Informal learning is a topic of conversation in learning journals, at conferences and in the blogosphere. Definitions abound. In the simplest terms, informal learning is what happens outside of structured classroom and training programs. It is typically learner-directed and happens anytime, anywhere, both intentionally and unintentionally. Most learning leaders believe that 80 percent of learning comes from informal methods, such as specific job assignments, social networks, knowledge sharing or peer-to-peer mentoring.
Given the sheer volume of informal learning, some leaders are asking, “Should we measure the outcomes?” In a recent study conducted by KnowledgeAdvisors (KA), 21 percent of respondents indicated that their executives are already asking for measurements of informal learning. Another 41 percent said they aren’t currently being asked, but expect to be asked soon.
Yet, for many, the question still lingers: “If informal learning is mostly invisible and happens at the point of need, should I bother to measure it? The answer: Yes.
In the KA study, 87 percent of respondents said they support and fund informal learning enablers. They are implementing electronic performance support systems; formalizing mentoring and coaching programs; launching communities of practice; and developing, resourcing, managing and maintaining knowledge bases. And they’re spending $70,000 to $170,000 a year on these enablers.
In fact, the actual expenditures may be much higher — conservatively, two or three times as high — considering that respondents confirmed most of the costs are hidden in the business and are not visible or managed by the learning function.
Given the financial outlay to facilitate, promote and enable informal learning, you just might want to know what you are getting for the investment.
First, however, you need to know how to do it. Focus on the benefits of specific investments in informal learning enablers. Focusing your evaluation efforts will ensure that findings are actionable and enable better decisions about what to fund and how much to invest.
With this focus in mind, determine what to measure. While measurement constructs from formal learning can be leveraged, informal learning adds at least three additional dimensions:
Usability: If the program requires an investment in technology or new processes, it’s critical to assess if those capabilities are usable and effective for their intended purpose.
Enhanced community: If the investments are intended to build communities to enhance learning — which is often a goal in the world of informal learning — then evaluate if the investment has enabled meaningful people-to-people connections, created an engaged community and provided value to its members.
User readiness: If driving toward a cultural shift in how people learn, connect to knowledge and build capability, measure user maturity and readiness to embrace the changes.
These additional measurement dimensions will provide insight into not only what is working (or not), but also why it’s working (or not).
After determining what to measure, your last step is to determine how to measure it. Most respondents to the KA survey admitted they gathered only anecdotal evidence of benefits. While anecdotal evidence is useful, use a range of methods from “high tech” to “high touch.” An example of a high-tech method is gathering Web statistics, which provide volumetric data that demonstrate the level of awareness and use of programs. High-touch methods, such as interviews, focus groups and observation, provide invaluable qualitative insights.
Also, surveys can bridge the gap and provide both quantitative and qualitative feedback on benefits and outcomes. Using a variety of evaluation methods will produce more credible information and deeper insights into the effects of informal learning programs on improved job performance and business benefits.
While much informal learning is invisible, investments and the benefits from those investments should not be. Taking a structured approach will enable assessment of how to better enable this important employee development mechanism and get a healthy return on investment.