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Is Informal Learning Effective?

Written By Vandana Kaveti

Informal learning is any learning obtained informally through discussions or by observing others. It is not ‘mandated’ and is an unscheduled method that most of the learners use to obtain information or exchange ideas. Informal learning takes place in different places anytime, anywhere such as at work, home, or through interactions among colleagues or friends without an externally imposed or intended outcome.

Content or information shared in different social media sites like: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or discussion forums facilitates the informal learning. It provides an opportunity for learners to pose questions and seek responses for their queries. Learning typically happens without any conscious effort on the part of the learner. It is an unintentional and unplanned activity.

Research states that 20% of learning takes place through instructor-led training. However, 80% of learning happens informally on-the-job. Information in the informal learning context becomes relevant only when it is related to something that the learner is already familiar with. However, informal learning has its limitations. Let’s look at some of them.

  • Incorrect or Missing Information: Informal learning is not effective because the knowledge that has been shared may be inconsistent and sometimes wrong or there are chances of missing out the complete information.
  • Ad-hoc manner: Informal learning does not take place in a planned manner and it depends upon the learner’s interest; thus an average learner may not be aware of how to use it effectively in the initial stages of learning. It has no proper structure and learners may not be able to retain all the information that is exchanged.
  • Learning may not have management backing: The learning may not have institutional recognition as it takes place outside a dedicated conventional learning environment. It is not professionally organized and depends on the actions and interests of the individuals.
  • Difficulty in Evaluation: Though this type of learning is convenient for learners it becomes difficult to evaluate whether there is credible knowledge transfer, as the learning is often incidental.

That said, though there is no certification in informal learning, learning never ends. It could have a direct effect on the job performance, based on the way the learner capitalizes on its scope. This type of learning may not be systematic but is spontaneous, practical, and natural and can be used effectively for one’s personal and professional development.


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  • The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) defines three contexts for learning — informal, non-formal and formal learning.

    While you are correct in saying that informal learning is more difficult to evaluate and that it is ad hoc, there are also considered benefits to this type of learning.

    It is also worth pointing out that there is no guarantee that formal or non-formal learning doesn’t miss certain information or that it ONLY contain “correct” information (however that may be defined). There are many benefits to informal learning such as higher levels of spontaneity, and often higher levels of learner engagement than with mandatory formal learning.

  • Following your definition of informal learning is oddly it must be planned. It is true especially if a person is learning by observation a task, especially one that is complex or where there is a good bit of discrete actions going on, that a person must be aware of for what (s)he is observing.

    Let me explain, lets say a person has been a supervisor and is now entering a management training program. If the person is sent out to learn by observing what an excellent manager does without a plan of specific things for which to look the person observing is bound to learn little or next to nothing.

    Whether it is teaching sports, math or any other skill a person needs to know what are key areas to observe. So a checklist such as watch to see how a manager prioritizes multiple requests; or steps a manager follows when delegating, etc. can be informative.

    This does not mean that the person overseeing the course necessarily needs to generate the list it can come from whatever training program is being used; and the manager in training can simply be directed to turn what (s)he has learned about management into a list and then observe several managers to see how they do or don’t do what the training recommends.

  • Thanks Dr. Sarah and Alex for sharing your views.

    Alex, having a checklist could be helpful. That said, most of the informal learning is spontaneous and need-based. What organizations can certainly do is open up new avenues of interactions through intranet and company websites so that there is increased peer-to-peer interaction.