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How to Harness Informal Learning

September 30, 2010

Social ScrabblePicture the scene… an increasingly frustrated Bob is trying to work out where a particular field is on a database. After much poking around, he finally calls across to Sally, his colleague, to ask if she knows where it is. Sally, who rather fancies herself as a database expert, is happy to oblige and shows him where to enter the data.

Informal learning, like the scenario above, takes place constantly in most organisations. It is estimated that probably as much of 80% of learning within an organisation is informal, with formal training constituting the other 20%. Experts disagree on the importance of informal learning in helping to achieve organisational goals but it is clear that it is something that organisations should, at least, acknowledge when designing their learning strategies.

What is informal learning?

Informal learning includes, amongst other things, observing others, asking colleagues, calling the help desk and trial and error. Increasingly, technology also comes into the equation. I might, for example, seek the answer to a question via a Google or YouTube search, Twitter or by tapping into my online networks.

How can informal learning be harnessed?

Many of the technologies used in elearning can provide answers as to how to harness informal learning. Technology can facilitate collaboration and networking and provide a virtual space in which informal learning can take place and, to a certain extent, be tracked. Some ideas include creating knowledge bases by building networks (e.g. a Ning network), using wikis and blogs. This allows for peer review and knowledge sharing which is searchable by topic.

Organisations can track ‘hot topics’, look at where improvements are being made as a result of colleagues learning from one another and, importantly, map these against sales or other KPIs to measure the impact of the learning. The pace of informal learning can also be quicker than a formal programme, enabling organisations to respond more rapidly to changes in technology or in the market.

If a question is coming up again and again on a wiki or network, it can also help to identify areas where more formal training is needed, making that side of organisational learning more effective and responsive as well.

Sounds great, what’s the catch?

Embracing informal learning is a leap of faith. It’s easy to see how informal learning can just be a green light for employees to chat to their friends on Facebook all day. Organisations have to trust their employees, which is not an easy thing to do and, in many cases, change the way that they perceive learning altogether. Developing a supportive learning culture gives employees the space and confidence to help informal learning flourish and to produce the best results for the bottom-line.

How do you create a learning culture?

Creating a true learning culture takes time and requires buy-in at all levels, especially from the top. Some things that organisations can do include:

  • Add learning goals to job descriptions.
  • Encourage content creation and reward people for sharing their knowledge, successes and failures.
  • Encourage relationships that foster learning.
  • Support participation in professional networks.
  • Set aside a budget for informal learning.
  • Use formal training sessions to teach employees how to learn.
  • And most importantly, provide time to allow employees to congregate (physically or virtually) to learn from each other.

As Jay Cross says ‘learning is social’.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2010 5:30 am

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. I will be back for more!


  1. How to Harness Informal Learning by Rob Hubbard « Simbeck-Hampson Consultancy

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