Forget formal vs. informal. Learning operates in a much more complex matrix. By understanding that interplay, CLOs can create more effective social learning strategies, make better investments and improve performance.
The terms “formal” and informal” learning have become a part of the language of the learning industry. But if you ask learning industry professionals what they mean, you get an interesting array of answers that suggest we don’t really know.
For example, the “lrnchat” community is a group of industry professionals who use Twitter to host weekly online chats on learning topics. In April, one of the topics was: “What distinguishes formal learning from informal learning?”
These descriptors won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been in the learning industry. They may be inconsistent and vague, but to borrow a term from political comedian Stephen Colbert, they have a certain “truthiness” to them.
Certainly the recognition that learning takes place outside the classroom has been both valuable and influential in thinking about enterprise learning. But when you try to use formal versus informal learning as a construct for organizing learning efforts in the real world, the distinction breaks down.
The Problem With Formal vs. Informal
Many common learning activities can’t easily be categorized within the formal/informal dichotomy. Consider the following:
- If you provide knowledge bases or job aids for employees to use on an ad hoc basis, is that formal or informal learning?
- If learners decide to take an e-learning course on their own initiative for their own reasons, does that make it informal learning?
- If you create a forum manager role to facilitate the conversation, provide knowledgeable answers and oversee users’ behavior in a community of practice discussion forum, does that make it formal learning?
- If you create a job shadowing program or assign mentors to employees, is that formal or informal learning?
On one level, the answers to these questions don’t matter: If it works, then who cares what you call it? But the implicit challenge that underlies the notion of informal learning is that it is better — or at least that it provides significant opportunities — for organizations. For instance, informal learning may reduce the time and expense of classroom training, motivate employees to learn more and help in recruiting and developing millennials who have come to expect social learning opportunities.
Popular wisdom says that 70 to 80 percent of what people learn in the workplace is informal. Advocates of informal learning point out that enterprises traditionally invest nearly all of their training resources in formal learning programs. This potential disconnect brings up its own set of questions:
- Should you change your enterprise learning strategy and reallocate your learning investments to favor informal learning?
- If you wanted more informal learning, how would you get it? And how would you know you got it?
- If informal learning happens naturally anyway without any investment, can you simply take it as a given and go back to focusing on more traditional learning approaches?
A New Taxonomy of Organizational Learning
One of the key problems with the informal learning paradigm is that common definitions of informal learning actually blend two distinct attributes of learning:
- Whose objectives are driving the learning?
- Is the learning developed or ad hoc?
By conflating these attributes, informal learning becomes less powerful as an organizing concept. Rather than formal versus informal, we propose a taxonomy that addresses these dimensions independently. We defined the terms as follows:
- Developed: This implies that the content of the learning is predefined by the organization. There isn’t any emergent learning or network effect to provide a multiplier. Without effort and investment on the organization’s part, none of these things happen. The list of learning needs you can address with a developed approach is finite and limited to what you can afford to pay. And the amount of learning from these activities is directly correlated to the proficiency and capacity of the small group of people who create the content.
- Ad hoc: These activities are the opposite of developed. The organization may create the opportunity and even put in place learning objectives, but there is no way to know in advance exactly what learners will experience. Harnessing the knowledge of employees scales a lot better than traditional learning programs and allows you to address a nearly infinite spectrum of learning needs in an immediate, cost-effective way. But it is hard to track and hard to monitor for quality or effectiveness.
- Organization-driven: This type of learning aligns with specific organizational objectives. For example, a company might want to adopt a new sales technique, provide customer service representatives with more product knowledge or prepare the next generation of leaders. Even if the actual learning experience can’t be entirely predicted, as is the case with mentoring programs, the goals are predetermined and often measured.
- Learner-driven: This type of learning is driven by the learner and the everyday needs of doing a particular job. The organization may provide generalized tools to help learners find information, but the learner must formulate the question, locate an answer and determine whether it resolves the learning need.
