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Informal Learning: Threat or Opportunity?


Donald H Taylor asks whether informal learning is an opportunity or a threat for the Learning & Development professional.

Informal learning is a hot buzz phrase right now, but what does it actually mean? And what in particular does it mean for Learning and Development professionals?

Coined and popularised by Jay Cross in his blog and on You Tube, informal learning is a catch all term. It has two aspects: how structured a piece of learning is, and whether or not it is obligatory. Different commentators have chosen to highlight one or other of these aspects. In a TrainingZone interview, for example, Neil Lasher defined informal learning in two ways:
“1. Having a relaxed, friendly or unofficial style, unplanned and 2. Having a need rather than a want!”

For most people, the gut reaction is that informal learning is how we learn when we’re not in the classroom. And if you believe the figures, it’s where most learning occurs. Eighty per cent of learning takes place informally, says Cross, and only 20% formally, while the numbers are reversed for the L&D spend: 80% of training budgets go on formal learning, and only 20% on informal. As so often happens with catch all terms, there has been an initial enthusiasm – “that makes sense”, followed by a backlash – “hang on, what exactly do those numbers mean?”

Pundits jump in from every side to pull things apart to see how it works, and the result isn’t always pretty. Donald Clark in the US examined the numbers, and called the 80/20 division “totally misleading”.

US-based performance consultant Guy Wallace quotes Richard Clark of USC, in saying:
“The evidence from the past 50 years of research on this issue is unequivocal – unguided or minimally guided discovery and constructivist learning programs simply do not work for more than a very small percentage of people.
(For the original quote: see pg 10 of the ASTD proceedings of 2005)

Forget numbers, research and definitions, though. Whatever its validity, the term ‘informal learning’ is here to stay, and is having an effect on the Learning and Development profession right now. And the effect is not always good.

The threat
Informal learning’s popularity is in part a reaction against the perceived ineffectiveness of the classroom. Research Institute of America figures show that retention of knowledge drops to 33% just 48 hours after classroom training, falling to around 10% over three weeks.

Of course formal learning (in the classroom or otherwise) is not always as ineffective as this research suggests. Mary Broad’s work in particular shows the huge influence of managers on training outcomes. But that message isn’t getting heard by the people who matter – those managing the budgets.

Remember L&D’s last great catch all term? Around 1998 – 2001, e-learning was sold to executives on one message: it cut costs. Of course nowadays, L&D professionals recognise that e-learning is one part of the learning mix, but that message hasn’t spread. Up top, the old message lingers on. E-learning is still perceived as a vague flash in the pan that had something to do with cost cutting. (See It’s Time to Drop E-Learning from July.)

Informal learning could be heading the same way. Baldly, the figures for Informal Learning seem to show that organisations are grossly over-paying for their training. It looks as if L&D hasn’t been doing its job – spending all its money in one place, when most of the learning is taking place somewhere else.

The other side of the coin
But there’s good news, too. Management interest has been piqued – and that has to be a good thing.
Is informal learning everything? No. Are short water cooler discussions really as good as classroom courses for spreading information? No, not always. But where there’s management interest, there’s opportunity.

Here, the opportunity is clear. If management is interested in informal learning, then make sure they draw the obvious inference. This is not that the Learning and Development department is defunct, but that with the wider involvement of the department, informal learning could be more effective.
Conrad Gottfredson of Brigham Young University suggests that there are five points of need for learning:
1.When learning for the first time
2.When extending learning
3.When training to remember/apply learning
4.When things change
5.When something goes wrong

Well-run formal learning is an excellent solution to the first two points of need. However, from points three to five is where most informal learning occurs. We usually call it on-the-job support. That support can be provided in a number of ways – via the help desk, from a book, from Google, or by turning to the person sitting next to you and asking. That sort of informal learning can be very effective. It can also be costly in time and spread bad practice.

Three immediate steps to support informal learning
On-the-job support is where L&D can take on a new role. Not to provide inappropriate just-in-case formal training, but to ensure that when people need to learn just-in-time, they learn right. (Does the person sitting next to you know the right answer? Are they aware of what they don’t know? Unlikely.) The result of this approach: better organisational performance, and that is surely the end goal of any L&D department.

Here are three suggested actions towards supporting informal learning:

  • First – delegates leaving formal, episodic just-in-case learning events forget too much, too soon. Help them. Provide prompts to help them do their job better, when they need it. Possible just-in-time solutions range from a paper job aid to a full EPSS (Electronic Performance Support System).

  • Second – not every learning intervention needs to be structured. Learners can do a lot for themselves. Try providing an online library of books (very effective in high tech companies), enrolment in professional communities, or simply making sure that everyone has desk-top internet access and Google.

    In particular, it is possible to create simple, short, self-access materials in a variety of media and formats for self-access learning. Podcasts, short presentations and videos captures are all low-tech media that can form part of the self-access library. Again, the L&D department’s role here is to ensure quality. That is, while the learning object produced must be accurate, relevant and accessible, it needn’t actually be created by the department. The department can, instead, play the part of publisher for the organisation’s internal experts – helping them produce content, advising on content and structure, and enabling distribution.

  • Third – build a learning context. Ensure that your organisation’s job roles and associated skill sets are clearly described. Employees may decide to build their skills in ways outside the formal learning provided by the department. Does it matter, provided they get there?
  • None of this is the traditional role of Learning and Development, but it is the department’s traditional goal: a better performing workforce.

    About the author: Donald H Taylor is Alliances Director at InfoBasis, and Chairman of the Learning Technologies and IITT National Trainers conferences. In January he was presented with the Colin Corder Award for outstanding services to IT training. He blogs at

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