Learning Delivery

No Jacket Required: Informal Learning’s Role in Development

An oft-cited fact in the learning industry is the fact that the majority of employee development takes place in informal settings. What can learning executives do to facilitate these educational experiences within the workforce?

“I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”

Nothing speaks more directly to informal learning’s potential to drive individual and organizational development and peak performance better than the words of this Chinese proverb, which is often attributed to the great classical thinker Confucius.


If he were alive today, Confucius likely would marvel at the complexity of our modern-day organizations and the challenges we face. He also might be surprised by the sheer numbers who have failed to recognize the resonant simplicity of this ancient teaching.

Teaching is, after all, still at the center of corporate training and development programs. Yet given the focus and structure on formal learning, his devotees likely would question why we don’t, as learning and development professionals, better leverage the role it plays today in terms of how our people learn and grow within our corporate learning environments.

But to explore the potential of informal learning, we must do more than embrace the obvious by pointing out to our corporate colleagues and management stakeholders that experiential learning accounts for as much as 80 percent of our individual skill sets.

Confucian scholars believed that a new skill could only be truly learned if it was born out of a test or challenge that required action. In contemporary business organizations, that equates to the kind of improvising that leads us to perform new tasks under pressure.

One of the real challenges that continues to obfuscate meaningful discussions about how we might accelerate the organizational payback on informal learning lies in the language we use to define and describe its many forms. Ask three or four people about how they define informal learning, and you’ll invariably get three or four different answers layered on top of widely divergent corporate perspectives, possibly to include references to job simulations, role-playing, on-the-job training and apprenticeship.

So what are we really talking about when we discuss informal learning? And if it’s been promulgated successfully from one generation of knowledge workers to the next, beyond the reach of formal corporate training and development programs, then what’s the real problem here?

As we begin to ask ourselves how we might generate a better return for the individual and the organization, we should expect pushback from within our own organizations that questions why any new investment should be made to explore the potential payoff that could result from formalizing such informal learning.

Our collective challenge, and our calling as learning and development professionals, is to create a framework through which we can meaningfully and effectively explore what we know about informal learning, what we need to know about its potential impact on our organizations and how to apply its best lessons in ways that are measurable and sustainable.

Informal Learning in Action
As Ernst & Young has begun to look more purposely at integrating the informal aspects of learning into its broader training and development program, it has created a development framework that specifically addresses the role that formal learning, experiences and coaching play in the development of its people. This framework is being embedded within the business model of the firm with the active support of its business leaders.

In the coming months, Chief Learning Officer magazine readers will be invited to share their own learning and stories about the role informal learning can play on the publication’s companion Web site. It will be an open forum to dig in to the critical issues that shape informal learning and a platform to define the scope, reach and potential of informal learning in the corporate training construct.

This open dialogue also will present an opportunity for learning professionals to explore the generational shifts in the workforce and the implications of many younger workers’ strong desire to learn through on-the-job training and other forms of informal learning such as social networking.

One of the early contributors to this important dialogue is Dr. Tony O’Driscoll, a professor in the Jenkins Graduate School of Management at North Carolina State University who previously served as a member of IBM’s On Demand Learning Leadership Team.

O’Driscoll is exploring how social learning will enhance the power of informal learning. He brings significant perspective to the ways informal learning has been applied to more structured forms of formal learning, as well as some opinions about how experiential learning has been boxed in by the corporate training vernacular.

“I think the language is actually flawed to start with,” O’Driscoll said. “For whom is this [kind of experiential] learning informal? It may seem a little glib, but it’s very important.”

O’Driscoll said whenever someone in a corporate working environment is faced with a lack of knowledge, skill or ability, it often leads to frustration, feelings of incompetence and, ultimately, increased workforce turnover. That’s because so many corporate training functions are built entirely around “programmed instructional learning” to the near exclusion of critical forms of informal learning.

