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)