Formal Training Vs. Informal Learning: Which Makes More Sense?

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There’s been a great deal of discussion over the last few years related to informal learning. Today, just about any training magazine, website, or conference probably devotes significant time to talking about informal learning.

Many times, I feel those discussions miss the mark.

My biggest gripe with informal learning is that, like many things, it’s often viewed in terms of absolutes. I’ve read many posts that talk about informal learning as “the better way” for employees to learn, rather than through formal training programs. I think this focus on ‘better’ is a distraction from the more important discussion.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support informal learning and do believe that it’s where the majority of organizational learning and skill-building takes place. However, it’s all beside the point. The “best” method of training isn’t set in stone; it’s determined entirely by which one best fits the particular need.

A contractor can’t keep hitting a nail with a wrench and expect it to work. But that’s not the wrench’s fault — it’s the contractor’s fault for using a tool that isn’t well-matched to the task at hand. The wrench is, in fact, an excellent tool, when used in the right context.

We see this all too often in the learning and performance field. We blame the tool for how it’s used. The most common example is PowerPoint. Trainers love to jump on PowerPoint as horrible tool, even coining the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” to describe the feeling of sitting through a poorly executed presentation.

I like PowerPoint. I think it can be a great tool for building storyboards and graphics. I’ve seen others do some amazing things with the tool that really push the envelope on how PowerPoint can be used for e-learning or classroom training. There’s evidence that PowerPoint is a good tool, it’s just often used poorly or in circumstances in which there are better solutions – like a wrench being used to drive a nail.

Unfortunately, many learning professionals don’t know how to use all their tools — they have skill sets centered around more formal training, and don’t have an idea how to go about supporting informal learning. As described in this excellent post by Charles Jennings, research has shown that the majority of worker learning and performance improvement comes from informal learning opportunities — up to 70 percent or more, in fact. But since learning and performance pros are skilled at addressing the formal part of the equation, but not support the informal learning within the organization, it can get overlooked.

Allison Rossett and Frank Nguyen recently wrote an article for T&D Magazine entitled “The Yin and Yang of Formal + Informal Learning.” The article doesn’t debate which is better; it presents scenarios and explores whether formal, informal, or some sort of blended approach might be best. The article shows that deciding on the approach requires matching the tools to the situation. It’s an excellent resource for learning about informal learning approaches.

There’s also another interesting “Yin-Yang” tool online that can help organizations decide what type of approach might be best for a given performance situation by posing 15 basic yes-or-no questions about your needs — things like “We must prove to regular5tors that our people know this,” etc. Once you’ve filled out the survey, the site suggests ways to tailor learning strategies to fit those needs.

Formal training will always have its place, and it’s an important part of the performance support framework of an organization. Informal learning support isn’t a replacement to formal programs; it’s an additional layer of support to performance. As learning and performance professionals, we need to build our skills in all aspects of performance support, so we can match the right type of support to each need.

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David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user jaycross.