Informal learning is emerging as one of the most powerful disciplines in our industry. The tools and methodologies that have been developed over the past several years are changing the learning landscape in amazing ways. But there are a number of misunderstandings about this critical approach. I’d like to share some myths I’ve encountered when trying to intentionally implement a successful informal learning strategy.
1. Informal learning doesn’t need structure. One of the most dangerous aspects of many informal learning approaches is that they are highly inefficient. Our goal should be to create an effective, independent and maintainable informal learning environment. We still want to allow the power and immediacy of informal learning to occur, but there is much we can do to enhance the experience and make it more efficient. An intentional informal learning framework should help guide a learner through the informal domain. It should also help with the maintenance side of informal learning so the information used and shared is up to date and correct.
2. Informal learning approaches such as social networks can replace training. Why does the learning industry continually position new methodologies as a replacement for the classroom? Informal learning without training is about as effective as training without informal learning. The two combine and complement each other to form a complete solution. That said, an effective informal learning strategy can clearly change the way we look at training. In many instances it may shorten the time needed for training. But these changes are only warranted after an exhaustive look at the current training audience and intended outcomes.
3. E-learning is informal learning. A large portion of e-learning, as it has been designed over the past decade, is actually better categorized as formal instruction. Much of e-learning lives behind an LMS, forcing learners to log in, search a library and then typically sit through a tutorial. This is formal instruction, not informal learning. E-learning is typically not designed to focus on what a performer needs, tailored to his or her specific situation or integrated into specific work processes — all crucial attributes of any informal learning solution. I’m not suggesting that an effective informal learning framework ignores e-learning. Actually, quite the opposite. The framework needs to provide performers with the option to dive as deep as they need into e-learning when the moment of need warrants it. But this is a far cry from assuming that e-learning alone is the answer to an organization’s informal learning needs.
4. An effective and thorough training program negates the need for informal learning. Nothing negates the need for informal learning. Effective training will definitely assist in the amount of informal learning employees use or the degree to which they understand and access informal learning, but it will not negate it. Actually, effective training should help increase the use of such learning. Informal learning strategies, tools and techniques need to be taught during training. In my experience, the most effective informal learning strategies are first introduced and reinforced during a formal training class. Programs where informal learning is separate from training often fail due to the disconnect created by this fragmented approach.
5. It’s only informal learning if it’s immediate and embedded. Although immediate and embedded informal learning is a vital aspect of the informal learning experience, learners also need to be allowed to take a step back in order to review or practice critical skills before attempting them. Informal learning has a natural hierarchy and approach. Embedded and immediate are only two aspects of that hierarchy. There are also layers of support beyond that. Sometimes learners need more information or deeper references beyond the immediate steps. There are even times when learners may want some degree of formal training to support their performance. Viewing informal learning as only immediate and embedded will not provide as robust of an informal learning framework as needed.
Informal learning is a must in any training program. We have ignored this discipline long enough, often leaving it to chance. We can create as robust and effective an informal learning framework as we have our formal programs if we first understand the realities of how it can be implemented and integrated.
Bob Mosher is global chief learning and strategy evangelist for LearningGuide Solutions and has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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