We learn every day, unpredictably, in a variety of personal and professional situations (think of the traditional discussions around the water cooler…). The potential of informal learning in the workplace is attracting growing interest, and educational researchers are no longer merely viewing it in the form of opposition to its formal counterpart. Here are some benchmarks to understand better this perspective.

Definitions aplenty

Experiential, practical, accidental, intentional, incidental, implicit, emergent, active, self-directed, peer-to-peer, autonomous learning… these are some of the terms that refer to the informal learning, that Denis Cristol and Anne Muller list in on of their study “Les apprentissages informels dans la formation pour adultes”. Whether on the terminology or the theory side, the definitions that are trying to identify the mechanisms of informal learning abound. They all attempt to understand this omnipresent type of learning, which paradoxically is “invisible,” since it takes place outside the structures of educational institutions.

In this proliferation of sometimes-contradictory ideas, the primary challenge will be to find a theoretical and semantic framework that rally a majority. As Cristol and Muller point out, however, the current reflections are on a positive trend, combining in these discussions both practitioners in different fields and researchers in the educational sciences.

Experiential and multidimensional learning

The notion that is mostly used when it comes to informal learning is that of “self-training” experience. Cristol and Muller note that “informal learning as it appears from the available scientific literature is attested as the acquisition of knowledge, related to experience. They refer to a double logic of experimentation and construction of professional identity.”

Informal learning can be individual (solitary) – it consists of “learning by oneself, experimenting with different ways,” or social (collective) – the case when you “learn by observing and getting help from others.”

In an almost poetic description, Cristol and Muller highlight the multidimensional nature of informal learning:

“When it enters the professional environment, it relies on the job. By mobilizing communication technologies, we can call it nomad. Tacit, it reveals the role taken by the environment and the organization of human interactions. In the form of incidental or accidental learning, it draws on the variety of situations, events, or sudden revelations. The fact of naming it in other circumstances “wanderer” allows to point out its discrete visibility. It becomes implicit when it gives a glimpse of the role of attention and intention to learn. It is considered as a daily occurrence when it testifies to its diffuse character rather than one intense and specialized. By considering it as situated, we intend to emphasize the importance of places and times.”

The triptych: formal, informal and non-formal

The categorization of learning according to the “formal, informal and non-formal” triptych is traditionally based on the context in which learning occurs. It is said to be “formal” when it occurs in an official educational setting, whereas it is considered “informal” when it occurs outside of a course or training program. Non-formal learning refers to a structured and planned learning that occurs outside of a formal educational setting.

Some researchers, however, strongly contest the relevance, and even the logic of the “formal, informal and non-formal” triptych, particularly when applied in the workplace. For others, it is the terminology that poses a problem, especially the negative connotation of the qualifier “informal.” As Sylvie Ann Hart points out in her article “Apprentissage formel, informel, non formel, des notions difficiles à utiliser… pourquoi?” it is in their concrete application that the notions of formal, informal and non-formal learning are complicated: “While these definitions are clear, they are difficult to handle, especially when it comes to analyzing workplace training. […] Thus, when it comes to using these definitions, it is often difficult to do so without ambiguity, in a satisfactory manner.”

The authors of the study “L’apprentissage informel lié au travail” make a similar finding regarding informal learning: “The lack of consensus around the nature of informal learning underscores how difficult it is to attempt to agree on how to conceptualize the term and arrive at an ad hoc definition.” Nevertheless, the triptych is still in use, as noted by Sylvie Ann Hart, who has noticed a change since the early 2000s: researchers treat them more in complementarity than in opposition.

“This stance is not foreign to the needs of a time when knowledge cannot all be acquired (or with difficulty) in the daily practice of jobs and where educational institutions can no longer prepare alone a workforce for constantly changing jobs and skills. The two worlds are doomed to come closer, and in doing so, they borrow the characteristics of both, so that the borders are blurred, and with them, the positions decided a day before.”

Hart also notes that most researchers stick to only formal and informal notions; and that the majority of those who use the term “non-formal” do so to replace the notion of the informal, which they reject.

