Informal Learning: Simple Strategies for Developing Knowledge Outside of the Classroom

Anita Bowness is Learning Consultant, Leadership and Business Solutions, and Tom Gram is Senior Director, Leadership and Business Solutions at Global Knowledge Canada.

As workplace learning professionals, we help our clients define, design, and develop comprehensive learning strategies that include a very deliberate blend of learning modes. You may be familiar with the 70-20-10 rule of workplace learning which estimates that about 70 per cent of workplace learning takes place on the job, through solving problems and through special assignments or other day-to-day activities. Another 20 per cent occurs through accessing the knowledge of others in the workplace and through support, coaching, and mentoring from managers and colleagues. Only 10 per cent occurs through formal learning, whether classroom, virtually-facilitated, or eLearning.

We recently worked with a client to design an OnBoarding program framework based on the 70-20-10 rule. As they prepared to get started on the program development activities, they raised some important questions:

  • What are the costs associated with implementing the “informal” components of the program?
  • How do learning professionals influence or create activities that typically happen on their own?
  • How do you convince their stakeholders that the “informal” aspects of the program support their formal training investments?

Interest in informal learning is tangible and growing. The 2008 ASTD State of the Industry report contained a special survey section on informal learning and concluded that:  “Not only did survey participants acknowledge that informal learning plays a role in today’s workplaces, they also predicted that it would grow in the next three years. More than half of respondents reported that informal learning would increase during that time period.”

These results are interesting for a few reasons. Informal learning always has and always will be “occurring” in organizations. We are natural learners and experience is a natural teacher.  Perhaps the predicted increase points to the heightened awareness that the vast majority of learning takes place on the job. Workplace learning professionals are being more proactive in their influence and facilitation of informal learning… to formalize informal learning so to speak!

We think there is an opportunity to make informal learning more tangible and focused in the workplace today. Whether you actively lead the learning function in your organization or develop strategies and processes that maximize the investments made in your people, there is a role for you in the process. Here are three ways you can influence informal learning in meaningful ways:

Communities of Practice
Learning consultants can help teams plan, establish, and maintain Communities of Practice (CoP). CoP’s are an excellent way to help a team that shares a common professional goal to generate, share, and maintain knowledge. An effective CoP focuses on the process of knowledge creation and exchange and not on the technology. Many of the best CoP tools now include web 2.0 inspired collaborative features. They also focus on tasks and team accomplishments rather than the social meandering some “social networking” technology can result in.

Action Learning
Another proven approach is Action Learning. This involves small teams working together on real work-place problems or tasks. Learning through doing, reflecting on the results and impact of those actions, and making necessary adjustments is at the heart of the natural learning process. Action learning following formal learning events is also effective at transferring learning gained in the classroom to the work employees actually perform.

Another form of action learning is the development of a Learning Action Plan. These action plans integrate learning and work by scheduling time for planned learning activities alongside regular work responsibilities. Learning activities have associated objectives and time frames. Employees reflect upon the outcomes of their learning and then make any adjustments to how they perform their work. These plans can be used either as a transfer activity with a formal learning program or as components of employee development, OnBoarding, or performance coaching strategies.

Informal Learning Assets
Informal Learning Assets are digital and paper-based tools that evolve from formal classroom programs and organization knowledge. Think about the tools and models taught in your formal programs. In all likelihood, there is an opportunity to create templates or small “chunks” of information from this content and feed it to the organization through social media, the Intranet, or CoPs. These assets can be used as informal learning assets available on demand as refresher job aids after participants return to their job, as learning content for employees who did not attend the formal event, or as tools reviewed with a learning coach for OJT learning.

These suggestions represent a few of the many ways that you can facilitate and influence informal learning in your workplace. Look for these opportunities to introduce a focused approach to informal learning to your organization or to enhance what you are already doing elsewhere in your learning services. By taking learning outside the classroom and bringing it into the workplace, you will have a much larger and dynamic field to play on!

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