Employees learn more in the break room than in the classroom. This is the view of training expert Jay Cross, who authored a book on the subject of informal learning. Since 2006 when the book was published, the concept of informal learning has been gaining a lot of traction.
More recently, consider what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had to say on the subject in his latest letter to shareholders. Bezos raises the point of Amazon’s ability to maintain high customer service standards, something that for him explains the company’s success. Then he goes on to address the question of whether high standards are intrinsic or teachable:
“I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt.”
Indeed, most on-the-job learning and development is experiential and social. It happens in informal ways as colleagues communicate and share ideas and experiences. Smart organizations recognize this and create the right conditions to facilitate informal learning and to provide opportunities for different kinds of learning experiences.
What is Informal Learning?
As the name suggests, informal learning is a learning experience which is spontaneous and unregimented. Someone’s curiosity may be piqued by something they had heard earlier, urging them to search for more information on the company’s learning platform or online. A manager may look over training materials because of a question they had been unable to answer earlier. A junior employee may gain valuable insights by chatting to an experienced colleague.
All of the above are examples of informal learning. The common theme is that employees are relaxed. Many times, so relaxed that they may not even regard the experience as learning. In addition, there is no curriculum, no requirement to cover any predetermined items. While in some cases HR and L&D professionals may have helped to connect people – for example by organizing company events – or may have helped create the general setting, the actual content of the learning experience is not planned in advance.
Formal vs Informal Learning
As the 70/20/10 Model for Learning and Development suggests, employees learn the most from on-the-job experiences (70%) and social interactions (20%) with formal training accountable for only 10% of learning. Of course, this does not mean that formal, classroom style training should be scrapped altogether. In many cases, it is wise to impose structure, goals and deadlines. Formal classes prove valuable when teaching new and complex subjects, or when preparing participants to obtain certain professional cetrificates. However, this is a resource-heavy training approach and it also requires that employees set aside time from work.
In contrast, most informal learning is learning in the flow of work. Employees do not need to carve time outside of their jobs. What’s more, once they have found the answers they are looking for, they can apply them in practice immediately. In this sense, even formal training sessions can incorporate elements of informal learning: providing participants with the opportunity to discuss and debate points of interest and utilizing the social aspect of learning. Such an approach makes sense in terms of formulating corporate L&D strategies, too. To support employees’ learning journeys in the best way possible, both formal and informal training should be utilized.
Six Advantage of Informal Learning in Today's Workplace
There are many reasons why L&D leaders should aim to increase opportunities for informal learning experiences within their organizations. Below are six attributes of informal learning that make it a vital tool for employee engagement and career development:
- It is relaxed: Stress is a well-documented disruptor to memory and learning. It also has a negative effect on employee performance. At the other end of the spectrum, employees who are relaxed can concentrate better, have improved working memory and can retain more of the knowledge acquired during a learning session. Since informal learning is a low-pressure activity which does not induce stress, employees oftentimes perform better and learn more effectively.
- Fits anytime and anywhere: Employee stress levels are at an all-time high. In a recent Gallup report, 44% of respondents reported experiencing a lot of daily stress just the day before they had been surveyed. This explains why employees may acknowledge that learning is valuable, yet view training as an additional burden. In contrast, informal learning is not mandated but flexible and therefore much less likely to add to perceptions of stress.
- Focuses on individual learners: What and when to learn, how to do it and how much time to dedicate to it: the answers to all these questions depend on each employee, their unique needs and preferences and the way that they feel in the moment. Informal learning puts individuals firmly in the driving seat. This personalized approach means employees are more receptive, more motivated and more likely to retain the knowledge and apply it on the job.
- Broadens knowledge: Unlike a predetermined curriculum, an informal learning experience can take an employee in many different directions. Some people may be so curious that they feel compelled to explore a topic deeper and deeper, essentially becoming subject matter experts. Others may use what they have learned to critically evaluate how they go about certain work tasks. In all cases, learners have the chance to broaden their knowledge base.
- Saves time and resources: Developing training manuals and hiring outside expertise can take up a lot of resources. In addition, as it is not possible to offer courses that cater to all of the employees’ interests, L&D departments have to make careful decisions about how to allocate their budget. Furthermore, determining what skills and knowledge will be most needed in future is not an easy task. In contrast, all that is needed to stimulate informal learning is to encourage employees to connect and collaborate and to ensure there are plenty of relevant resources for self-study.
- Supports a connected learning culture: Unlike training seminars that need to be conceptualized, planned and executed anew each time, informal learning grows organically once the right conditions are in place. For example, staff can be encouraged to provide colleagues with feedback or to share content via the company’s knowledge management platform. Social events and virtual get togethers can serve as opportunities for connection. Managers can remind their staff that sharing ideas and helping colleagues is not just encouraged but expected. All these steps will create ample informal learning opportunities and provide the foundation for a connected learning culture that engages staff and helps them achieve all their career goals and more.
Implementing informal learning in the workplace
Informal learning is closely related to collaboration. What drives collaboration? First, employees should have ample opportunities to connect with peers, be it in person or virtually. Second, everyone needs to be aware that cut-throat competition is not the way forward and that the organization expects employees to work together and support each other. Here are a few steps that can boost informal learning and support a connected learning culture:
- Establish learning opportunities focused on engagement and practice: Which of the two options is more effective in teaching an employee how to be a great salesperson? Making them attend a seminar on the subject or letting them shadow for a day the sales department’s star employee? While the course will offer important insights and knowledge, spending time with an experienced salesperson lets employees observe all the tiny but crucial details, difficult to put into writing (also known as intrinsic knowledge), that make up a great salesperson. Through shadowing, people can see firsthand what it really takes to shine in the context of a specific organization. It is much easier to then put this kind of knowledge into practice.
- Encourage learners to share input: Discussion is a key step in the process of informal learning. One easy way to initiate healthy and lively discussions is to encourage staff to share their impressions about new concepts they’ve been taught or to ask questions on how to apply the knowledge to their work. Typically, all the participants in a discussion gain something. It could be answers to their questions, the opportunity to rehash and reinforce knowledge they already possess, or the inspiration to seek more knowledge or to view a work task in a novel way. Technology plays a major role in the effort to get learners to share input. Of course, face-to-face discussions are valuable, but solutions like internal communication channels and learning experience platforms have the added benefit of being able to connect remote employees. In addition, input that is shared on a digital platform can be accessed anytime and viewed as many times as a learner may need.
- Create communities for knowledge sharing: We are all social creatures and this is why learning together makes a lot of sense. Be it through mentoring, peer learning or internal talent marketplaces. The foundation for a community of learners could be a channel where everyone is encouraged to post their solutions to challenging work tasks, or a safe space to learn from mistakes. The added bonus of creating learning communities is that participants not only gain more skills and knowledge but they also feel more valued and more supported.
In conclusion, informal learning is certainly a valuable tool in the quest to upskill and prepare employees for the challenges of tomorrow. The efforts to create an environment conducive to this type of learning will also boost employee morale and loyalty and help create a positive organizational culture. A culture which focuses on collaboration, innovation and inclusion.
To see how Mentessa can help connect employees in a manner that supports informal learning and transforms organizational culture, schedule a free expert consultation now.