In this knowledge-based economy that technologically evolves every day, being able to “learn how to learn” is THE key skill of the new worker. Moreover, the strength of a company rests more than ever on its human capital. In this context, it is essential to make the most of informal learning, the spontaneous and unstructured learning that occurs in all workplaces and has an excellent, often untapped potential. And here is were online training could help!

Learning that needs to be known

As we explained in a previous article, informal learning is the learning that we do on a daily basis, usually unintentionally, and is neither organized nor structured regarding objectives, time or resources. It can be individual or social: in the first case, when one learns by oneself, by experimenting various means, and in the second, when one learns by observing or getting help from others.

Many of us will follow some form of structured training in our professional career. This does not mean that apart from these opportunities we will not acquire any knowledge or develop any other valuable skills. On the contrary, we now know that informal learning, the most common form of learning for a majority of workers, makes acquiring knowledge possible, in a varied and useful way.

Just think of the fresh-off-the-school-bench employees, who, once hired, will use the help of veteran colleagues to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. This is only one example among many, and not necessarily anecdotal. The study Informal learning in the Workplace concludes that the transfer of knowledge from school to the labor market is much more complicated than it seems. The author criticizes the fact that both the higher education community and the labor one are hindering this process, adding that both cultures were unaware of the challenges of this transfer of knowledge. Moreover, they deny this reality, which requires the young worker to adapt his knowledge and skills to a new reality.

The fact that informal learning is more or less conscious and more or less visible contributes to its lack of recognition in the workplace and society in general. Some argue that the gains of the experience should be better validated, in particular, because they are part of the today’s logic of lifelong learning. Without transforming informal learning into formal learning, and distorting it, both companies and workers would benefit from knowing how to identify it and then putting in place conditions that optimize it.

Customized for the future

There is a great deal of interest among researchers and educational practitioners in informal learning, and this is not a recent endeavor. It had already manifested itself in the 1970s, after formal learning had long been considered superior, in the wake of the movement for institutional education for all. The current enthusiasm is partly due to the massive adoption of the latest information technologies and Web 2.0 tools. In addition to the changes they instilled in our habits, whether to communicate, inform or acquire knowledge, their impact on our work is undeniable: they have notably accelerated globalization and the emergence of a “knowledge economy.”

In Les apprentissages informels dans la formation pour adultes, Denis Cristol and Anne Muller describe what informal learning can bring to organizations that have grasped its importance:

“The knowledge economy (Bouchez, 2012) is characterized by the need to master more and more knowledge flows and to speed up their movement. Faced with this flow, managers perceive the limits of structured learning methods, considered insufficient to adapt and innovate continuously. With the idea of a learning organization, learning in a work situation (Marsick et al., 2007) or informal professional learning (Carré & Charbonnier, 2003), business leaders seek to capture a competitive advantage for their organizations. Informal learning allows the adaptation to changes and mutations of work contexts marked by events, disturbances, constant changes in a culture of complexity and mobility. We are witnessing the development of a culture of an organization where work and training are combined. Informal learning is thus the hyphen and the guarantee of coherence in terms of adequacy to training needs and economic competitiveness.”

The latest technological developments have also led to a redefinition of learning. Informal learning can now be “nomadic,” which opens the door to new possibilities, as underlined by Cristol and Muller: “A porosity develops between all the technological devices: platforms, computers, telephones, MP3 players, and cameras. A new link is created between learning and technologies that transform the relationship to time, spaces, places and knowledge. Learning can now be carried out outside the frameworks formally provided for this purpose […].”

Winning paths for a learning organization

Informal learning can be encouraged within an organization. Some concrete steps have been identified by the Canadian study L’apprentissage informel lié au travail:

Practical solutions

  • Support and mentoring
  • Employee Development Plans
  • Access to a library / Internet for external sources of information
  • Online help, FAQs, technical manuals for various types of jobs
  • Wikis, blogs, online newsletters, chat rooms, etc., to exchange knowledge about work
  • Stories about the organization, the different challenges, problems, and solutions
  • Motivation to ask questions about all aspects of the organization
  • Possibilities of assignments in other departments of the organization
  • Training to develop learning strategies, i.e., “Learning to learn” (e.g., learning how to search online)

Employee support measures

  • Give employees opportunities to display their potential
  • Set up a link between employee benefits and informal learning
  • Create events and spaces to share informal learning
  • Encourage teamwork
  • Plan workdays on sharing, brainstorming and problem solving
  • Encourage staff to volunteer within community organizations
  • Create a professional portfolio
  • Provide employees with Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) policies
  • Organize reading clubs on work-related topics
  • Organize open meetings

Learn by yourself and for yourself

The workers of today are no longer the ones of yesterday. More educated, autonomous, proactive, they seek development and improvement of their work. Informal learning fits perfectly on this tangent and contributes to the construction of a professional identity. Some even speak of it in terms of learning “transformers and emancipators”: “Learning informally frees the learner from environmental or institutional constraints (Mezirow, 2001). This power, given to an adult to reflect on oneself, to take a step back, to transform the environment through feedback (Candy, 1991) allows him to empower himself, to free himself, to move away from the situations of heteronomy to which he is often subjected. It allows a socio-educational release (Tremblay, 2003): the self-training experience refers to a conception of training by oneself and for oneself, with a transformative and emancipatory aim (Bézille, Courtois, 2006).”