These critical gaps in workforce knowledge and talent management must be revisited and the role informal learning can play to address them explored further because people’s work is becoming more complex, O’Driscoll said.

There is too much emphasis today on peddling the content of corporate learning programs and too little provided to give people the appropriate situational context for those lessons, he added. So whenever employees’ lack of capability to deliver a solution comes to the fore, it becomes more real and more transparent to their customers and visible within the organization, so people’s frustration in the workplace goes up, along with the potential for turnover.

Too many corporate learning platforms focus more on learning “topics” with the aim of creating productive learners, whereas senior management — who may have been cutting corporate training budgets for each of the past five to six years — probably already knows that people deal in tasks, not topics. And at the end of the day, they want more productive workers, not just productive learners.

“The teachable moment,” O’Driscoll said, is “the moment at which someone realizes they don’t have the knowledge, skill or ability to do something. The largest component of their pain is in the work context.”

Further, he said, as learning professionals, we need to ask ourselves this question: Where are the points learning needs surface most, and what can we do to help people where they surface? That’s essential, O’Driscoll explained, because “the way people encounter their lack of competence is not topical; it’s task related.”

Given the ways too many corporate training programs attempt to shovel content, “There’s a huge void and disconnect between the two because people desperately need information in context, and that can trump instruction out of context,” O’Driscoll said. “We know that only 10 percent of what’s learned actually translates into behavior. If there’s a disconnect between what’s been learned and what the situation requires, that learning doesn’t help the individual in the work context. We need to think more about that as a profession.”

Karen Scott, senior manager for learning and organizational effectiveness within the human resources department at Allstate Insurance Co., said the organization has attempted to integrate the benefits of informal interactions into its learning strategy for the benefit of all its sales producers. They began by capturing experiences, right and wrong, then sharing this tacit knowledge for successful quoting by recasting it as performance support to enable the effective rollout of new products and applications.

Allstate combined these new performance-support modules within its e-learning programs to improve accuracy of initial auto quoting by its exclusive agents and their support staff, enabling the effective introduction of Allstate’s Your Choice Auto product. “The intent was to create something that was easily accessible and to offer several alternative ways of learning about quoting,” said Scott, noting the accuracy of initial quotes is tied directly to generating more business in markets where Allstate is price competitive.

Scott said Allstate made its blend of e-learning and performance support for initial quotes available via Allstate’s learning management system and intranet. The model was inspired by an interface at Moen’s Web site.

Moen, a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom faucets and showers, had effectively leveraged its site to teach customers how to install products. Essentially capturing the feedback and know-how from its customers or engineers, the site included a simple and effective interface, with tabs explaining everything that came in the product box, a step-by-step instruction, animation and other resources.

“You wouldn’t think there would be much in common between quoting auto insurance and installing a faucet,” Scott said. But using the same approach to create the right environment for effectively and efficiently sharing knowledge about how to avoid mistakes made all the difference for Allstate’s representatives.

One of the objectives of the online discussion that will soon unfold on CLOmedia.com will be to build consensus around how informal learning is defined, put it in the proper context and discover whether learning and development professionals can get their arms around such a nebulous form of learning.

The discussion also should identify individual and organizational challenges that constitute a true business need to perpetuate and extend the impact of informal learning. Additionally, it should explore environmental and demographic demands and obstacles relating to informal learning. Finally, it should surface creative strategies for applying the collective view of informal learning and guiding people and organizations toward what they should consider doing differently to harness their full potential and achieve higher returns on their resources.

To get the dialogue started, ask yourself these questions: How would you define informal learning in your organization? How would you or your leaders define it? Would they agree that informal learning is an important part of how your people develop their skills and do their jobs? Are businesses managing this informal learning to their benefit? And are there significant advantages to be realized by proactively managing informal learning?

With these framing questions — and others that will surely surface in the weeks and months to come — let the conversation begin.

Filed under: Learning Delivery, Talent Management, Technology