Formal and informal: from opposing to complementary

Informal learning was initially defined in opposition to formal learning. Researchers Colley, Hodkinson and Malcom brought this new analysis model of learning situations into a continuum from formal to informal, taking into account different aspects (the process of learning, its location and its setting, purpose, and content). The study summarizes the originality of the work of Colley and his colleagues: “Rather than attempting to create a synthetic definition of informal learning, Colley et al. (2002, 2003a, b) opted for a radically different approach. They assumed that informality and formality could be viewed as attributes of learning, found at one level or another in any learning situation.”

Nevertheless, the most important contribution of these researchers is to have identified the twenty or so parameters (Colley et al., 2003, p.28) that would make it possible to analyze any training and learning situation. This is significant given the fact that one of the problems of informal learning research is that researchers do not all use the same parameters to distinguish formal from informal or non-formal. The contribution of Colley et al. is all the more important since this list is practically “exhaustive” and it has won the support of several researchers in the field (Butterwick, Jubas, and Liptrot, 2008, Cole, 2005, Gairey, Ng, Martin, and Jackson 2006, Sawchuk 2008, Straka 2004).

Without revealing here all the theories of learning that exploit this idea of a continuum, here is a similar example, explained Michael Eraut in his article: “Since I deplore dichotomies as indicators of lazy thinking, I prefer to define informal learning as learning that comes closer to the informal end than the formal end of a continuum. Characteristics of the informal end of the continuum of formality include implicit, unintended, opportunistic and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher. In the middle come activities like mentoring, while coaching is rather more formal in most settings.”

The informal2.0: online training at the service of the informal

The widespread use of the latest information technologies and Web 2.0 tools for acquiring knowledge is not foreign to this renewed interest in informal learning. This new reality amplifies the scope of this form of learning, as summarized by one study in particular:

“Cross (2007) highlighted the importance of the Web in the area of informal learning, while White (2008) pointed out that the development of Web 2.0 tools opened the door to infinite possibilities for sharing information. Given the interactive nature of new social networking software, new knowledge is created and shared simultaneously, accelerating informal learning exponentially. Portable devices (cell phones, BlackBerrys, etc.), thanks to their increasing access to the Web, make it possible to learn on demand and thus to rapidly increase the involvement in informal learning activities.”

In this context, the possibilities of e-learning must be exploited, not to transform informal learning into formal learning, and to distort it, but to maximize its potential. Several avenues could be considered:

  • online training can be used to make workers aware of the very existence of this type of learning, the main weakness of which is to be “invisible”;
  • to give workers tools that promote informal learning among colleagues and demonstrate how to use them;
  • or to create a corporate culture that values this form of learning.

On the other hand, formal learning has not stopped attracting interest, and it’s not in vain, even if one day will have to go through a clean-up process through the theory and the terminology of it as well.

Concrete examples

Informal learning can be transposed into a workplace setting in the act of…

  • Sharing with a colleague a best practice that will allow them to be more effective.
  • Searching online for tips to improve collaboration within a team.
  • Showing a new employee how to use a computer tool with which he is unfamiliar.
  • Meeting with colleagues to share an approach that has been successful when dealing with clients.

It may include the following areas:

  • compilation of new general knowledge
  • skills for teamwork, problem solving or communication
  • new work tasks
  • information technology
  • health and security
  • new equipment operations
  • working conditions or workers’ rights
  • organizational or management skills
  • workplace policies
  • budgeting or financial management
  • language and literacy

In the glossary of the European Commission

Although the debate persists about the use of the “formal, informal and non-formal” triptych to categorize learning, it received however some validation in the early 2000s when the European Commission and CEDEFOP * used it in its Communication for the establishment of a European area of lifelong learning.

Since then, the triptych has become somewhat of a reference. The definition of informal learning from the glossary of the Communication is as follows:

“Learning from activities of daily work-related lives, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of objectives, time or resources) and is generally not validated by a title. Informal learning may be intentional, but in most cases, it is unintentional (or “fortuitous” / random).”

* European Center for the Development of Vocational Training

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

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