How Informal Learning Can Enliven a Workplace

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ApplaudTraditionally, when employees needed to learn new skills, they took part in formal training sessions. Employees would dutifully sit for hours on end in cramped rooms,  listening to instructors drone on and on about what they needed to know.

Today, a number of innovative companies are actually building informal learning opportunities into their training strategies as a way to help employees learn better and simultaneously enliven their workplaces.

For example, TD Bank uses a 70/20/10 model to guide its training programs. Only 10 percent of training time is focused on traditional, formal learning. Employees spend 70 percent of their time focused on actual job- and community-related experiences, and the remaining 20 percent of employee training time focuses on relationships between people and the opportunities these relationships present for informal learning.

As an example of TD Bank’s approach, consider the way that Brian Sullivan, Head of TD University — that is, TD Bank’s training program for new hires — describes his company’s “Leadership Learning Maps” to Training magazine:

“We model and align each Learning Map to our company’s own Leadership Principles. Each map contains specific opportunities related to on-the-job experiences (i.e., special projects, stretch assignments, and people development opportunities) and relationship management (i.e., mentor and mentee opportunities), coupled with specific TD University training course recommendations and professional reading resources, available at no cost to TD employees.”

What Is Informal Learning?

In the book Informal Learning Basics, author Saul Carliner defines informal learning situations as those which occur when “the leaner determines some or all combinations of the process, locations, purpose, and content” of what he or she needs to know with or without being fully aware that instruction has occurred.

The most informal learning environment, for example, could be around the water cooler, coffee machine, or lunch lounge. Perhaps an employee mentions they are struggling to figure something out, and other employees in the area provide solutions. This would be an instance of quick informal training.

Break RoomOther times, informal training occurs when employees learn by observing other employees or ask senior employees questions about their roles. Sometimes, informal learning happens when employees start experimenting on their own, and other times it occurs when they do additional research to fill in the gaps of their formal learning experiences.

Experts believe that between 56 and 80 percent of all workplace learning is informal. Furthermore, even though informal learning has only recently become a workplace trend to which many are finally paying attention, its existence can be chronicled as far back as the apprentice systems of old, which predate the Industrial Revolution.

How Does Informal Learning Enliven Your Workplace?

First of all, informal learning empowers workers. It is a bottom-up approach to learning, putting the power in the hands of employees, instead of lecturers or “experts.” This makes it easier for employers to learn the knowledge and skills that they want to learn, rather than learn only the things that the people in charger of learning and development believe they should know.

Malcolm Knowles, who brought the concept of informal learning into the public spotlight in 1950 with the publication of the book Informal Adult Education, suggested at the time that, because informal learning is based on real-life experience, it generates enthusiasm and a commitment to learn from those engaged in it.

TypeInformal learning is also tremendously convenient because of its flexibility. Learning is not confined to a classroom or a scheduled set of hours. It is practical and present; employees can find learning opportunities as near as the next desk or the next coffee break.

How Can Your Company Incorporate Informal Learning Into Its Training Agenda?

First, you can trade passive lectures in formal environments for interactive workshops or facilitated sessions.

You can also set up mentoring partnerships that pair senior workers with newcomers, allowing employees to learn from one another, rather than from a limited set of “experts.”

You can also use social media to encourage informal learning and problem solving by setting up chat lines, YouTube channels, Facebook groups, and informative blogs that employees can access readily.

By Roz Bahrami