August 3, 2012

Keeping the “Informal” in Workplace Informal Learning

Informal learning is a concept that is quickly taking hold in companies and organizations everywhere. No surprise. Such learning often produces as good or better results than more formal training programs and at a fraction of the cost. But as with all trends adopted within large organizations, there can be a tendency to over-complicate matters.

Wikipedia defines informal learning as “semi-structured learning that occurs in a variety of places such as learning at home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships…” and that’s a pretty good general definition. In corporate settings, informal learning is typically considered any learning that takes place independently from formalized or instructor-led training using various forms of self-study such as books, performance support materials, coaching, communities of practice, and expert directories.

My concern is that some companies and organizations will create such a complex process around informal learning, or build in such tight management oversight, that it will squeeze the “informal” out of the learning experience. I’ve seen it happen before.

As Daniel Gilbert points out in his book, Drive, people are motivated by having as much autonomy as possible. True motivation, including the motivation to learn, comes not typically from dangling carrots of bonuses or promotions in front of employees or other similar external incentives, but instead from creating an atmosphere of self-direction and autonomy that allows the employee to discover, play, explore and otherwise pursue their work, including their self education, in ways that work best for them.

Yes, companies can and should set appropriate learning objectives for employees when discussing informal learning projects. The learning project undertaken on company time should result in knowledge and skill that benefits the company (as well as the employee). However, micromanaging the learning project should be avoided.

For most informal learning projects agreed upon between manager and employee, I recommend a simple and direct process. First, a meeting should take place to discuss the learning project. Once the meeting is held, a simple (not long or complex) document can be created, perhaps using the company’s informal learning project template, that clearly states the objectives, potential learning resources and how the employee will use the learning in their job. After some time has elapsed, a check-in meeting can be held at which time the manager can offer any additional resources or otherwise keep the employee’s learning focused. Finally, a last meeting could be held, or perhaps a simple summation of the learning in document form could be created, to close the loop on the learning. If the company uses some type of learning tracking software, such as a learning management system, the learning should be entered into that system.

The maxim of “keep it simple” applies here. Don’t complicate the process. The simpler it is, the more likely people will participate and, even more importantly, enjoy the process.

3 Comments on “Keeping the “Informal” in Workplace Informal Learning

Building a Workplace Learning Culture
March 8, 2013 at 1:59 pm

[…] a previous post I talked about the need to keep informal learning in the workplace truly informal. Another, and […]

Shima Rahman
May 2, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Dear Mr Bannon,

Great piece!

In fact, I am writing for your permission to include this article in the future edition of our Guild of HR e-Mag.

Let me know if you’re keen for us to take this forward :)

Thanks again!

Shima Rahman
Editor, Guild of HR e-Mag
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Race Bannon
June 3, 2013 at 10:41 am

Shima, thanks for the request! Yes, you are welcome to re-use the article. I sent you an email with the specifics. Thanks again!

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