Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Just like 2 + 2 and 1 + 3 equal the same 4, there is more than one way to learn. Actually, there are at least three types of learning:
- Formal learning — delivered by trained teachers in an educational setting (a school, a university, a business training program), following a structured syllabus;
- Non-formal learning — covers some structured learning situations that happen in a different setting than formal education (for example, ski lessons for adults and children);
- Informal learning — any learning that happens naturally and spontaneously in any setting, delivered by anyone knowledgeable.
Formal learning got the most attention throughout the years, especially in work situations. It overshadowed the other two types of learning, in particular informal learning. Why is that? Of course, there are lots of reasons, but one seems to stand out: formal business learning can be measured.
Points and figures are easy to do math with and therefore calculate ROI, but learning is somehow an organic process, that is different from one individual to another. It’s almost impossible to virtually create the ever more complex work environment with all the human variables, and even if this can be achieved, the numbers can hardly be considered valid. People learn a lot in informal settings, but this can hardly be measured.
Still, managers invest millions of dollars annually in training programs even though formal learning supports only 10 to 20% of the actual learning process. What happens in the other 80 to 90%?
Informal and collaborative learning
Most of the learning at work happens through job-related experiences and daily contact with colleagues and management. Formal training programs are the stepping stone for enhanced productivity, preparing employees for what might happen, but real work situations are the true teacher.
Whenever employees stumble upon a challenge at work, they can search for online reference materials, learn from their more experienced peers, or seek help with their managers. In fact, the daily contact with colleagues and managers supports what we call social learning or informal and collaborative learning.
Even though this type of learning is hard to measure, its benefits and outcomes are obvious. Here are just three:
- Informal learning happens at the point of need. Work problems appear in real time and demand real time solutions. Asking questions and testing solutions is the best way to learn something. Colleagues or line managers can offer answers to day-to-day issues, in the exact setting of those issues. Navigating through the ways of fixing a problem at the point of need will help the employee remember the possible solutions and apply them later without assistance.
- All employees are empowered to learn. Top performers, as well as average performers learn from one another. Some may lead a discussion, while others may only follow it. All of them can engage as they wish and need, but they certainly will learn something from that discussion. This is particularly useful for introverted employees, who avoid the spotlight one gets from asking questions, but who take note of everything that supports their learning process.
- Anyone can be the teacher. Knowledge is key here. Anyone who has expertise and knows a solution to a problem is encouraged to share it, no matter of his/her status. Of course, contributions by senior team members are normally expected, but even the less experienced intern can know something that helps a struggling employee. This encourages collaboration between all team members and boosts the level of trust the supervising manager has for that team.
Employees may not get a certification for asking or answering work-related questions, but they will definitely better remember what they learned in these informal settings, along with their colleagues.
Businesses must still offer formal training to their employees, but at the same time they must support informal learning, as this type of learning happens organically all the time and it’s really efficient. By encouraging conversations, supporting the developments of small inside communities, or growing networks between employees from different departments, business organizations sustain informal and collaborative learning.