Concretely, several studies (Colley et al., 2003, Livingstone and Stowe, 2007, Wihak and Hall, 2011) have attempted to assess the workers’ perceptions of the usefulness of informal learning or its components. The results show that it is just as useful as formal learning. Among its advantages, it is more flexible, more responsive to specific needs, and quicker to acquire knowledge (Delage, 2002, Tarc, Smaller and Antonelli, 2006).

Researchers have also examined factors that may favor some workers in the field of informal learning. In this regard, the Canadian study L’apprentissage informel lié au travail finds that: “… some workers have more informal learning strategies at their disposal than others, or are more likely to use them at work. Having a wider range of informal learning activities could make a learner more effective and profitable. People whose level of training, level of education and occupational status are higher, in particular, may have an advantage to effectively learn informally compared to other workers.”

Seven personal characteristics would increase motivation to participate in informal learning to progress in one’s career (Lohman, 2006):

  1. The sense of initiative
  2. Self-efficacy
  3. The love of the act of learning
  4. Interest in his profession
  5. The desire to improve professionally
  6. A personal inclination to take an interest in the well-being of others
  7. An extroverted personality

That being said, based on two large Canadian surveys (ECAL and WALL), Wihak and Hall report that “a high proportion of learners (over 80%) engage in some type of informal learning activity, regardless of differences in personal characteristics.”

Cristol and Muller agree that personal characteristics and circumstances seem to have an impact on the acquisition of informal learning, but according to their analysis, it is the organizational learning culture that weighs the heaviest.

The model company: a learning organization

In this knowledge-based economy where paradigms evolve rapidly, the worker who will succeed is the one who will learn how to learn. It is in a “learning organization” that the new worker will be able to develop and give the best of himself fully. And, to remain competitive and innovative, every company needs more than ever to ensure that the skills of its workforce are adequate and up-to-date. The notion of “learning organization,” as defined by Peter M. Senge, refers to an organization “where people are constantly developing their ability to create the results they truly want, where new and expansive thought patterns are cultivated, where we give free rein to the collective aspiration, and where people continually learn to perceive the whole.”

Cristol and Muller, for their part, mention that the environment would stimulate the experience and that three characteristics were identified (Laiken et al., 2001):

  • the creation of a vision based on common values and goals and on the internal mechanisms of the organization,
  • the ability to translate that vision into practice,
  • a constant assessment of progress.

On this last point, Andries De Grip’s study The importance of informal learning at work, which focuses on organizations in OECD countries, states that there is a positive correlation between informal learning and the return of information received by the employees from their colleagues and superiors, whether this feedback is approving or critical. Organizations would benefit from developing tools designed to track the evolution of informal learning among their employees. They should also assess whether they meet the criteria of a learning organization. For this purpose, an online tool, called the Learning Organization Survey, based on three pillars, identifies what an organization should do or avoid doing to encourage learning.

These three pillars are:

  1. An encouraging learning environment
  2. Practical learning practices and processes
  3. Leadership that reinforces learning

De Grip also notes that “it is by engaging in new challenges, stimulating activities and cooperating with more experienced colleagues that workers learn the most.” He notes that while many organizations are aware of the importance of informal learning, most do not have a strategy to maximize their gains. This situation leaves much of the potential of their workforce dormant. According to one Dutch study, to which De Grip refers, a worker spends, on average, 35% of his time in activities from which he can learn. Of this time, 96% is devoted to informal learning activities compared to only 4% to formal learning activities. In addition, the learning intensity that the individual invests in an hour of informal learning would be as high as that deployed for an hour of formal learning.

The workplace is a productive ground for learning and businesses have everything to gain by exploring the possibilities of building this growth culture. Regarding the environment as a mean to lead to a culture of learning, the study Les apprentissages informels dans la formation pour adultes explains: “In daily practice, the work activity located in a place and in an organizational space can be an opportunity to induced effects beyond production alone. Working organizations that make experimentation possible and the right to make mistakes, facilitate exchanges. As a result, the organization can develop a learning dimension that focuses on the learning from collaborators or peers (Senge 1990, Argyris 1995). The company culture could even facilitate tacit learning (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1997) in the context of a transformation of the knowledge that circulates between work collectives. As a result, organizations develop technical means, promote social networks or management processes to create a true learning culture.”

