Are You Giving Informal Learning Short Shrift?

Written by Jessica Stillman | Jun 7, 2012 4:33:59 PM

Most of us know from personal experience that you learn a large percentage of what you need to know to do your work while on the job. Sure, your education gave you the basic skills and factual foundation to process new information and succeed, but most of what you end up doing at the office everyday is stuff you pick up as you go.

And science bears this out. Ryan Tracey, writing on his blog, E-Learning Provocateur, points to research from the Center for Creative Leadership revealing that 70 percent of learning occurs on the job, while 20 percent occurs by interacting with other people. Just 10 percent of learning occurs via formal training like classes. Other studies have confirmed this finding.

These statistics basically universally accepted, so Tracey wonders why "many L&D professionals spend their time, energy, and dollars in inverse proportion," devoting something close to 80 percent of their efforts on training that only accounts for 10 percent of the information we learn.

Informal First!

What's the remedy to this backward approach to training? According to Tracey, it's "Informal First." It may sound like the slogan of some bizarre independence movement, but the idea, as advocated on the blog, is actually a common-sense approach to ensuring your training practice lines up with what scientists know about how people actually learn. The post explains:

"Informal first is a mindset that prioritizes informal learning over formal training in practice. Whenever a development intervention is being considered, the primary objective of the L&D professional should be to provide all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format.

"These resources will no doubt include text, but should also include images, audio, video, interactive scenarios, a discussion forum, downloadable job aids… you name it. Whatever is required to make the learning experience authentic and effective. This pedagogical foundation facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner.

"Moreover, it may stand alone to meet the organization’s development need. In other words, there might be no reason for an employee to ever set foot in a classroom again!"

Mixing and Matching

It's a strong call to action, but the post does concede that no matter how much you focus your efforts on informal learning, there will still be occasions when formal is best; for example, "the subject matter being complex," or, "the development need being time-sensitive." As the blog Educational Experimentalist has pointed out, informal and formal learning can work together to reinforce each other. The post quotes an education student named Ed Lizotte who makes the point elegantly: "The objective of formal learning institutions is to teach individuals HOW to learn so they can move from a formal learning structure to a more self-directed learning approach."

Another student, Stephani Roberts, offers an example from her personal experience of the synergies that can exist between informal and formal styles: "One example from my own experience was a two-week documentary film course that I took," she writes. "We had classroom time where our instructor showed us the mechanics of the camera and editing equipment along with lectures about storytelling and some film theory. Near the end of the course, he sent us out into the field individually to come up with a mini documentary."

You're probably not hoping your learners get to grips with making movies but the principle can be extended to a corporate setting. Formal training ensures learners have competence in the tools they are given and the most fundamental principles of the work they're doing, while independent, informal exploration develops and deepens their skills. As E-Learning Provocateur suggests, informal learning where learners "pull" the information they want rather than have content pushed at them, is where the meat of the learning occurs, but formal learning continues to play an important supporting role.

Are you short changing informal learning?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.

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

Image via Rowena of the Rants