Informal learning – how to manage it

What is the role of the learning and development professional when it comes to informal learning? Should you try to control it by applying some of the measures associated with formal learning? Do you merely let it happen and encourage its use? Or do you do nothing?

Thanks to individuals such as Jay Cross, chief executive of Internet Time Group and an expert in informal learning, many of these issues and questions are being debated. Cross says that most companies over-invest in formal learning while leaving the more simple and natural ways that we learn to chance.

This represents a missed opportunity. And at a time when budgets for formal training are being cut, putting in place measures to facilitate and promote informal learning has a more important role.

Clive Shepherd, chairman of the eLearning Network, the UK’s professional association of users and developers of all forms of e-learning, does not believe you can control informal learning or that you should try. But, he says, learning and development must work with IT to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support it. “They can provide a supportive performance management system one that rewards employees for supporting each other and sharing information,” he says.

Make it formal

David Wilson, managing director of corporate learning analyst eLearnity, says it makes sense to formalise informal learning as part of the learning and development strategy and the starting point is to acknowledge it is happening, and define its role and value proposition. “Then build the capabilities to facilitate and enhance the value of it,” he says. He warns, though, that just because informal learning has gained visibility in the mainstream, it doesn’t mean organisations are addressing it any differently.

“One of the big travesties is that if you go to many firms’ portals and search a particular subject, you’ll find loads of technical documentation but frequently not their learning materials,” he says.

“The learning material is held outside of the corporate content management systems and it can only be accessed if you attend a formal training course.”

The best approach seems to be one that borrows some of the knowledge-capture principles of old-fashioned knowledge management and combines it with modern delivery and dispersal methods, such as podcasts and communities of practice.

Another area being debated is whether the learning management system (LMS) has a role in informal learning. Wilson and Shepherd believe, that in its traditional form, it isn’t geared up for the purpose. But they acknowledge that vendors such as Cornerstone OnDemand and Saba are heading in the right direction with their products, Cornerstone Connect and Saba Social respectively.

Wilson says that social networking, instant messaging and similar functions are likely to be facilitated by an organisation’s enterprise-wide collaboration tools rather than as social add-ons to individual applications such as the LMS.

Stephen Walsh, partner at rapid e-learning developer Kineo, believes the sort of technical innovation required to support informal learning could come from the learning and development community itself, citing the open source LMS and development platform Moodle as a possible catalyst. “If you plug into the Moodle community, you hear people saying ‘wouldn’t it be good if Moodle did that?’ and modules are being added all the time,” he says. “Companies weren’t convinced of open-source learning management systems a few years ago. But Moodle has proved itself as an LMS and it is evolving all the time,” Walsh says.

A lighter touch

Another approach is to devise what Jenny Hill, spokeswoman for e-learning specialist Echelon, describes as a “light touch” framework to assess, select and track learning in a way individuals can control. It designed a set of mobile learning tools for staff at St Pancras train station to access on a just-in-time basis and learning was recorded automatically in an individual learning log. This approach can also help embed informal learning into career development and appraisal.

“The critical issue is to support people to feel motivated and responsible to improve their performance in every way,” says Hill. “Too many firms create a regulated approach into which the person has to fit. It is hard to value informal learning in this formal framework.”

Hill adds that learning and development should ensure managers play their part. Because informal learning typically happens at work in “real-time”, she recommends they are trained in rapid coaching techniques and incentivised for the career development of their teams.

Informal learning lends itself to a less controlling approach from learning and development departments. But it is too important a part of the learning landscape to be left to chance. Having created a culture and structure in which it can flourish, Walsh says L&D should monitor how the organisation takes it on board and which elements prove popular and, in short, watch and learn.

How to support informal learning

  • Acknowledge informal learning is happening and formalise its place in the L&D strategy.
  • Create a culture and infrastructure for it to flourish. This will involve discussion with line managers and IT. Informal learning will thrive in an organisation where the culture is collaborative.
  • Don’t try to control or over-manage it. Investigate new ways of tracking the learning rather than trying to shoehorn it into existing systems and processes.
  • Monitor what type of informal learning proves effective and elicit feedback from employees about what suits their learning style.

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