Informal learning: opportunity or threat for L&D professionals?

By Anne Sexton - Last update


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Donald H Taylor takes a hard look at informal learning and asks if it is an opportunity or threat for learning and development professionals.

For a while there everyone was talking about informal learning – at conferences, in books and on the internet. But what does informal learning mean? In particular, what does it mean for learning and development professionals?

The influence of Jay Cross

Jay Cross coined the term and popularised the idea of informal learning. It became a catch-all term that refers, broadly, to how we learn when we’re not in the classroom. And, if you believe the figures, it’s where most learning occurs.

Cross says that 80 percent of learning takes place informally and only 20 percent formally. This is in direct contrast with learning and development spend. Formal learning accounts for 80 percent of training budgets and 20 percent for informal learning.

As so often happens with catch-all terms, backlash followed the initial enthusiasm. Pundits jump in from every side to pull things apart to see how it works.

Donald Clark in the US has had a look at the numbers, while Guy Wallace tackled the definition. Neither was entirely satisfied that informal learning lived up to the claims.

Perception is everything

Forget numbers and definitions, though. The term ‘informal learning’ has a currency beyond them. Therefore, it has an effect on the learning profession simply by being there.

Like all catch-all terms, its popularity is not random. It has generated interest because it coalesces different strands of thinking and crystallizes them. As a result, when people hear it, in some way it makes immediate sense.

Informal learning’s popularity is in part a reaction against the perceived ineffectiveness of the traditional training rooms and classrooms. The Research Institute of America found that retention of knowledge drops to 33 percent just 48 hours after classroom training. Furthermore, it falls to around 10 percent over three weeks.

However, formal learning 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.

The other side of the coin

Are water coolers really as good as classrooms? No, not always. However, where there’s interest, there’s opportunity. The opportunity here is for L&D to reach out of the classroom and make people development much more closely aligned to performance.

Conrad Gottfredson of Brigham Young University suggests that there are five critical points where there is a need for learning.  These are when:

  1. Learning for the first time
  2. Extending learning
  3. Training to remember/apply learning
  4. Things change
  5. Something goes wrong

Formal learning – if well formulated – can be a good solution to the first two. However, points 3 to 5 require something else: support on the job.

Three immediate steps to support informal learning

On the job support is where L&D can take a new role. It ain’t formal, but if it helps better learning and improves performance, we should be doing it. Here are three suggested actions to help your organisation.

Firstly, delegates leaving formal, episodic learning events forget too much, too soon. Help them. Provide something to help them do their job better. That could range from a job aid on paper to a full EPSS (Electronic Performance Support System).

Secondly, you don’t need to structure every learning intervention. Learners can do a lot for themselves if you let them. Try providing an online library of books as well as enrolment in professional communities.

Finally, people don’t always know what they don’t know. Ensure that your organisation’s job roles and associated skill sets are clearly described. Your own formal training plans can help people through this – but if they choose to build their skills in other ways, at least you have provided a roadmap of where they should be going.

None of this is formal learning. It is, instead, the start of an extended role for learning and development. From simply delivering training, L&D should be working with other departments to support workplace performance. It’s the way of the future – and informal learning could be the stimulus for it.


Anne Sexton

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