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Martin Belton

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Harnessing the power of informal learning


Martin Belton shares new research findings and argues that formal and informal learning should sit side by side, and Web 2.0 learning should be linked to the bottom line - business value.

Visit any self respecting learning-focused conference today and you’ll discover agendas packed with tales of magical applications sure to make you an informal learning wizard. But how many informal learning solutions are actually capable of adding real value to the business?

Organisations understandably have some concerns about informal learning applications. According to a report from Basex in 2008, 28% of all employee work is wasted by people multi-tasking between email, google, and various other forms of informal learning. Meanwhile, in a report in May 2009, Bersin pointed out that 68% of knowledge workers feel their biggest learning problem is an overwhelming volume of information. Give your company directors this information and they are more likely to be thinking about limiting access to information rather than looking for new ways to deliver it!

This creates tremendous challenges for the learning professional. How can I integrate informal learning with formal learning and make it more accessible across the organisation? How can I measure its effectiveness? And how can I demonstrate to the board, functional heads and line managers its impact on performance?

"At a time when return on investment is paramount, informal learning needs to be linked to specific skills development"

For employees and managers the choice of ways to gain new knowledge and skills is almost endless. A survey from The Chartered Management Institute late last year reveals that half of managers use online videos to develop new skills, a third use social networking sites to boost knowledge and around a quarter use ebooks and online discussion forums for learning.

Making informal learning more accessible

So it falls to the learning manager to find ways of ‘formalising’ informal learning to manage its use by learners and to protect against information overload. At a time when return on investment is paramount, informal learning needs to be linked to specific skills development and talent management strategies and structured in such a way that it has a measurable impact on individual and organisational performance.

According to Bersin, the key challenge for organisational learning today is creating a unified, enterprise-wide learning environment. An environment that is capable of integrating and supporting this new world of formal and informal learning. And one that enables performance to be tracked and measured against training - and that enables business and performance-based reports to be easily generated for managers and the board.

"A survey of over 100 senior L&D managers... reveals that 87% of respondents believe there needs to be a stronger link between L&D and core business processes and strategy"

With learning practices evolving so quickly, organisations are increasingly struggling to ensure their learning information systems are capable of meeting today’s demanding business requirements. A survey of over 100 senior L&D managers held this month by e2train, in partnership with the Learning and Skills Group, reveals that 87% of respondents believe there needs to be a stronger link between learning & development and core business processes and strategy. Linking learning closer to organisational needs was also deemed to be the single greatest personal learning challenge faced by L&D managers today (28%) followed by increasing L&D’s profile within the organisation (17%) and social learning and the use of web 2.0 tools (16%).

A greater focus on return on investment

The current turbulent economic climate is undoubtedly forcing most organisations to place a greater focus on return on investment. Training managers have recognised the need to raise the visibility of the business benefits learning delivers. More than 60% of respondents indicated that their organisation’s management are keen to train their staff - providing the benefits of training are clearly defined. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (in its 2009 L&D survey) found that 60% of L&D professionals feel there needs to be a greater emphasis on the evaluation of training effectiveness.

The problem is that performance-based information for informal learning is exceptionally difficult to track, without integrating it alongside more formal learning programmes within an enterprise-wide learning environment.

Furthermore, e2train’s survey reveals that 45% of respondents would provide more comprehensive or more frequent reports to the board on the value of learning if only they had the necessary tools available to do so. Currently, learning is reported on and discussed at boardroom level by the majority of companies on a monthly (35%) or quarterly basis (39%) basis. Seven per cent of organisations have no board level discussions regarding the value of learning.

Connecting Web 2.0 learning and business value

Unless real care is taken, it is far too easy to create a major disconnect between the user-driven adoption of the informal Web 2.0 learning experience and the measurable business benefits demanded by the boardroom. If learners are to take full advantage of social networking and the profusion of knowledge management tools available today, organisations must provide a more formalised, structured and easy-to-navigate learning environment where formal and informal learning can sit seamlessly side by side.

"45% of respondents would provide more comprehensive or more frequent reports to the board on the value of learning if only they had the necessary tools available to do so."

The very proliferation of informal learning tools also enforces this need to standardise; most organisations are, understandably, fairly choosy about which tools they allow onto their system. By managing and standardising that choice, trainers can increase uptake on individual tools and increase the usefulness to the organisation. The good news is that the technology is now becoming available to do this. And it’s the most popular sites - Google and the BBC – that have driven this.

Google’s ‘web gadgets’ (alternatively known as web parts) provide great access to informal learning opportunities (like of Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Digg and popular blogs and wikis) in a single window. They can provide a conglomerated view of all your informal interaction sites. Today’s new generation of learning platforms are now leveraging these gadgets and combining them with new ones that provide access to formal elearning, classroom schedules and other internal resources. Such technology can only be good news for training managers as it raises the profile of training in the boardroom at a time when it has never been more important to justify the benefits of learning programmes and initiatives.

Martin Belton is business development director of e2train, the UK’s leading provider of learning and performance technologies to blue-chip, public sector and SME organisations. For further information visit

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Martin Belton


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