The Upsurge of Informal Learning

Forward-thinking companies realize that while corporate training continues to play an integral role in advancing today’s workforce, informal learning has emerged as an equally important, if not more critical, element. In today’s hyperintense workplace, companies are blending informal learning into their development methodologies, recognizing the value of better informed and better skilled employees who are supported at their point of need, and thus creating more competitive advantage throughout the business.

Organizations seeking to build their competitive advantage through workforce development must evolve their learning management strategies and systems to incorporate informal learning. Not only do today’s employees interact, learn and work in different ways, but most organizations also have an increasingly mobile and geographically dispersed workforce.

Traditional, or formal, learning often takes a top-down approach to educating employees, but informal learning is a more user-driven process that facilitates knowledge and idea sharing when and where it’s needed.

E-Learning: A Precursor
The evolution of technology has made it easier and more effective to adopt informal learning across an enterprise, and the emergence of e-learning has inspired many organizations to shift focus from more traditional classroom-based training.

At its core, e-learning is the computer- and network-enabled transfer of skills and knowledge. Information can be delivered via the Internet, intranets and extranets; satellite TV; and CD-ROMs and DVDs, either self-paced or instructor-led.

While e-learning has made it possible to extend consistent and reliable learning to an entire organization — offering anytime, anywhere access to training and development resources — it’s still seen as an extension of classroom-style, or formal, learning. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value. Formal learning, whether face-to-face or electronic, remains a popular way to train both new and experienced employees to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and competency required to perform their jobs and deliver business results.

Why Embrace Informal Learning?
In the context of corporate training and education, informal learning is used to describe the many forms of learning that take place independently from instructor-led programs, including books, self-study programs, performance support materials and systems, coaching, practice groups and expert communities.

Some of its chief characteristics are:
• It often takes place outside educational establishments, including corporate training departments.
• It doesn’t necessarily follow a specified curriculum; it often originates accidentally or sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements.
• It is experienced directly in its natural function or course of everyday life or work.

By embracing informal learning — through adoption and encouragement of social media, networking and collaboration tools — organizations can achieve a number of direct benefits.

Increased innovation: Informal learning provides a platform where employees can find and interact with experts and share knowledge on key issues or topics. It’s not just socially driven; content can be created and delivered to serve any purpose, whether it’s employee onboarding, a new product launch or the creation of a project team. In such instances, the information can be managed by the end users themselves, making it more relevant and applicable to their jobs.

Improved productivity: Informal learning helps increase workforce efficiency and productivity because users are in greater control of the information. With the ability to quickly post questions, share documents, discuss best practices and connect with experts, users find themselves getting what they need when they need it at a much more rapid pace, enabling them to perform their jobs better.

Increased, more cost-effective knowledge transfer: In today’s “do more with less” environment, employees are asked to take on expanded or different roles, thus requiring additional learning and development. Informal learning can facilitate job transitioning and project collaboration in a much more rapid and purposeful manner.

As corporate learning departments seek ways to more efficiently and effectively cross-train employees, informal learning has become an increasingly valuable alternative to formal training. Over and above the business benefits, today’s employees appreciate the personal and professional development informal learning can lend to their lives and careers, through tools such as instant messaging, e-learning support groups, expert communities, mentor and coaching networks, personal learning portals and moderated chats.

Collaborating Breeds Competence
Social media and networking technologies have emerged as key enablers of informal learning. Whether it’s Facebook, blogs, portals or some other Web 2.0 application, informal learning boils down to collaboration among peers within knowledge networks that are often independent of any formal organizational hierarchy.

Examples of informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a phone call with someone who has valuable information, a live sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room session, a scheduled Web-based meeting, a conversation with a mentor or even a chance meeting by the watercooler.

The difference is that these encounters enable people to connect with one another in an ad hoc way — versus the structured manner of formal learning. Employees aren’t interacting with training materials, but with a subject matter expert; they aren’t simply receiving information, they’re actively participating in learning.

Employers and CLOs alike have long talked about giving workers what they need when they need it. But with today’s rapidly changing business environment and marketplaces, formal learning cannot always keep up. The ubiquity of the Internet has made it possible to get the right information at the right time and immediately put it to use on the job.

Tracking and Measuring Informal Learning: An Oxymoron?
Trying to track and control informal learning the same way organizations manage formal learning puts its ad hoc nature at risk. But how will you know if informal learning is delivering value to your organization? In today’s results-driven environment, metrics rule the day. It’s naive to think differently with informal learning — business impact or ROI must be measurable to prove its worth and gain buy-in across the organization.

These metrics are relatively easy to find. In fact, there’s research available showing that organizations using blogs, wikis and internal social networks enjoy an improvement in employee engagement. Some experts say that 80 percent of what people actually learn is informal and gained primarily through collaboration on the job, which makes the workplace ideal for leveraging these tools.

Still, CLOs can expect to encounter skeptics — those who question the ROI or even the lack of organizational control over informal learning tools. Some may argue that unleashing Web 2.0 technology on the workforce lowers rather than improves productivity, so it’s imperative to understand and explain its benefits.

A useful metric that correlates to the successful spread of informal learning is employee engagement, which can be measured directly in surveys or by proxy when looking at social feedback mechanisms used most frequently by employees. The addition of a social platform to the employee experience should ideally move the needle on other metrics such as time to productivity, training costs and even turnover. Tracking the success of an informal learning platform should be linked to metrics like these that show not only engagement with a learning process, but also demonstrate overall organizational impact.

Creating a Buzz Among Vendors
Many technology vendors have latched on to the buzz of informal learning and are focused on helping organizations measure their informal learning activities. For example, integrated talent management suites now provide the ability to link social networking and collaboration contributions directly into their performance appraisal documents and training histories.

Like most technology investments, the more something demonstrates measurable value, the more investment it receives. Therefore, organizations serious about adopting informal learning as part of their overall learning and development plans are interested in resources that will help them know how, when and what to measure, and will place these resources in the context of manager-employee discussions around performance and development. In the near future, expect to see these measurement mechanisms and results integrated into organizations’ learning management systems, helping to close the loop between informal learning and overall employee development.

Any talent management technology initiative should start with an assessment of corporate and business objectives as well as how informal learning technologies can help achieve those goals. For example, if you have a formal learning domain around customer service and a well-used internal wiki for customer service reps, you have a good opportunity to see where a linkage of the two might help employees focus on sources of information that are less formal or top-down, and more useful and relevant to the ongoing curriculum needed for their jobs. Then a strategy can be created to develop similar means of informal learning integration across the enterprise. Many organizations seek technology consultants to help them navigate this process to ensure both immediate and long-term success.

Taking the Plunge
Informal learning is a way to improve organizational performance and demonstrate that investments in people, learning resources and information technology can have a direct positive impact on company results, including revenue, profitability, customer satisfaction and employee retention.

One way organizations can accomplish this is by creating, or co-opting, collaborative learning environments, where formal and informal learning are seamlessly tied together. It doesn’t take huge amounts of time, resources or money to get started. In fact, organizations might increase their success by integrating informal learning into their system one step at a time. While there will be challenges along the way — for example, getting agreement from IT, learning, HR and other stakeholders on how to capture and recognize these informal contributions — blending cost-effective, efficient and relevant informal learning into the organization’s overall learning and development platform can yield significant results in the long run.

Harry West is a senior consultant at Knowledge Infusion. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.