In today’s ever-changing economy, companies rely on their people to subscribe to a code of life-long learning and be self-directed, self-motivated learners who can adapt quickly in a dynamic workplace. To support them in this initiative, smart companies invest in formal training offerings. Still smarter companies take a more holistic approach by supporting both the formal and informal learning that occurs at work.
This month’s survey asked Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board to share its thoughts on the topic of informal learning. In its simplest form, informal learning is everything that formal learning is not. It includes a wide range of learning activities that fall outside a formal training program, such as on-the-job training experiences, informal discussions with colleagues, attendance at industry conferences, reading trade publications and, more recently, technology-facilitated activities such as Internet searching, the use of online referenceware, live chatting, wikis, blogs and podcasts. Informal learning occurs in both collaborative and individual settings and might be either planned or serendipitous. Learning professionals realize that it is not a matter of whether informal learning occurs within their workplace, but whether it is something they are willing or able to support.
If this month’s survey results are any indication, the learning community seems split on this last point. No one disagrees with the value of informal learning, but many respondents were split on whether it is something that should be formally supported given the challenges that lie in tracking informal learning and measuring its impact.
How Much Informal Learning Is Happening?
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that 70 percent of the learning that occurs in the workplace is done informally. For leaders who have the responsibility to support their employees’ personal and professional development, this is a hard number to ignore. It is no wonder that respondents ranked it among the top three issues the learning industry should be paying more attention to in 2006. (See “Looking Forward: The Learning & Development Industry in 2006,” January 2006.) The challenge comes from the fact that informal learning is such an amorphous concept. It’s hard to rally support for something people can’t quantify and occurs without structure. Survey results support this fact. When asked to estimate the amount of informal learning that occurs within their organizations, only a fifth of respondents indicated that it was something they even tracked. Of this group, 15 percent said they had no idea how much it accounted for, and the remaining 85 percent of responses were relatively evenly distributed across the full range of available choices, making it difficult to assign any one value to the amount of informal learning happening today.
Transfer of Knowledge: A Key Benefit
Tracking, however, need not be a prerequisite for recognizing the value of informal learning. Despite the large percentage of respondents who do not track informal learning, many acknowledge the inherent benefits that drive the need to support informal learning within their companies. For example, learning professionals know that informal learning initiatives facilitate the transfer of knowledge throughout the enterprise. In business, making informed decisions relies on having access to the most up-to-date information. The faster information travels to those who need it, the better equipped they are to make sound decisions. Whereas formal learning tends to be slow and methodical, informal learning often occurs rapidly and spontaneously. To this end, many companies provide their employees with tools such as electronic whiteboards, live chat, screen capturing applications and Web conferencing in order to help create, capture and distribute informal learning content. Business Intelligence Board members also said that they recognize that supporting informal learning increases their employees’ speed to competency. Despite this recognition, few respondents described their organizations’ efforts as being part of a comprehensive strategy. (See Figure 1.) One respondent likened his company’s attempt to manage informal learning to trying to grab Jell-O, describing the process as being elusive and suggesting that the most one can truly hope for is the establishment of a supportive culture. Forty-six percent of board members indicated that support for informal learning at their organizations came in an ad-hoc fashion with no real strategy driving support. Thirty-five percent indicated that no solutions or strategy existed, but that they were hoping to move in that direction. Only 11 percent felt that informal learning was something that by its very nature couldn’t be managed.
Despite the challenges involved in managing support for informal learning, many respondents feel that their companies could be doing more. As one respondent put it, “Although we currently have a strategy for informal learning, the full implementation of that strategy lags behind, primarily due to time constraints and lack of clear processes. We have been guilty of taking the term ‘informal learning’ far too literally and now realize it needs more structure, focus and emphasis.”
Little Change Expected
So it’s clear the learning community believes there should be increased support of informal learning, but how or if this will actually manifest itself over the next 12 to 18 months is unclear. Figure 2 suggests that respondents are not expecting a lot of change to occur in the near future as both on-the-job experience and informal conversations with colleagues are expected to remain the two most important types of informal learning. And despite a large majority (86 percent) believing that technology will take on a greater role in the coming months, Figure 2 suggests that on the whole, technology will only see slight gains in importance in some areas and declines in others. In particular, respondents predict that technology-facilitated activities such as learning portals, Internet searches, wikis, blogs and expert locators will become less important in the coming months. By comparison, online referenceware, knowledge and content management systems, collaborative learning spaces, Web conferencing, podcasts and live chat are all expected to take on varying but small degrees of increased importance.
The Role of Culture
The greatest challenge for learning professionals looking to adopt informal learning initiatives within their companies is often cultural. An organization that doesn’t share information across business units or is unfamiliar with the custom of establishing communities of practice and reviewing common lessons learned is not likely to get behind efforts to support informal learning. One quarter of respondents indicated that this was the greatest impediment to providing more supportive efforts. Providers of formal learning offerings are familiar with the ROI debate, so it is not surprising that informal learning efforts are met with similar resistance. Respondents also cited other factors, such as not having enough time or money and the lack of ownership for informal learning within their companies.
Who Should Own Informal Learning?
Because informal learning is inherently social and often uses a host of communication tools, it can be difficult to make the distinction between an informal learning device and simply business infrastructure. Therefore, it’s fair to ask, “Who should own informal learning?” If the concept cannot be managed, then is there any point to assigning it to someone’s purview? On the other hand, how can a company be expected to leverage the benefits of informal learning if no one leads the charge for its support?
When this question was posed, 42 percent of respondents still felt that despite informal learning’s nebulous definition, initiatives relating to it should be the responsibility of the company CLO or head of training. Twenty percent felt that it should be a joint effort between training and IT, and 17 percent felt that is was a big enough issue that it should fall under the domain of the CEO. Only 4 percent of respondents thought that it shouldn’t be managed by anyone.
The learning community appears split on whether it is possible to measure the impact informal learning has on business. Fifty-one percent said it is possible to measure, while 49 percent said that it is not. With such an evenly split group, it is clear that CLOs need more published case studies that show how an informal learning program can be effectively managed and what metrics can be used to measure impact. Many respondents felt that even if informal learning could be measured, the spirit of the activity is lost if too many metrics are imposed.
Culture Before Technology
The children’s author, E.B. White once said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” The spirit of White’s quote applies to informal learning as well. Too much attention might stifle the very thing that makes informal learning so successful, but the organization that provides no support deprives itself of an opportunity to realize its full benefits. Therefore, to avoid killing the proverbial frog, CLOs should focus on supporting their existing channels and fostering the growth of a collaborative culture within their organizations. As interesting as podcasts, wikis and blogs are, these tools won’t be successful if a culture that supports collaboration doesn’t already exist. By leveraging the capabilities of existing informal learning processes, the ground will be set for a move toward more robust initiatives.
Peter McStravick is the senior research analyst for IDC’s Learning Services group, where he addresses the impact of training methodologies and business models on end-user organizations and tracks market growth and opportunities in the U.S. corporate training market. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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