It’s often said that about 75% of an employee’s learning comes from informal venues, not — as might be expected — from a college degree or an accredited institution. Although this might come as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Yet, despite its value, studies show that many organizations today spend the bulk of their time, effort and money on formal learning and training, rather than informal.
But what exactly is informal learning? As the founder and director of an education and recreation company that offers informal education consulting, I’ve seen some define it as a situation where the participant has an intention to learn. It has also been described as “incidental, unintentional or unplanned” learning, which can happen through everyday social interactions, conversations or simply reading a book. On the other hand, formal learning typically entails an event, having a trainer and receiving an award or credit once you complete the lesson or training.
Formal versus informal: What needs to change?
I’ve observed some experts say the problem with formal learning is its authoritarian nature — where control is in the hands of the instructor (or employer) who is pushing information. This kind of teaching is often met with resistance if attendance is mandated instead of motivated. However, if an employee is allowed to pull the information they need — as in an informal environment — the learning tends to be more successful because the employee is curious and self-motivated to learn.
Yet, because an informal learning setting is not authoritarian, it often requires that those presenting the education assume new and different roles. Rather than acting as a parent/teacher, they need to adopt the role of a coach/mentor.
Research has shown there is a positive connection between emotional engagement and learning. When learners are emotionally invested in subject matter, their memory recall is greater; the material is remembered more clearly, more accurately and for a longer time. Here’s an analogy: Emotional engagement is the gas in the car. It’s what propels the learning. In formal education, the learner is getting out and pushing the car. They will eventually get there, but at a much slower pace and in a less effective manner.
Also, in an informal learning environment, learners are inspired and self-driven to get the information they need, which fosters curiosity. An example is the “sage on the stage” versus the “guide at the side” methods. The “sage” environment is what occurs when a teacher is telling the learner what they need to know, while with the “guide” method, learners are being helped to explore things on their own.
The ‘secret sauce’ is innovation.
While innovation is often a part of the informal learning equation, it can be the missing ingredient in a formal learning environment. For example, in the current K-12 system, I’ve observed that students often learn a lot of facts but are not taught how to innovate around them, and for many, the idea of innovating is terrifying because it sets them up to fail. This fear can and often does carry over into the working world. If we are to become a truly innovative society, we need to learn how to think, which is more important than learning what to think.
For businesses to grow and advance, they need an environment that encourages teamwork, empathy, curiosity and innovation where employees can discuss things face to face, thus fostering social engagement at all levels of an organization.
How can organizations encourage innovation and informal learning?
In order to cultivate an environment of innovation and informal education, organizations need to build a system that incorporates an informal learning process into the existing paradigm. Below are my tips on how to get started:
• Avoid mandatory, official company programs if the information can be distributed in a less formal manner, such as via coaching or having employees brainstorm toward the solution.
• Support employees and let them take the initiative in solving problems, rather than telling them what to do.
• Encourage networking through interdepartmental meetings where staff members can learn from one another.
• Develop internal workshops or practice sessions that incorporate interactive role-play and hands-on opportunities while offering constructive feedback.
• Sponsor guest speakers of your employees’ choosing who can mentor and coach them.
• Provide tools, such as instruction manuals, training videos, agenda templates, status reports and other resources, employees can access at their discretion.
• Coach managers in the same manner that they will coach their staff so they will be prepared to take on new roles.
• Help employees develop collaborative, research and interpersonal work skills through more in-person brainstorming and problem-solving sessions.
• Conduct recap meetings at the conclusion of projects to determine what worked and what didn’t while encouraging staff to create a list of actionable tasks from the results.
• Facilitate coffee-break areas that provide places to informally connect, share and discuss potential solutions to problems.
• Foster question-based mentoring opportunities that allow mentees to draw their own conclusions and discover their own solutions.
• Encourage employees to shadow colleagues from a different department to better understand and learn that person’s on-the-job tasks and improve comprehension of the various roles in the company.
• Creating an internal database of informal knowledge that includes online recordings, YouTube videos, articles and social media posts that are pertinent to the organization.
While formal education has its place in any long-range strategic plan, I’ve found that encouraging an atmosphere of informal learning can help motivate employees to not only explore new ways of approaching challenges but also concentrate on how to think, take risks and even fail in order to discover new solutions to old problems.
By investing in these informal methods of learning and incorporating them into the existing culture of their organizations, business leaders will not only remain relevant in today’s evolving workplace environment but also be at the forefront of the next generation of learning and be well-positioned for success.