You can’t manage informal learning – only the use of informal media

Recently I’ve been reading more and more blog posts and articles that talk of how to “manage informal learning”, so I thought it was time for another post of my own that tries to explain how this is actually misleading, and in fact misses the big picture in terms of the importance of informal learning in the workplace, and L&D’s role in supporting it.  Here’s a graphic which summarises this posting.

Although the two terms “Formal Learning” and “Informal Learning are now quite commonplace, they still seem to be causing some confusion.  So let’s look at some definitions from CEDEFOP  – the  European Centre for Vocation and Training.

Formal learning is defined by the CEDEFOP Glossary  as

“Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification.  Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.”

In other words, this is things like courses, classes, face-to-face workshops, other training or educational events that lead to some “certification” or validation.

“Informal learning” is usually taken to mean all learning that takes place outside formal learning. However, many people – including CEDEFOP – actually break down “informal learning” further into “non-formal learning” and “informal learning” as follows:

Informal learning is therefore:

“Learning resulting from daily work-related, family or leisure activities. It is not organised or structured (in terms of objectives, time or learning support). Informal learning is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective. It typically does not lead to certification.”

That is learning that happens doing your daily tasks as you do your job, e.g. reading stuff or observing activities, or in conversations with people.

Non-formal learning is

“Learning which is embedded in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically does not lead to certification.”

So for instance, this includes finding things out as part of your daily work, keeping up to date with what’s happening inside and outside the organisation, as well as interacting with people (eg in professional networks) to learn from them.

So there are a number of factors that differentiate formal, non-formal and informal learnimg:

In terms of the INTENTION of the learner; both formal and non-formal learning is intentional (ie the individual sets out with the intention of learning something), whereas with informal learning it is (mostly) unintentional (ie it happens as a consequence of doing something else). With informal learning, the learner may be aware s/he has learnt something, but in many cases may be totally unaware of it.

This does not negate the power of informal learning, it just makes a difference to how L&D supports these different types of learning. In particular whereas formal learning (which is under the control of L&D) can be designed and managed,  non-formal and informal learning can not, since it is under the control of the learner.

It also means that incorporating informal media in a “formal learning solution” is not informal learning. Additionally, that systems that claim to “manage informal learning” clearly cannot do that; all they can do is manage use of “informal media”  – which is not quite the same thing!

Some might say, that this point is pedantic, and whatever terminology you are using, the fact remains that if you make use of informal media for learning, then this is still a valuable activity.  And this is of course true – but it is missing the more significant point, which is that as research has shown, the vast majority – around 80% – of what an individual learns in the workplace is informal (and that includes the non-formal).  And that this learning happens continuously, in the flow of work as people do their jobs. Whereas formal learning takes place intermittently, out of the workflow – often in a different physical place –  and/or usually requires time out of the workflow.

So what does this mean for L&D? Here are just three key points that I’ve covered before in previous posts.

1 – It means that informal learning is not something L&D can design into the formal training mix, in order to try and “manage” everything everybody learns in the organisation (an impossible task!) – but rather is something that needs to be supported and enhanced as it occurs naturally in the workflow – in order to help people learn to do their jobs (better) – a very different way of operating! Trying to control informal/non-formal learning simply turns it into formal learning  – or at least it’s not informal/non-formal learning any longer!

2 – It also means that L&D needs to think more about helping individuals and teams to use social media to enhance the naturally occurring social learning that takes place in the organisational workflow. (I have already shown in a number of earlier postings – (here) that Smart Workers are already doing this themselves and are actually working around L&D).  So it is more about building on what social learning is already taking place and encouraging others to become engage. In other words moving from a “Command and Control” model to “Encourage and engage”.

3 – It also means ensuring that the social tools that are to support learning within the organisation are the very same tools individuals are making use in their daily work tasks. (See recent postings on that topic)


  1. Gary Wise

    This reminds me of a keynote by Larry Prusak about six years ago at a Masie event. He was scolding the audience of LMS vendors who were making claims about “managing knowledge”. His point was this, “You cannot manage knowledge, but you can manage the environment in which it can flourish!”

    That has always stuck with me, and I think it has an appropriate connection to the premise that one can manage informal learning. What we CAN manage is the environment where the plethora of informal learning options can be accessed in a learner’s moment of need.

