Informal learning accounts for the majority of employee development, but many organizations still struggle with how to address and measure it.
It’s a fairly typical scenario: An employee is plugging away at her desk, researching a project or going through industry reports, when she comes across unfamiliar terminology. A quick Google search turns up a few possibilities, but to make sure she understands the term in the context of her business, she queries a co-worker via an instant message. Her peer quickly confirms the accurate meaning, and she gets back to her project.
Though no one really stops to think about it, what the employee did was engage in informal learning. In a 1996 report, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that about 70 percent of all the learning that occurs in any given organization can be considered informal. What exactly is it?
“It’s the process of learning on the job: interacting with your peers, interacting with your customers and suppliers, and finding out new things that help you be more effective,” said A.G. Lambert, vice president at Saba.
Jay Cross — CEO of learning solutions provider Internet Time Group and a thought leader on informal learning — summed it up succinctly: “Informal learning is the stuff that happens when there’s no curriculum.”
Yet, while most organizations spend ample time and money devising ways to educate their workforces using classroom training and e-learning sessions, many don’t have systems in place to encourage or capture the sharing that happens outside of the classroom. Or if they do, the efforts often fall into the knowledge management category, thereby squelching the informal aspect.
John Talanca, director of global learning and head of learning technologies at pharmaceutical company Novartis, said this was the case at his company.
“Our early entry into informal learning [was] you would share a best practice. It was a very structured type of Web site approach, and oftentimes, that best practice had to be reviewed by someone,” he said. “So right away you’re starting to lose some of the informality because it was putting too much structure around it. Moving forward, what we really realized is we wanted to take advantage of other tools that allowed the employees in our company to more proactively offer up this information.”
Indeed, experts agree the key to fostering successful informal learning in an organization is to promote and facilitate the discussion, not manage it.
“Facilitation is about putting in place the minimum level of systems and processes and providing, in some cases, evangelism to build energy around the subject without going too far in terms of trying to get in the middle of every discussion,” said Nick Howe, vice president of Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) Academy.
It’s a hard line to draw, but there are several ways organizations can leverage informal learning without overstepping their bounds.
Secrets to Leveraging Informal Learning
The first and perhaps most important step in leveraging informal learning is creating a collaborative culture within the company, Cross said.
“Corporations will not survive if they keep expecting to be able to do things to their people rather than inspire their people to do things,” he said. “It’s got to be a cultural change.”
Cross gave an anecdotal example of how corporate culture influences the quantity and quality of informal learning that occurs: “I’m talking to a bunch of people at [a large computer company], and we’re in an area that’s close to [the CEO’s] office. The cubicles are really small because people are fighting for real estate to be close to the center of power,” he explained.
“And I’m saying, ‘Look, a lot of learning can happen if you just let people have conversations. All you’ve got to do is rip out a third of these cubicles and put in sofas and espresso machines and areas that are inviting for people to meet in, and they will start meeting and talking. And they’re not going to talk about the ball scores — they’re going to talk about the problems they have at [work].’”
Now, some of employees’ openness to informal learning might depend on their industries or functional areas, Talanca said. At Novartis, the scientific research groups often share ideas and information, while the sales organization is not as receptive to collaboration.
“We believe that that’s mainly because, in the sales organizations, sales representatives in effect compete against each other, so there’s not incentive for them to share,” Talanca said. “But research is a very collaborative, focused effort where you have significantly large teams trying to bring the drug to market. And that informal learning really is a big part of how those teams operate and how they become successful.”
Regardless of these functional differences, however, organizations should strive to inspire workers to help themselves accomplish their goals.
“Management has to recognize that the top-down days are over,” Cross said.
Another key part of fostering successful informal learning involves executive-level buy-in. Talanca said the C-suite must demonstrate to employees that sharing ideas and working together is not only acceptable, but it is encouraged.
Once an appropriate company culture is in place and management is on-board, organizations then must provide tools to facilitate informal learning among employees.
Lambert categorized these knowledge-sharing tools into three distinct areas: The first set of tools refers to “those tools that organize the informal learning process,” he said. In other words, the internal communities of practice and online discussion forums “give [employees] the ability to filter and understand some of the informal learning opportunities that are available to them.”
The second set refers to such Web 2.0 tools as blogs, wikis and Web conferencing, which can be incredibly useful in keeping content up-to-date, especially in today’s fast-paced world, Lambert said.
