Informal Learning


Learning & development practitioners (LDPs) are being asked to meet enormous learning demands: leadership development is a perennial need, compliance training has exploded, onboarding is under the microscope, change management often falls to L&D, and millennial employees are demanding career path development.

In addition, the continually changing workplace requires learning support for product rollouts, technology changes – it’s a daunting list. Most L&D teams are small: The average global LDP is responsible for 1,135 employees according to this recent CIPD and Towards Maturity study.

Typical learning programs are a blend of eLearning, testing, and classroom training. These programs take significant time to build and rollout, and studies show that only 12-20% is transferred to the job. What is needed is learning at the speed of business – continuous learning that integrates into the job.

Harnessing the Power of Informal Learning

You can make your programs more effective and engaging by incorporating informal learning into your programs. To do so, LDPs must relinquish control and put the learner in the driver’s seat. Informal learning by nature is unstructured. It requires a skilled LDP to take non-structured, informal learning and guide learning intentionally.

In this article, I’ll cover:

1. Determining when to utilize informal learning.

2. Techniques for utilizing informal learning.

Incorporating More “70” from 70:20:10

LP Vol16 70 20 10 pic

The 70:20:10 model tells us that 70% of learning occurs on the job, 20% through coaching and feedback, and 10% in a formal setting. This model was created in the 1980s when organizations were more hierarchical, information was more controlled (remember memos?), and change was much slower.

Today constant communication is the norm via email, IM, text, social platforms, etc. It is difficult to control information; a smarter approach is to leverage it by tapping into it. Go to the learners by locating where and using how they communicate and get information on the job.

Informal Learning for Conceptual or Skill Knowledge

1. Skill learning – the ability to demonstrate a skill; requires practice.

2. Conceptual learning – requires learner ability to integrate knowledge, skill, experience, and make an informed decision.

Skill learning requires practice, but a key component often overlooked is accountability. Coaching is a difficult skill to master. In order to become a great coach, the learner must be given feedback and held accountable to a coaching standard. A coach who simply tells the person what they need to do isn’t coaching.

Informal learning that can be leveraged to increase skills includes:

  • Assigning the manager an observation checklist from your LMS. Some platforms even provide video upload of the learner performing the task.
  • Having the learner teach someone else
  • Hosting collaborative sessions: Discussing/sharing best practices – Make it intentional by having a specific topic or issue, not a free-for-all
  • Having a “what works” area on a social platform
  • Leveraging user-generated content like a video of a learner demonstrating the skill

Conceptual knowledge / skill is the most difficult to teach. Without the right experience, the learner can easily make a wrong decision. Imagine the impact if a nurse assumed you had the flu, but it turned out to be the Zika virus? Or the tech support agent who utilizes the same troubleshooting steps one-by-one to find a solution for every call? I once spent 45 minutes on the phone with my Internet Service Provider (ISP) while the agent walked me through steps I had already tried.

The best measure of conceptual knowledge is not through summative or formative testing. Evaluating business results is a better measure because it is difficult to test and measure when the answer varies.

For example, learning has taken center stage in healthcare as one report suggests that 40,000-80,000 patients die annually from diagnostic errors. A customer service agent’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) improve over time in the form of first-call resolution, call handle time, percent of escalations, etc. A goal with informal learning is to better prepare learners for those situations that aren’t covered in formal learning – building conceptual knowledge, knowledge of where to access information in the moment of need, etc.


LP Vol16 Procedural Knowledge

Experience is key. When you can expose learners to different scenarios, their ability to filter a situation through their knowledge and experience and narrow to a choice of action will improve. Let the learners fail over and over before entering the real world and failing!

To help learners connect the information in meaningful ways, L&D can utilize social and collaborative interactions, user-generated content, social platforms, etc.

LP Vol 16 Chart 1

How to choose the right type of informal learning

LP Vol16 Absorb Do Connect

William Horton’s Absorb/Do/Connect model from his book e-Learning by Design is a very simple framework for determining the type of learning needed and how to deliver it:

1. Absorb activities are passive; the learner reads, watches, or listens. Absorb activities prepare the learner to do something later. WATCH, READ, OBSERVE, etc.

2. Do activities require learner participation and practice. PRACTICE, ROLE-PLAY, TAKE NOTES, etc.

3. Connect activities are the glue where the learner makes sense of information – this where you leverage informal learning. DISCUSS, HYPOTHESIZE, SOLVE, SHARE, TEACH, CREATE, etc.

LP Vol 16 Chart 2

Formal learning centers on absorb and do – the power of informal learning resides in the connect stage. Informal learning builds conceptual knowledge – the ability to filter through knowledge and experience that he/she can filter through to arrive at the most likely solution.

This conceptual knowledge can’t be learned in the classroom and requires experience. Unfortunately, the common way most employees learn is through what didn’t work in real-world situations. Incorporating informal learning helps build conceptual knowledge and better prepare employees for the job.

This chart illustrates how Customer Service Agents can apply conceptual knowledge to handle a return for a defective product by asking themselves a series of questions.

LP Vol 16 Chart 3

Formalizing Informal – Putting it into a Curriculum

Studies vary on training transfer to the job, but the high-end of the range is 12-20%. Those are dismal stats for our profession. Focus your informal learning on the activities that connect the learner to the skill – it’s the glue that ties it all together. Build into your formal learning activities that require creativity on the learner’s part – forums, discussions, creating content, projects, etc. Let go of the control aspect and guide your learners to be better prepared on the job. A great outcome for you: Increasing transfer to the job, more engaged learners, and happier stakeholders with better-prepared employees.

Shannon Graham Headshot Apr 2015 jpg version

TrainingPros thanks our consultant contributor, Shannon Graham, for this thought leader article in our Learning Perspectives series. Shannon is on a mission to create happier workplaces. As founder of Congruent Paths, she helps companies leverage their talent to meet organizational goals while helping employees meet their own personal goals as well – so they’re walking congruent paths.

Shannon leverages more than 20 years developing talent to help companies craft learning programs that create rich experiences that deliver specific outcomes. A certified Growth Curve Strategist, she helps companies up to 500 employees predict and manage the challenges that come with growth. As a coach she helps people find their WIDB – “what I do best” – to unleash their full potential. In addition to her Congruent Paths site, connect with Shannon on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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