Informal learning can be defined as the way we learn by observing, talking and interacting with our colleagues as opposed to formal learning that is usually the learning we acquire from an instructor or trainer. Both are essential types of learning for us to perform well in our jobs. I started my career working in a research laboratory. Without the formal learning I acquired through my university degree as well as the on-the-job informal learning that I acquired from my colleagues, it would have been impossible for me to fully perform my function.
It is true, however, that if I had to choose between formal and informal learning, then informal learning was what made me perform better day to day as opposed to the many pages of molecular biology textbooks that I had read in my university years. I think this applies to most of us in our job roles, so it has led me to believe that for L&D to really achieve learning in their organization that is effective at improving performance, then it is not just enough to focus on the formal learning.
The question then is how do you capture informal learning and formalize it in your organization so that rather than benefiting one employee at a time, you can maximize the number of employees who are exposed?
Step 1: Get your technology together
The answer starts with having the right technology backbone in place that encourages employees to share. Firstly, you need a good LMS or platform that allows employees to share knowledge and ask questions through a forum or instant messaging that can by curated via the use of hash tags like on Twitter. One email sent to one inbox explaining a critical procedure in the organization only benefits one person in the organization. If, however, that one question is posted on the organization’s LMS, then the replies can be accessed by and improved upon by all the employees in the organization.
Step 2: Get your workforce in the habit of sharing and working out loud
There has been a lot of talk in Australian L&D and HR circles about working out loud and social learning and most agree that the habit of sharing knowledge in the workplace needs to be developed and encouraged. One way to do this is to incentivize the sharing by marketing the idea that the more you share, the more an employee can raise his or her professional profile in their organization to become a Subject Matter Expert or SME. In a science laboratory, often there are individuals informally recognized as the “go to person” because they know the best technique for doing such. It would be fantastic if that informal recognition could be captured on an LMS or employee platform so that that individual can wear that recognition like a badge of honor. It may encourage them to continue sharing their knowledge and would greatly benefit anyone in the organization who is looking for help in their area of expertise.
Step 3: Develop formal course content by tracking the informal learning habits of your workforce
Leverage the body of knowledge that informal learning activity creates on your organization’s LMS to promote and develop formal learning programs such as your face-2-face, e-learning or micro-learning content. Adults are more likely to learn during a formal course if they feel that the learning content is relevant to their job role and can help make their day-to-day work life easier. For instance, a customer service officer who regularly accesses informal learning chats and forums on dealing with difficult customers may be directed by a link to the organization’s e-learning course on dealing with conflict or dissatisfied customers. Lastly, create engaging and highly relevant e-learning courses that try to mimic informal learning in the workplace to help reinforce informal learning. One way you can do this is by using mini scenarios or branching scenarios for more complicated topics. Another way may be to incorporate demonstration videos created in-house by the organization’s own SMEs.
Without a good technology backbone, informal learning will remain unchecked and haphazard. For organizations that continue to ignore the importance of informal learning and fail to capture the benefits, it is a missed opportunity to better improve learning in their organization.