Before you clicked on this story, did you watch a YouTube video? Download an ebook? Or perhaps you walked over to a colleague and asked them how to perform a particular task. Maybe you listened to a podcast on the train or searched for something on Google.
These are all examples of informal learning. And we’ve all been “doing” informal learning on and off the job for years. Why, then, does “doing” informal learning at work make learning teams and leaders nervous? We know a lot of it has to do with accountability and tracking (more on that in a moment).
What Informal Learning Is (and Isn’t)
The HR leader and speaker Marcia Conner defines informal learning as a “lifelong process through which people acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge mainly from the mass media, from daily experiences, such as those made at work, at play, while talking with our neighbours and from various kind of interactions, in general.”
So informal learning is the clicks at our fingertips, the talks with our fellow cubicle dwellers and the over-the-fence chats with our neighbours. It’s also experiential learning, such as when we take something apart and attempt to put it back together again.
Informal learning isn’t prescribed or directed. Even if your manager sends around a blog post by an industry thought leader with the subject heading: “Great post!” we can’t consider that informal learning because she suggested with her email nudge that you read it. True informal learning is spontaneous and self-directed. Informal learning happens organically, almost unconsciously through our daily interactions and experiences, even when we’re not searching for it.
So, Let’s All Join In
Research shows that at least 80 percent of all workplace learning is informal, and given that information on any topic or skill is just a click away for any employee with a smartphone, that percentage will only continue to rise.
So, if everyone is at the informal learning party, we should probably all put on party hats and join them. Consider your organization’s unique needs and then build a learning program that fits your culture. Doing so enables you to support the modern learning experience your employees want: just-in-time, just-for-me learning that’s served up in bite-sized pieces.
Here are five tips to prepare your organization for informal learning.
1. Show Leadership You Know What You’re Doing
Gain the support of your executive team. Taking on an informal learning strategy won’t work without executive buy-in and commitment, so educate them! Start by putting together a business case for informal learning at your organization. Highlight the business impact of a blended formal and informal learning philosophy. Show your executives the value, emphasizing the speed, agility and cost efficiencies of informal learning.
Tell leaders that we’re all doing more with less, so it makes sense that we continue to embrace non-formal learning while learners and managers alike also become aware of their lessons learned through true informal learning.
2. Get the Rest of the Organization Jazzed
As learning leaders, you may swoon over informal learning, but not everyone will. To get everyone else excited, collaborate with your marketing and communications teams to create an engaging internal communications campaign around informal learning to ready people for the change and highlight the benefits to them.
3. Offer Informal Learning Experiences
Share timely blogs, TED Talks, podcasts and YouTube videos on a topic important to your business, and encourage your employees to do the same. A learning management system (LMS) with collaborative and social capabilities can make it easier to share and access this type of content. When employees are familiar with company-approved informal learning experiences, the “official” rollout will go more smoothly.
4. Find Your Content Stars
It helps to have a mix of product and people experts from all levels of the organization committed to building an informal learning program, but it’s particularly important to have C-level executives involved in the early stages. Encourage these early adopters to share informal learning resources that others might find interesting, such as their favorite 99U, The Moth or Ignite videos. Set goals around timelines and volume of these informal learning shares. Your executive team will need to serve as role models in order to get managers and employees engaged, so it’s important they understand the business value of informal learning.
5. Define Unique Metrics for Success
There is truth in the old cliché: “What gets measured, gets managed.” What is your organization hoping to get out of an informal learning program? How will you measure and track the success of your program? What are your baseline measurements? Your informal learning strategy should free learners to explore beyond the LMS while still supporting the needs of the broader organization—and that means measuring learning effectiveness by applying metrics to informal learning.
Combining HR metrics such as retention and employee engagement with financial measures creates a more robust business case as well. For example, try starting with some baseline measurements around how often people are accessing your informal learning content, and how many people are contributing their own content to the program to gauge effectiveness and accessibility.
With the above preparation, your organization will be well on its way to putting careful structure around informal learning. Your employees are no doubt already discovering new content and ideas through experiential learning and informal learning. Meet them where they are to create true learning experiences that delight, develop and strengthen your organization’s most valuable asset.
About the author – Hawley Kane:
Hawley is Head of Organizational Talent and Leadership Development at Saba Software. As the OD leader at a talent management provider, she has the unique opportunity to marry Saba’s ongoing performance, continuous learning and career development strategies with the company’s own cloud solutions and services.
Hawley is responsible for global initiatives ranging from onboarding to performance management training and leader development, as well as Saba’s people and team-driven development programs. Before her L&D leadership role, Hawley served as principal product manager at Halogen Software, prior to the company’s acquisition by Saba in 2017. Nearly a decade of experience in working with hundreds of HR and learning leaders to translate their business and user needs into product capabilities has provided her with distinctive insight into her current role.
Connect with Hawley via LinkedIn