By disentangling the organization-/learner-driven dimension from the developed/ad hoc dimension, the new taxonomy creates categories that are directly relevant to enterprise learning strategy.
All four types of learning are required for an organization to perform at its best. Many organizations overinvest in some categories and underinvest in others. This taxonomy makes a useful organizational structure for analyzing learning investments.
How to Deal with Ad Hoc/Learner-Driven Learning
Ad hoc/learner-driven learning is the category that most closely aligns with what people commonly refer to as informal learning. Since many organizations have less experience with this type of learning than with the other three, it’s worthwhile to explore its implications.
Ad hoc/learner-driven learning happens spontaneously when employees encounter things they need to know to do their jobs. It might be as simple as asking the person in the next cubicle how to do something. It will happen whether you invest in it or not — and it will happen inefficiently.
Locating an expert who can solve a problem can be a huge productivity killer. In most cases, an employee’s search will be limited by department boundaries, geography and personal connections. It’s not unusual for employees to find answers that aren’t correct or don’t reflect best practices, which can create costly errors. Furthermore, unless systems are set up to capture these types of interactions, ad hoc/learner-driven learning typically happens privately, resulting in duplication of efforts.
One key to nurturing this type of learning is to make exchanges public, searchable and editable. In this case, editable doesn’t mean that you go back and change the original exchange, but that you provide a mechanism to extend the conversation. This allows you to enlist your entire employee base in the process of evaluating, clarifying and correcting responses. Among other things, public, searchable conversations mean that knowledgeable employees spend less time answering the same questions again and again.
Making informal exchanges public, searchable and editable typically means implementing one or more technology platforms. In fact, many discussions about informal learning devolve into discussions of tools such as social networks, blogs and wikis. However, making ad hoc/learner-driven learning more efficient and systematic is not primarily about technology. Any organizational change that fosters lateral communication and collaboration can be thought of as increasing ad hoc/learner-driven learning.
Examples of Social Learning
Here are three real-world examples that illustrate some of the elements that make social learning efforts successful.
- When Raytheon used social network analysis to see who was talking to whom in the organization, the company discovered that the vast majority of conversations were occurring within a team — between managers and their reports in particular. There was little talk across silos. Departments that would have benefited from collaborating were going it alone. Raytheon leaders placed highly connected people in specific assignments where they worked as project leaders, mentors and facilitators to build deeper capability and performance for critical business initiatives. A social network analysis after the changes shows a different picture of communication patterns within the company. Now communication across organizational divisions is routine and frequent.
- Intel’s celebrated Intelpedia — a Wikipedia-style collection of articles contributed by Intel employees — is another example of social learning. Like Wikipedia, Intelpedia is moderated by its community of contributors. It currently has more than 15,000 articles contributed by Intel employees. According to Bryan Rhoads, a social media specialist at Intel, part of the key to the success of social technologies such as Intelpedia is a deep, grass-roots culture of sharing expertise. The culture of information sharing came first. The value of these initiatives was recognized by company executives, who led by example, participating in the online conversations themselves. This eventually led to high-profile investments in technology to make these efforts broader, more systematic and more robust.
- Not all enterprise uses of social media fall into the ad hoc/learner-driven category. Organizations also use social media to drive employees toward specific enterprise goals. For instance, United Way used a social media approach to completely rework its model for achieving positive change in the communities it supports. The old model was to mobilize volunteers to raise money to fund social service agencies. The new model is to mobilize communities to create sustained changes in community conditions and improve lives. The process involved putting staff and volunteers into different groups to discuss what they felt they could accomplish; share stories of how they were doing it; bring in experts for help and advice; synthesize concepts and ideas; and build new metrics around intended results. Key executives were assigned to support and mentor teams in this new process. These performance conversations, as they became known, changed how the agency worked. Now conversations were among groups of people who were focused on specific goals and outcomes.
These examples represent three different approaches to social learning. What they have in common is a clear vision, effective leadership, bold action and targeted efforts to create a culture of collaboration.