Informal learning is on the rise. Many organizations are doubling down on traditional on-the-job training. Others are investing in migrating large bodies of content to pull-based platforms versus continuing to push training on employees. Still others are helping workers generate organic self-driven development experiences. And, of course, there's continued interest in micro and mobile learning.
Why is informal learning so appealing?
The feedback from many organizations is that learners love these solutions because informal learning offers them the just-in-time and just-for-me flexibility they crave. Executives love this kind of learning because these development vehicles appear to operate at the break-neck speed of business today. Learning and development professionals love the fresh approaches and learner enthusiasm it generates as well as the creativity and opportunity for innovation that informal learning introduces into their work.
The downsides of informal learning
What they don't love is that informal learning doesn't typically fit into traditional tracking, evaluating, and follow-up systems. Too frequently accountability falls through the cracks. And managers (who, let's face it, are often hard to wrangle into supporting traditional learning interventions) are even more likely to relinquish responsibility for supporting informal efforts.
As methods of delivering learning change, so must the methods of holding individual learners, leaders and training and development departments accountable. Because, as many progressive organizations are finding, informal learning does not have to be unaccountable learning. What's needed are new systems, mindsets, and expectations that infuse greater accountability into informal learning.
Technology has improved to better meet the needs of users and so has the ability to monitor and understand the user experience. Whereas early systems might count an online activity complete as the learner clicked on it, new systems offer the ability, flexibility, and granularity to track and report on small bites of learning - not just full course buffets. And clever vehicles like learner rating systems help test that learning assets have been fully digested.
But technology alone is not the answer. One powerful way to squeeze more from informal learning is to help instill a new learner mindset. A deep sense of ownership on the part of the employee can drive their willingness to engage in activities that drive the learning deeper while providing more in-depth tracking information. When individuals feel invested in and take responsibility for their learning, they're more inclined to document and share insights, actions, and results for themselves. This becomes powerful contextual information about the impact of learning.
Finally, informal learning requires new expectations for leaders (or, perhaps more accurately, new pressure on leaders to deliver on the expectation we've had for decades that they'll actively support training.) Learning can get lost on busy employees, especially when it's bite-sized, on-the-fly, and embedded in the workflow. Leaders need to pay more attention under these circumstances. They need to:
- Check in and follow up more frequently.
- Help others consider the resources and tools available.
- Support employees as they process insights.
- Coach people to leverage on-the-job learning.
- Hold people accountable.
L&D professionals shouldn't be shy about making these requests of leaders. Informal learning is lean learning. Reducing the hours spent in workshops, seminars, and classes means employees are more available to do their jobs. The quid-pro-quo for less learning downtime must be great support from the individual's leader.
Invest to grow consistently
Informal learning has the potential to grow individuals, the business, and the results of L&D programs. But only if it's treated like the investment it is. Only if we insist on accountability - at the systems, learner, and leadership level.