Why Investing In Informal Learning Makes Sense: Featuring 6 Examples Or Approaches


The fact that learning happens through multiple channels (and not just formal training) is an established one. However, it is only in recent times that we see a focused effort by organizations to promote and encourage informal learning in the workplace. In this article, I will highlight 6 possible ways it can be used. Let me begin with a few basic definitions:

What Is The Difference Between Formal And Informal Learning?

Delivered and deployed by L&D teams, formal learning is structured training and is typically delivered in the following formats:

  • Instructor-Led Training (conducted face-to-face or virtually)
  • Online training (self-paced in eLearning or mLearning formats)
  • Blended training (featuring a combination of the above)

Given the fact that formal learning is owned by L&D teams, its design, roll-out, the time period for its completion, and the tracking of learner performance is handled by them. In a sense, this model works on ‘pushing’ learning material to the learners in a structured and well-defined manner.

In contrast, informal learning is driven by learners and fueled by their interest, motivation, and passion to gain knowledge and excel. This is spontaneous and can be triggered whenever the learner sees a point of interest (an asset, a conversation, a peer/coach support that can help them perform better or address a challenge they face). Learners of this profile truly learn on-the-go, and learning is not limited to interactions at work alone.

Unlike formal learning, this is a ‘pull’-based approach where learners can pick learning content and consume these at their own pace.

The success of informal learning rests with learners, as they have the control on what they want to process when they want to process it, and how they want to apply it. As an extension, it works for learners who are driven, goal-oriented, and are eager to explore different ways to learn. They do not depend on a formal session to learn. These learners are on the look-out for learning support at various junctures, from various people they interact with and are open to any format that can help them meet their learning need.

Informal learning provides a rich and rewarding experience enabling learners to accomplish may goals like:

  • Gain a new perspective
  • Acquire further knowledge
  • Solve a problem
  • Share a fix that can help others

Given the nature of informal learning (not structured but impromptu) and the way it happens (at work or outside), does it fit any model for Learning and Development?

Does Informal Learning Fit Any Model For L&D?

Informal learning is the most significant way we learn as children, and this continues through our formative years. Even at work, we learn through observation, asking, seeking assistance, or providing support.

You can identify with some of the following situations:

  • Receiving a tip that helps you manage your time better
  • Assisting a new team member with your HCM tool
  • Sharing an article that has tips for your team

The value of informal learning is also affirmed by the 70-20-10 model for Learning and Development that is used extensively to devise training delivery.

According To This Model

  • 70% of the learning is experiential (that is, happens on-the-job).
  • 20% is through social or collaborative learning (that is, learning with or from others).
  • 10% is through formal training programs.

Very clearly, it shows the need for organizations to create a support system and the opportunities to promote informal learning in their workplace.

How Can Organizations Promote Informal Learning?

By definition, the success of informal learning depends on learners’ motivation and their intrinsic passion for learning.

However, organizations can promote this approach by providing support systems like:

  • Semi-structured forums for knowledge sharing
  • Curated content
  • Forums for learners to share inputs (for a specific mandate)
  • Recognition for team members who practice informal learning
  • Support formal learning programs: you can add informal sessions (before the formal training and more effectively, after) to discuss the program’s relevance, what they learned, how will it help them, and how they can apply it. With moderation, these sessions can add value and provide even more structured pointers on tips, best practices, etc.

6 Informal Learning Examples Or Approaches Showing You How You Can Meet This Mandate

  • Support ILT as well as formal, online training through informal prep sessions
  • Reinforce online training takeaways through an informal reconnect session and discussion
  • Organize group discussions with a focus on application (could be associated with either ILT/online formal training)
  • Conduct design thinking workshops for problem-solving, new initiatives, change management, innovation, and so on
  • Provide informal support sessions (not just structured coaching or mentoring but incidental support)
  • Promote social or collaborative learning, encourage inclusive learning (through tagging of resources, creation of learning paths and other aspects of content curation and contribution to repository)

All these measures will go a long way in creating a better learning culture and facilitate "learning as a continuum". Not only can you use them to foster and promote informal learning, but you can also use them to enhance the impact of your online training or ILT sessions as well.

By Asha Pandey