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Leverage the Fruits – and Ease – of Informal Learning

Former General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch may not have been the first leader to recognize the importance of employee education, but he was one of the most perceptive. According to the company’s website, Welch set the example of how to reinvest in ongoing, non-traditional employee education methods — most notably, the website said he spent $1 billion per year on efforts that generated value and opportunities for the firm’s employees.

Welch, however, worked in a more structured, hierarchical business environment than most current executives. Now, learning professionals face tremendous macroeconomic and social headwinds.

Amid tumultuous change, however, is a possible fix that enables learning leaders both to educate employees and remain flexible and relevant: informal learning.

Investing in ongoing informal education can turn a company’s economic vulnerability into growth by ensuring the ongoing preparedness of its people. Helping employees stay relevant and competitive also potentially puts a company ahead of a national crisis — namely the growing so-called “skills gap.”

But learning leaders aren’t the only ones faced with this challenge; colleges and universities are also bracing for the new demands of this evolving economy. By 2020 the U.S. will have 123 million well-paying jobs, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey, but only 50 million Americans with the right backgrounds to fill them.

Despite a focus on narrowing the education gap, moreover, Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis found that the achievement gap between rich and poor is widening. Informal learning, some might argue, may be the bridge the business world can build across that gap.

Unless education systems nurture future skilled professionals, HR executives will be hard-pressed to meet their firms’ competitive need for talent. The problem stems from the cost of education. While companies gauge prospective talent based on college degrees, tuition rose 32 percent from 1999 to 2009, according to a report from Reuters, making it more expensive for people to acquire the skills firms needed. Moreover, the imbalance between the number of rich and poor students who complete college has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The problem extends beyond tuition costs, however. The opportunity cost of traditional classroom learning also hangs in the balance as most people must pay for and attend college while unemployed or underemployed. That makes accessible, flexible informal learning more important — whether delivered as on-demand resources, experience or interaction.

Traditional education is not as accessible, which presents a problem that can undermine workforce preparedness and innovative thinking. To get a traditional education, therefore, an adult learner needs money, technology and other resources, as well as the luxury of time to just “sit down” and learn. But in today’s hurried business environment, sitting down sandbags productivity.

The challenge is daunting, but corporate educators have reported some good news: knowledge is everywhere, and its cost has dropped substantially. The pivotal task for a learning leader is finding relevant information and putting it in the right hands quickly and consistently at the point of need.

Successful corporate learning professionals realize that informal learning often has more merit than traditional learning. In fact, e-learning, coaching, knowledge databases, social sharing platforms and other learning tools cut clutter and deliver the salient points individuals care about.

Today’s drive for personal empowerment fuels individual workers’ desire for increased knowledge. Once people understand what success requires, many of them take learning into their own hands. Corporations that provide on-demand learning tools empower their employees while improving their employee value proposition.

Michel Koopman is CEO of business book abstract provider getAbstract Inc. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.