  2. Sorry my previous post sounds a bit ungrateful, it’s how I sound when working stuff out. Really appreciate you taking the time to clarify my understanding on twitter about this last week and the graphic in this post makes the ideas a lot clearer as well, thanks for sharing.

  3. Jay Cross

    Maybe I’m missing something here, Jane. I don’t buy the bit about informal learning being unintentional. On occasion, that could be the case. If I noticed that ! find more shells on the beach at low tide, okay, I’ve learned something I didn’t set out to learn. Unintentionally.

    But what if I learn to play guitar a bit better by occasionally picking one up and strumming the strings? I assume this is informal learning going on but I had an intention, even if it’s a vague one: I wanted to improve the quality of my guitar playing. It seems to me that most informal learning is intentional. I learn because I want to be able to accomplish something.

    If this is the case, I don’t discern much difference between informal and non-formal learning.

    I’ve recently heard two other nuances in defining non-formal learning.

    One, as is the case in Portugal, is when a purpose and a rough learning approach are suggested by others, but learners have lots of discretion in choosing the means by which they’ll achieve the purpose. Another is when an academic institution implies that informal learning that occurs on their turf is somehow superior to learning that takes place in the outside world. I find both of these definitions academic.

    1. Anonymous

      Jay, when using CEDEFOP’s defintions, for me “intentional informal learning” = “non-formal learning” – ie you intend to learn (eg play the guitar), whereas “unintentional informal learning” is learning things as a by-product of doing something else and is equivalent to the Accidental & Serendipitous Learning I defined in my 5 uses of social media –

    1. Anonymous

      Anything that is not an instructional resource – so thing like documents, presentations, web pages, and of course all social media like blogs, wikis, activity streams, etc

  4. Anonymous

    In which case you are probably saying the same as me! That it is just about managing the use of informal media – not the learning takes place arising from, that can only be “managed” by the the person him/herself – in his/her brain.

    1. Don Clark

      Jane, you are probably right! It is just that management does not equal control and even the “control” process within organizations is more about efficiency than actual control. Good managers know they have very little control over others, thus they manage environments and situations.

      However, trying to manage the tool is the wrong end-goal and as I noted in my post, it leads to bad policies and eliminates other options. In addition, when you move to the control process and try to measure it, your goal is focused on the tool rather than learning and performance. Thus measurements primarily focus on the tool, such as counting how many people used the tool (the same as counting classroom seats), rather than if it is actually helping people to learn and perform.

  5. Paul Szczublewski

    My large organization is still mired in the old metrics of test scores and even training hours. As we attempt to move towards measuring impact, we find that we do hit a wall of sorts when it comes to informal and non-formal learning, to use the terms from this post. Essentially, we have a disconnect between my fellow worker bees and leadership. We have indicated we can measure impact on behavior, and in that way somewhat measure impact of our work. What we can’t do, and what leadership wants, is for us to be able to show in some way how our L&D org can take CREDIT for any and all improvements in performance. Our short answer is “we can’t.” We CAN show some metrics around use of learning portals, use of performance support tools and even use of tools initially provided in formal learning. My point is generally that just because we can’t draw a line from a project of ours to an increase in a particular metric doesn’t mean we didn’t impact it. We may have helped someone learn how to learn, or learn how to use one tool that then translated into improved use of another tool, or we may be seeing the cumulative effect of any number of formal and informal learning processes, etc. The battle I am waging is for us to focus more on proving improved performance and less on drawing lines between that performace and a project that began in our shop. But when we still have metrics folks saying things like “if you can’t measure the impact, it wasn’t worth training,” it is an uphill battle to say the least. And the reality is that we are a client-funded organization, so leadership is always looking for another number to put on a presentation.

  6. Jay Cross

    Jane, when I first read this post, I quibbled about the utility of differentiating non-formal from informal learning. I missed the point.

    Contemplating the coming year, I’m re-visiting what I consider the most significant posts and articles of 2011. This is one of them. So many people in L&D fail to “get it” and are stuck in time because they want to control everything.

    This post’s going in to my Learnscape. Then, when informal-learning deniers tell me that empowering learners is irresponsible, I plan to point them to it.

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