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The truth about informal learning: it happens all the time, anywhere

Learning begins very early in life. Each parent “teaches” their offspring as they know best – some let them roam free and explore, some buy very expensive toys and read specialized literature while others choose to employ the help of professionals very early on. There even are trainers who promise they will teach a baby to swim since he is four months old. And then the ‘compulsory’ cycle begins: kindergarten, preschool, elementary, high school, college, Master’s degree… It can actually go on practically forever. There always is another course, another certificate, another degree to earn.

But since most people are not well-off billionaires, at some point (usually in those sweet college years) a job becomes painfully necessary (for the purpose of rent, food and some decent clothes on one’s back). When learning and development programs are set up, the attention is focused solely on formal learning. That’s probably because the informal version doesn’t sit well with schedules, set objectives and quantifications.

While good old fashioned learning paths are necessary and very useful, since informal learning is almost always self-initiated, it proves to be a lot more effective and with visible effects on organizational performance.

Almost all employees informally learn every day

People are always searching for the information they need, whether it is by asking a colleague, Google or YouTube. As this infographic states roughly 46% of employees spend anywhere from one to 30 minutes per day on informal learning. Perhaps the statistic that is even more telling is that only 6% of employees indicate spending zero time on informal learning. This leaves an overwhelming 94% engaged in some form of informal learning each day.

Any business that can gain better understanding into the informal learning that takes place among their employees will find itself into a much better competitive position than those that do not.

The good news is that since e-learning has become a very big part of corporate L&D, informal learning is easily incorporated – all you need to include are design features that allow choice and flexibility in handling the content. It’s all right if those enrolled want to skip certain chapters, take tests when they want and use a really proficient search button.

Autonomy – a must-have for the modern employee

Learners enjoy the autonomy that comes with informal learning. The information they need comes from various sources and they can establish their own pattern, selecting what is useful and applicable for them. Self-development is the best way for those wanting to climb the corporate ladder to get as high up as possible.

Capable, ambitious employees are the most valuable assets of any organization so supporting informal learning is key.

Of course informal learning cannot replace the formal version altogether. The latter, however, does not have be a life-long journey – going from one certification to another. Blending the formal with the informal can prove to be a very effective mix for businesses in the long run.

When designing any training programs, the stress should initially be on what the employee has to gain from it, personally and professionally. This very important “hook” combined with flexibility features that allow learners to pick the units they are interested in will make for very efficient information acquisition.

A good story is always remembered (and passed on)

Scenario-based e-learning is also great in creating an informal learning environment. Learners get to pick the ending of certain story that illustrates a learning goal. This technique helps learners feel immersed into the subject matter and empowered to make decisions and learn from those outcomes.

The main reason why informal learning is so effective is because it’s personal. As long as the learner is calling the shots, they feels responsible for the entire context and the conclusions that will arise from it.

People who already have some degree of expertise relish in learning but don’t take being taught very well so a heavy curriculum or a compulsory learning path will only annoy and discourage them. They don’t want to learn what somebody else thinks they should; they want to be able to choose their own learning goals – let’s face it, these will be job-related somehow. Nobody is going to take up advanced java programming or guitar playing if they are an accounts payable officer.

Wrapping up

As I have said at the beginning of this article, learning is initially the job of parents and the immediate family. But truth is, most learning comes from other people – whether it’s colleagues, coaches, mentors, neighbors, talk show moderators or vloggers.

When we are talking about learning at work, a lot more is learned on the job than in a classroom. Encouraging employees to communicate, share experience and ask question will help greatly to the dissemination of information.

Setting up online networks of professionals interested in or working in similar areas is an inexpensive and effective way to ensure those who want to learn, can. Employees that continually improve themselves will continually improve the business.

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