal learning activities work most effectively, which ones don’t, and which ones are being underutilised. This will help to inform any improvement plan.
2. Promote informal learning
While workers may naturally learn informally, there is always room for improvement. Providing advice or training on the following activities will help workers improve their approach to informal learning:
effective information gathering ­– such as how to find information on the internet/intranet
  • learning techniques – such as note taking, mind mapping, personal reflection, etc.
  • setting personal learning goals to encourage workers to take responsibility for their own learning
  • networking – an expansive personal network helps workers get to the information they need quickly
Formal learning activities will always have a role in the training and development of workers and these can be enhanced by highlighting to participants the informal learning opportunities that are available to them in the workplace. This has a double benefit: it will increase the likelihood of the formal learning transferring back to the workplace; and it will improve the focus of the informal learning that subsequently takes place.
3. Provide high quality resources for informal learning
Informal learning is about accessing the right information when it is needed. One way of making sure that workers have access to good quality information is to ensure that it is easy to find and easy to access. An organisational intranet is a useful mechanism but it is important that workers know what is available to them. By promoting the availability of information on the intranet, organisations can increase usage. There is a wide range of suppliers offering learning, information and knowledge resources but it is important that the resources an organisation purchases fulfil the needs of its workforce.
4. Develop and support subject matter experts
Subject matter experts are natural hubs of informal learning activity and often carry out the role of an informal coach or mentor. Developing the coaching/mentoring skills of these experts will help to ensure that they are not simply dishing out answers to questions but actively encouraging their co-workers to learn for themselves.
5. Create areas where knowledge can be easily added and updated
Research has found that 15–30% of the average worker's time at work is spent actively seeking information (IDC Survey, 2003). Setting up online areas where information can be stored, shared and edited will help to reduce the time workers spend looking for information. In order for these areas to be successful, they should be created and promoted but then left to the workforce to develop. The more ownership that the workforce has of these knowledge sharing areas, the more useful and better used they will be. It may be worthwhile gaining the buy-in of the subject matter experts by highlighting the potential value that they could add in an oversight role.
6. Create opportunities for informal learning to take place
Informal learning is most effective when people are able to easily meet and exchange ideas. There are a number of initiatives that an organisation can take to increase this activity:
  • cross-team project work – providing workers the opportunities to meet with people from other teams and departments will help improve their personal networks and give them a fresh perspective on the organisation as a whole
  • peer-to-peer coaching and mentoring initiatives – although coaching and mentoring are examples of formal development initiatives, they often lead to more informal learning as the relationship between coach/mentor and person being coached/mentored develops
  • create comfortable areas where workers can meet – this will encourage the kind of informal discussions where learning will often take place
7. Monitor and adjust
Improving the informal learning activity in an organisation should be an iterative process. Some initiatives will be very successful; others will need to be refined over time. Developments in technology and the internet, and more sophisticated software and communications technology will all offer opportunities to improve the effectiveness of informal learning. The key is finding those improvements that will offer best value to the workforce by involving them in the process.

See attached for the informal learning diagnostic tool.

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