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Paul Matthews

People Alchemy Ltd


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What is informal learning?


Paul Matthews of People Alchemy believes informal learning is an essential part of L&D.

I worked in a factory with a warehouse once, many years ago when I was a student. One day, when we were sitting outside in the sun at lunchtime, I asked an old hand there called Phil why he was still driving a forklift in a job where most people moved on. He said he had a learning difficulty, and he was grateful for the job. We got to chatting and I learnt from a chance comment that he had a hobby. It was war games with the model soldiers where they recreate historical battles. He had an amazing knowledge of famous battles; not just the tactics, but also the history attached to them and the psychology of the commanders.
I remember after he described in detail the life of a particular general he admired, I asked him how he learnt all this stuff...and he said that he didn't learn it. To him it was just part of his hobby.
I started to pull together this article and thought of Phil and what is a pretty good definition of informal learning. It is learning that happens when we don't think of it as learning.
"It happens when you look up information on the web, with Google, on specialised sites. It happens when you look up an old manual or handbook. It is happening all the time."
It just happens. We don't even think of it as learning. It is not scheduled. It is spontaneous.
It happens when we make a mistake, it happens when we observe others doing either well or badly. If you see someone walk across a wet road and they step in a shallow puddle, but go in over their shoes, you learn by watching. You now know there is a deep hole under that puddle in the pavement. You just learnt something. It happens when people chat about their experiences, when you ask someone a question. It happens when you look up information on the web, with Google, on specialised sites. It happens when you look up an old manual or handbook. It is happening all the time.
If I need to buy a new photocopier, I will look at some websites and find out what's available. I don't think "I will learn about photocopiers".
Various studies have consistently shown that well over half of what we know about our jobs, we learnt informally. Some studies put this as high as 85%.
Think about that; most of our L&D budget goes into the 20% formal stuff, and the rest is usually left to chance.
Perhaps it is because we have not traditionally thought of it as learning?
That's changing. There is a growing focus on the informal learning that goes on, even though the people doing it don't call it learning, and don't think of it as learning. To them it is just part of life. In fact, it is a side effect of life. 80% of what we learn at work is a side effect? Wow!

We are programmed to learn

I believe that we are programmed to learn. If we were not, evolution would have discarded us long ago as an dead end.
So here we are, evolved to learn, and in my opinion, always learning.
We cannot not learn - it is a survival instinct. When survival is at stake, we learn what we need to learn to survive. This could be learning what time the sandwich van calls, to where the stationery cupboard is, to how to treat the boss when they have a hangover. It can be how to keep your head down, how to get along with other departments, what accounts want on their form and how to fit in with the culture.
Beyond mere survival, some people will seek to thrive in their environment and so they unconsciously pick up learning that enables them to thrive. They learn what the boss wants in a report, and how to be seen for getting good results. They learn what is rewarded in this culture, and what is not.
By the way, this is where leadership comes in. The stronger the vision, the more compelling the vision, the more people will want to swing in behind the leader. The more they will desire to thrive rather than just survive. They will automatically and unconsciously seek to learn to enable themselves to follow and contribute to the vision.
"We cannot not learn - it is a survival instinct. When survival is at stake, we learn what we need to learn to survive."
If the vision is weak, there is no motivation to learn what the company needs. People will learn other stuff that is more important to them. They will read the sports pages at break and learn more about sports rather than discuss a problem on the factory floor.
I have heard the term 'accidental learning' before. I don't like that. I think it was coined by L&D people who think that learning that happens outside their direct control is accidental. We didn't do it, so it must be just an accident.
The term 'accident' also has the implication of unwelcome or unwanted. This is not case with informal learning where it is not even a matter of want or not want. It just happens.
I have found that some people in L&D treat informal learning like many doctors treat spontaneous remission in patients. They didn't do it, so it is just an unexplained thing that can be ignored.
So my question to you is, can we ignore it? 
You see, we are always learning. So when I hear "They can't/don't want to learn", I know that's not really the case. My question then becomes, "What are they learning and why are they learning that?"
That begins your journey into leveraging informal learning at work.
Paul Matthews is founder and MD of People Alchemy Ltd

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