Online training at the service of the informal

As we have seen above, the latest technological advances have redefined learning and opened the door to new opportunities. This immediate access to an abundance of information and the multiplication of exchange platforms can certainly be used for informal learning in a workplace context. ELearning tools, which are most often designed for formal learning, can provide informal learning with a framework that allows it to emerge. As summarized by Cristol and Muller, simple access to Web platforms is not enough:

“The expression Web 2.0 is part of the idea of social learning facilitated through communication technologies that would simplify the search for information and interactions. However, the only practice of surfing the Internet is insufficient to learn, because the research conducted is often limited to the first page of data output by a search engine or Wikipedia-type encyclopedia without a sorting guarantee or information qualification (Charlier & Henri, 2010). […] It is possible to identify many situations of informal online learning: for example, the multiplication of online interactions would be beneficial to learning a language […]. Thus, the forums, the blogs, the wikis would increase the possibilities of exchanges and learning (Thot-Cursus, 2010). But the chatter would be insufficient to learn if it wasn’t followed by more reflective exchanges (Gobert & Papi, 2010). There are indeed significant differences in the quality of interactions depending on the presence or absence of a supervisor but also the quality and intentions of the people who exchange.”

A company can use online training tools to promote its learning culture, in particular by demystifying informal learning among its employees, encouraging them to engage in it, at work. In the same time, it can present employees with all the resources and initiatives at their disposal. By putting formal learning at the service of informal learning, a company can also offer “learning to learn” training, making the most out of all educational opportunities. According to Cristol and Muller, informal learning can, in turn, be a motivation lever for formal training, and organizations can gain by using both types of these complementary learning approaches.

“Informal learning benefit to be imagined in synergy with formal learning rather than in an antagonistic way. Already proposals are emerging to organize a network of educational strategies between formal and informal learning. Thus, as Xiao et al. (2007) have presented, talking about formal computer training, formal learning would make students prepare to learn informally throughout their lives.”

Referring to several studies that they analyzed, Wihak and Hall agree that: “All these studies raise the importance of establishing complementarity, in the sphere of work-related learning, of informal and more structured activities.” At the same time, they support the need to demystify informal learning, which is often tacit: “Explaining the tacit (P. Bélanger, personal communication, Sept. 24, 2008) is essential to ensure the transfer of skills and knowledge through peer coaching or mentoring.”

In an organization that does not make an effort to become a “learning” one, some workers may be embarrassed to solicit the help from colleagues, and others may fear to lose their jobs by freely sharing their knowledge. The use of eLearning can help prevent such situations by formally valuing informal learning, while putting in place a framework and resources for it to unfold. Online training tools can also be very useful for evaluating employees’ knowledge and for themselves to learn how to evaluate their learning. In the latter case, Michael Eraut argues in the Informal learning in the workplace that “such efforts should be a good investment because they will also have a positive impact on retention, innovation and quality improvement.”

The relational dimension: bolster of informal learning

In conclusion, let us emphasize a key aspect of informal learning on which online learning can interpose: interpersonal relationships between colleagues. This factor is closely related to the “quality” and “intentions” of the people who are sharing informal online learning. Note that while informal learning can be done alone, many researchers (Billett, 2002, Bratton et al., 2003, Fenwick, 2001, and Taylor et al., 2008) agree that workplace learning is a social phenomenon rather than an individual one.

Eraut warns not to neglect this component: “In reporting the comparatively large proportion of informal learning occurring in the workplace, it would be a mistake to believe that learning in the workplace often approaches its potential. A typical workgroup comprises a changing set of individuals who spend varying periods of time within it. These individuals come from and go on to other groups, sometimes within the same organization, sometimes not. Each has a distinctive learning career that can be traced through a sequence of work groups: in some groups, it flourishes, in others, it stagnates or regresses. This depends on how much group members learn from each other, to what extent individuals of the whole group respond to the challenges of their work and support each other, and what additional learning opportunities for the group are located and developed.”

The researcher highlighted four main types of activities that are most often the source of learning in the workplace:

  1. Participation in group activities included team working towards a common outcome, and groups set up for a special purpose such as audit, development or review of policy and/or practice, and responding to external changes.
  2. Working alongside others allows people to observe and listen to others at work and to participate in activities, and hence to learn some new practices and new perspectives, to become aware of different kinds of knowledge and expertise, and to gain some sense of other people’s tacit knowledge.
  3. Tackling challenging tasks requires on‐the‐job learning and, if well‐supported and successful, leads to increased motivation and confidence.
  4. Working with clients also entails learning (1) about the client, (2) from any novel aspects of each client’s problem or request and, (3) from any new ideas that arose from their joint consultation.

According to Eraut, the success of these four processes is based, in part, on the quality of interpersonal relationships in the workplace. The online training tools are ideally designed to make workers aware of the importance of collaboration, to guide them to this end or to provide them with a framework conducive to constructive and stimulating exchanges.

Omnipresent in the workplace and carrying real value, informal learning can no longer be ignored by the company of the future. In this knowledge-based economy, a company must frequently ensure that the knowledge and skills of its employees are up-to-date, but also that they know how to learn, that they value collaboration and that they cultivate the desire to share their knowledge with others. To become a real learning organization, a company must develop and promote a true learning culture, in addition to optimizing the transmission of all relevant knowledge about its places, physical and virtual. By addressing both formal and informal learning synergistically, and using the multiple and innovative possibilities of eLearning, a company has everything at their disposal to exploit this gold mine of informal learning.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.