With the advent of Web 2.0, the accessibility of the Internet and increasing globalization, informal learning is becoming more of the norm in the corporate environment. As a result, corporate educators need to embrace learning that’s happening beyond the classroom and incorporate it into their training initiatives.
In the 1990s, corporate learners were sitting in a classroom listening to an instructor lecture. Now these same learners are taking control of their own education.
“The Internet is obviously a big driver,” said Dennis Kilian, vice president and a learning specialist at Safari Books Online, an electronic reference library with expert content. “Fifteen years ago, you certainly went out and did [research], but you would have to go to the library, look something up, [or] talk to one of your associates. Today, anybody who has access to a terminal PC [or] to the Internet via a mobile device has immediate access.”
Another reason companies are resorting to informal learning programs is because their employees are scattered across the nation or even the globe, leading to the need for a more accessible, universal training initiative.
“You talk about forcing jobs overseas, for instance, and you have people then who are managing these diversified departments, not just from a competency perspective, but also from a geographic perspective,” Kilian said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to put together a structured program, where you can just bring people together and run them through a curriculum. Instead, what you’re talking about is people who work across the world — different time zones, different cultures, different languages — and you have to provide more of a ubiquitous resource.”
Formal learning typically happens within a classroom and has a defined curriculum, whereas informal learning can happen anywhere at anytime in any location and is initiated by the learner.
“When you talk about adult learning, [or informal learning], you’re talking about internally motivated learning,” Kilian said. “I’m trying to either progress personally or professionally, and as a need arises, I will go find the information I need because I’m motivated to do that. I’m not going to wait for somebody to put a course or some form of instructor-led training in front of me.”
The caveat to informal learning is making sure employees are going to reliable sites on the Internet. The best way to ensure this is to subscribe to an online reference library or create a database on the company’s intranet, where employees can obtain pertinent information via trusted Web sources.
The advantages of informal learning include the timeliness of it, the productivity of it and the immediate career development that occurs. However, companies need to think creatively about assessment tools for informal learning. The answer may be aligning courseware or training materials with informal learning sources, so that employees can visit Web sites, read them and then take tests that capture their understanding. Another possibility is to have employees learn an idea informally, but then test that knowledge through a practical application such as a lab.
“The issue that you might have with informal learning is how you measure that,” Kilian said. “What’s the assessment at the end of the day? When you talk about corporate learning, typically what we want to know is, are people learning what we want them to learn in order to develop the competencies within the organization that we need to differentiate ourselves. Is there some sort of a certification process? Is there a test they take at the end? How do we capture that in our learning management system? There’s a gap there.”
As always, a varied and diversified learning strategy with both informal and formal learning is always best. It can’t be all informal learning, and it can’t be all formal learning.
“I think you’re always going to have that blended learning environment,” Kilian said. “The key there is how do they [different methodologies] work together and what’s optimal in any particular organization.”