What Informal Learning Is, and Isn't

by Teala Wilson | Posted | Learning

What Informal Learning Is, and Isn\'t

Pop quiz! How much do you really know about informal learning?

Here are three learning situations. Can you spot the informal learning example?

A. A manager finds an article that they believe will be helpful to their employee in their role. In their 1:1 meeting, the manager suggests the employee read the article and bring their thoughts to their next check-in.

B. Sparked by a conversation she overheard in the lunch room, a marketing employee listens to a top-rated business podcast to learn more about improving her "personal brand."

C. A finance manager clicks over to his company's blog after receiving an email announcing a new blog series about leadership.

Of the three examples above, "B," the marketing employee listening to the podcast, is experiencing informal learning. She is self-directed, spontaneous and learning from a resource without a curriculum, leader or other formal structure.

The article scenario is an example of non-formal learning, which many people mistake for informal learning. Non-formal learning shares many elements with informal learning, such as the fact that the learning is voluntary in nature and short in terms of duration. Examples of non-formal learning could include participating in mentoring programs, attending a voluntary "lunch and learn" about your benefits program, or participating in an expert knowledge-sharing group. It's the difference between learning how to play basketball at a community pick-up game versus a basketball boot camp. A good way to distinguish non-formal learning from informal learning is that non-formal learning usually uses a curriculum and/or a leader or facilitator, and is purposeful in nature.

But what about our finance manager reading blog posts? Surely that's informal learning as well? Not exactly. Because his inquisitiveness to read the leadership article was influenced by an email, his learning would not be classified as informal. True informal learning is purposeful, even if unplanned. Again, this would be an example of non-formal learning.

What informal learning is not: Highly-structured, top-down learning initiatives mandated by an authoritative figure.

A formal definition of informal learning

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 neighbors and from various kind of interactions, in general."

Think of your daily work. Examples of informal learning probably plentiful: books on your shelf, podcasts on your commute and watching TED Talks on your phone. Informal learning is experiential learning, too, such as when we just try to figure something out by tinkering with it.

Informal learning happens when we least expect it. Maybe your company has a working culture they are proud of, one that has been defined and widely communicated. Its one thing to site a list of company values, but how do you really learn about the company culture? By experiencing it. We learn by getting actual exposure to other employee's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors through our day-to-day interactions.

What informal learning is not: Targeted to specific objectives or given dedicated time for learning

Did we get it wrong? Not exactly...

As it turns out, many L&D shops have been working on integrating non-formal learning into organizations, while we thought we were focusing on informal learning. Stay with me... it may seem like nitpicking, but it is worth giving some consideration.

We love to embrace both informal and non-formal learning because it's immediate. No one has to ask permission or sign up for a class to search the web or watch a video. Learning should also be relevant. If your job requires a certain knowledge set such as being proficient with a particular software program, it's incredibly relevant to your job performance to seek out instructional videos online or walk down the hall to ask for hands-on help from a co-worker. The biggest difference is that non-formal learning may be spontaneous and just-in-time but involves the intent to learn. Informal learning happens organically, almost unconsciously through our daily interactions and experiences, even when we're not looking for it.

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.

What informal learning is not: Schedule-in-advance courses, webinars and resources.

Might as well join ‘em

The reality is that informal learning and non-formal learning are inextricably connected, so call it what you want! Happily, employees wholeheartedly engage in non-formal learning. They're motivated and curious. Bite-sized and on-the-fly content consumption are going to happen even more in the future. So, whether we call it "informal" or "non-formal", it makes sense that organizations give both types of learning some attention and use it to further business objectives by adding elements of tracking and accountability.

Technology is one way to codify informal learning through the use of tracking and recording "small bites" of learning. Encouraging a deep sense of learning ownership on the part of the employee can instill a desire to learn more and do more with the information received. Think about the last time you learned something new-you may have wanted to share it with others. This human impulse to share knowledge with others is a large reason why informal learning is taking off in organizations everywhere.

What informal learning is not: Something to be feared by executives or learning teams.

Leaders, it's your turn

Leaders can get into the informal learning game by following up with employees frequently. They should be asking things like:

  • What did you learn when you weren't looking for it?
  • How can you make yourself aware of learning that happened unintentionally?

Leaders can also make sure there is a place to share "found" content, whether that's a learning tech platform or in another online location. During 1:1 meetings, managers can coach their employees to continue their self-directed learning and hold them accountable to share their latest resources.

At the end of the day, scaling back the hours spent in seminars, classes, workshops and off-site meetings means employees are spending more time on their jobs. Training budgets today are limited but that doesn't mean your employees can't learn in other ways. No matter how an employee learns, managers must give employees a healthy dose of support when it comes to any type of learning. It's a win-win for everyone.

What informal learning is not: A hands-off way employees learn without support and accountability from managers.

Next steps

Is your organization ready for informal learning? See how you can get ready for it with this checklist, and register for this webinar to discover how you can maximize the impact of informal learning.

The Whole Truth About Informal Learning

Download this reference guide to the half-truths about informal learning programs and what makes them tick.


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The Whole Truth About Informal Learning

Download this reference guide to the half-truths about informal learning programs and what makes them tick.


Read Now


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