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How to harness your informal learning

Nic Paton

A network of learners

The vast majority of workplace learning happens outside of the training room, when your managers and leaders are on the day to day job. Nic Paton asks how employers can make the most of the informal learning going on all over their organisations

Think back over your past week. Chances are you’ll have spent at least some time discussing or talking through a process or procedure with a colleague. You’ll probably have read up on something related to your organisation or sector. You may have taken a moment to go on to the office intranet (or YouTube or elsewhere online) to refresh your knowledge about a particular topic, issue, regulation or problem related to your work.

Informal learning like this happens all the time in the workplace. Indeed, it is possible to argue that, when you break it down, much of what we think of as day-to-day “management” has at its heart informal learning – sharing knowledge and insight, communicating and embedding new information for people to act on, coaching people to perform or behave in a particular way, and so on.

Models such as the 70:20:10 Framework popularised by learning consultant and former chief learning officer Charles Jennings very much echo this. The 70:20:10 concept argues that the vast majority of workplace learning (around 70%) comes from day-to-day on-the-job experience and a further 20% from social learning and interaction with colleagues. Just 10% comes through formal learning, whether in a classroom setting or via online tools.

At one level, of course, any learning is a good thing. But informal learning also poses a problem, a tension, for L&D leaders. If informal learning is something that just happens organically, how can organisations be sure it is effective, valuable and relevant? How can they ensure it properly complements and enhances both the wider organisational goals and vision and any existing formal learning? How, in essence, can L&D formalise informal learning – capture, measure, direct and encourage it – without in the process killing all that is most powerful and effective about it?

Can you tame informal learning?

“With informal learning you have to let go, to lose control of it, for it to work most effectively. That can often be the bit people get wrong; they try to manage the activity so tightly that it ends up not being independent informal learning activity at all,” concedes Paul Matthews, managing director of consultancy and ILM centre People Alchemy, which has a best practice guide to informal learning.

Nevertheless, while over-formalising informal learning can risk snuffing it out, it is still possible, first, to exert a degree of control and direction over informal learning and, second, to encourage and facilitate whatever informal learning is already happening.

Matthews recommends using a four “D” approach. First, you should design the learning outcome you want to achieve. Second, you should design activities that will achieve your outcome. So far, of course, so standard.

But your third important “D” is to delegate these activities, to allow them to run free, to let people use and learn from them in their own way, space and time. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your final “D” should be “debrief”.

“This is where you reassert control. The debrief verifies or measures whether the learning occurred that you wanted. If not, it gives you an opportunity to look at what you can do to top that learning up or correct it or set up other activities with a different slant,” explains Matthews.

Two key characteristics of informal learning are “autonomy” (in other words the individual deciding and leading the process of what, how, when or where to learn) and “unplanned” or “unconscious” learning, agrees Jane Hart, learning adviser with the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies.

To that end, for the L&D practitioner it is a question of ensuring the internal social networks that are so important in fostering and facilitating informal learning are robust and vibrant. These networks also need to be an integral, integrated part of how people work or collaborate everyday rather than something discrete or separated.

“Don’t force social interaction and knowledge sharing. Encourage external professional networking as part of ongoing self-improvement. L&D doesn’t own social learning. We all do,” Hart explains.

“It means working alongside managers to help their teams share their workday experiences and learn from one another. It’s not about L&D managing and monitoring the learning, but managers measuring the desired business or performance changes. It means a different role for L&D supporting managers, not organising things for themselves,” she adds.

Informal learning is helped by technology

Facilitating access to technology that encourages this sort of knowledge sharing can be a key part of this supporting process, agrees Martin Addison, chief executive of video learning company Video Arts.

“Organisations will often have a central learning management system platform or they might be sharing content through their intranet. It is important to be thinking how to use that technology, but also how to track the process,” he argues.

“There are nowadays a lot of ways not just to track usage of a platform but also to track whether someone has read an article or viewed a specific video. There are tools you can use to monitor and track usage,” he adds.

It is, of course, important to ensure individual learning plans are aligned to business objectives, emphasises CIPD head of learning and development Andy Lancaster. But L&D practitioners also need to be thinking widely about how people are best going to learn within the organisational environment, and how informal, unplanned or unexpected learning fits into this. From there it is a question of pinning down the metrics by which this learning can be captured.

“You also need a system whereby content or courses or video clips or whatever it is can be captured on some form of curation system, one that also allows learners to share things within their organisation. You want to be allowing other people to capture and look at that informal learning and see what is going on,” he recommends.

“User generated content can enrich formal learning programmes, and in turn can lead to far higher learner engagement. So they are not separate entities; what you need to be doing is creating strategies that allow organic and formal learning to occur in the same place,” he adds.

“Can you make informal learning formal?” questions People Alchemy’s Matthews. “Yes, if you harness it, but only to a point. You can work to put the right sorts of environment, activities, resources and tools in place at the point of work.

“But you just have to get over the fact that the learning is going to happen outside your remit – at the point of learning you have to let go – and then recognise that, wherever it is happening, your job is simply to help it to happen better,” he adds.

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