The third group “would be those tools that allow people to build communities, find experts and create experts” — this includes social networking, he said. “This can be the idea of allowing people to self-designate as experts in a particular topic and, importantly, allowing other people to rate them. [And a user] can create a network of [his] go-to people, [his] personal network.”
However, Talanca cautioned that organizations must strive to keep all these tools as simple as possible.
“The best informal learning tools [are] all these Web 2.0 types of tools: the ones that are freely available on the Internet,” he said. “Unfortunately, when these tools come in-house and become part of a bigger software system, they tend to get restrictive. And I think that’s the real challenge for companies. It needs to be — at the end of the day — very, very easy for the employees.”
Making it easy for employees does not mean taking a hands-on approach to moderating the content. Different organizations have different policies when it comes to monitoring informal learning, but most agree a light touch is best.
For example, while Talanca believes that user-generated content should be moderated, he said it should be done only at a high level and only when formal intervention is necessary.
“We’d rather have the learning drive what the moderator does with that learning,” he said. “I know that there are many people in this organization and other organizations who don’t agree with that, but we find that you really need to see how that learning and that discussion evolves and then play from there.”
Meanwhile, Howe said HDS does not have an overarching moderation policy in place and believes simply facilitating collaboration and networking is enough.
“I think managing informal learning is a little bit of an oxymoron,” he said. “You don’t necessarily want everybody talking to everybody, but what you do need is the guy who needs to know talking to the guy who’s got the answer. So I think there’s absolutely a role [for the learning organization] to facilitate that.”
While different companies have different opinions when it comes to monitoring informal learning, most agree an organization must have a policy in place to leverage it effectively.
“Informal learning happens whether organizations manage it or don’t manage it,” Lambert said. “There are benefits to managing it in terms of reducing the time people spend seeking information and improving the accuracy of what they get.”
Risks and Challenges
The moderation question goes hand in hand with the issue of control. Many learning professionals are struck with the same thought: If we let employees write blogs or wiki entries freely, how can we ensure they’re not spreading inappropriate or inaccurate information?
“I think the ability for multiple people to contribute and hone in on a right answer far outweighs any downside,” Howe said. “Given the prevalence of e‑mail and instant messaging, there are plenty of ways for people to disseminate inaccurate information.
“Do things like wikis make it easier for more people to see it? Maybe, yes, but I would view that as a good thing because the chances of someone who knows the right answer seeing it also go up. Whereas if that one person wasn’t on an e-mail that went out to 200 people, 200 people have got bad information and they don’t think they’ve got bad information.”
Another potential roadblock is that people might waste valuable time and energy figuring out how to use the new technologies before integrating them effectively.
“The ease of access to some of these technologies means that people have little or no understanding about when and why a community should or shouldn’t be used, [or] when or why a Wiki should or shouldn’t be used,” Howe said.
The solution can be as simple as educating the workforce on what the tools are and how and when to use them.
Bottom-Line Impact and Benefits for the Future
It’s hard to directly measure the impact of informal learning, especially when success typically is measured based on individual productivity, Howe said.
“Today we don’t necessarily value people who help others perform their work, which is really where a lot of the social networking comes in,” he said.
However, there’s significant anecdotal evidence to support the idea that informal learning has a direct effect on the bottom line, he added.
“Within our own company, there are plenty of examples of where we have managed to win a sale or we’ve managed to execute a piece of work more effectively because someone was able to connect with someone else via a community,” he said. “They wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do that using other mechanisms.”
Also, the advantages of leveraging informal learning can be measured in other ways. For example, tools such as blogs and wikis can bring fragmented information together in one place and often facilitate faster, more up-to-date learning — all for free.
“The way that [formal] training and learning takes place, it’s not fast enough for today’s world, where product releases and things like that are happening by the day instead of by the year,” Cross said. “So how else but informal learning are people going to learn about this stuff?”
He pointed to Intel as an example. Not long ago, a learning professional in the organization downloaded free wiki software and developed a site for employees to post stories, anecdotes and other tidbits. It soon became the unofficial place to go to for enterprise-wide information, Cross said.
“All of a sudden, people said, ‘Hold it, this is the only place you can go where it’s Intel-wide. Everybody can get to it,’” he said.
The wiki even replaced knowledge management systems that cost millions of dollars, Cross said.
“People create value by essentially improvising services or by innovating, figuring out new ways to do stuff,” he said. “Now more than ever we need people who can think for themselves, figure it out and take action — not go looking in the rulebook somewhere — because the rules change so fast now. You’ve got to learn how to learn for yourself if you’re going to keep your head above water.”
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