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Informal Learning – Beyond the Hype


 Neil Lasher

President of the ASTD Global Network UK, Neil Lasher recently called on training professionals to devote more of their budgets to informal learning. Here he explains to TrainingZONE the power and potential of this form of learning.

Informal learning became the buzz term for 2006. Why do you feel interest is now so strong?

First let me say I don’t think it was a buzzword in 2006, I think it will be the major focus of many top company training activities in 2007. Why so strong? Simple answer really, informal is 80% of what we learn. (You are doing it right this moment reading the answers to these questions.) Yet it represents only 2% of our training budget. With formal learning especially e-learning showing such poor completion rates, informal e–learning is showing it’s face clearly in the winners circle. It can only get stronger as people realise the power of it.

It seems to encapsulate everything from a Google search to a work colleague explaining how to fill up the coffee machine. What is your definition of informal learning?

I like your questions. Nothing easy like yes or no for an answer! There are many definitions floating around, however some of the definitions do not represent ‘informal’ I think there are two definitions that I can agree with at this time. 1. Having a relaxed, friendly or unofficial style, unplanned and 2. Having a need rather than a want! Informal learning is certainly not (for me anyway) some learning intervention that has been planned by a training department and placed in such a way that you fall over it. Or for that matter subliminal and planned that way.

What do you feel is the value of this form of learning to the UK?

I think we can best answer this by asking you to consider the value that exists from it now! Imagine this world - Take away the ability to look something up in a book when you are looking for an answer right this minute. Take away the ability to use a search engine like Google (how many times have you used it already today?) Take away the phone to the helpdesk. Take away the ability to ask a colleague for assistance or for advice. How much extra does it cost you now? The only route to knowledge in this world we created is a Formal training course! The value of informal has been with us all of our lives, Informal learning is probably the oldest form of learning any of us know. We have just never considered how to make it available. Of course now it has a name, amazing it has no acronym yet!

While it may be much talked about, is there any evidence that it is being facilitated by L&D departments?

Absolutely. I have been working with a number of large organisations to roll out learning developed and delivered using context sensitive tools, designed specially as informal chunks. These organisations are both here in the UK and in the USA. The results are easily measured not by a tick in a box but by the ability of staff to complete tasks on time and without error.

If informal learning is as successful and widespread as reports suggest, why does L&D need to intervene at all?

Intervention is for one simple reason. To ensure that the learning delivered in this format has been approved by the organisation. And that’s all. If we allow the learner to get whatever information he can find from public websites and Wikis and blogs written by unknown and unverified sources, who knows what results we will end up with?

You have called on organisations to invest in informal learning. What kind of budget are we talking about and where is it best spent?

Best spent on design and understanding of the need. Best spent on creation of clever small learning bytes that are directed at a very narrow focus of learning (and lots of them) Best spent on delivery tools that make the learning available at the right time, just as it is needed, without the need of vast search engines and knowledge management systems. How much? If informal is 80% of what we learn, then 80% of the training budget!

Is it possible, or even advisable, to evaluate informal learning?

Easy to evaluate, we have been evaluating staff for decades. What is different? Oh electronically? Well now we risk falling into an area that says we have technology, lets find a use for it, Assessment! Assessment! Assessment! What happened to the good old sit down evaluation talk with your line manager? Evaluation is easy. Do you use it? Is it useful? How would you feel if we took it away? Get answers to those once implemented and you will see how useful it is very quickly indeed.

And finally, in your role with the ASTD, do you see any differences between the understanding of the role of informal learning in the US versus the UK and is there anything we can learn from the States?

What makes you think the USA is ahead of us? Ask any international delegate at the ASTD conference these questions and they will tell you that European trainers are streets ahead. We do not become trainers as a job role but as a career. We are not lagging behind we are leading the way. Here in the UK training departments need to get a little bolder and not hide in the comfort zone.

* Managing Director of Trainer1 Ltd, Neil Lasher is also chairman of the E-Learning Vendors Association, Member of British Association of Open Learning and a Member of the E-Learning Network. He will speak at the Learning Technologies Conference on 31 January.


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