Informal learning is the realization that we need not force senior staff and self-directed work professionals into training straightjackets and classrooms hoping to be able to enahnce their innate desire for learning and improving their skills and ability to use them in real world applications.
Formal training is good for novices, for those who are about to start understanding a new field, its territory, vocabulary and language. When you are at the beginning the things you absolutely need to know are pretty much the same for everyone joining in like you.
But as you progress in your process of learning, your interests, doubts, questions and desire to explore related directions will rapidly diverge from the ones of your former novice mates.
You can't really pre-package know-how, expertise and skills into trainging classes that are supposed to help people learn how to do manage, communicate and interact within their organizations. The needs are too diverse, and the speed at which individuals learn what they are interested in varies a great deal.
Why, then large organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to traing their staff in very traditional, highly pre-packaged, formal training programs?
The answer is lack of information: they themselves rely on old, outdated assumptions and research on what really works when it comes to organizational training and to this day, have not yet realized that their contribution to the overall institutional growth, is often smaller than 1%.
Formal learning inside large organizations does not produce very effective results nonetheless it is, in some cases, the only solution adopted.
"The best learning happens in real life, with real problems and real people, and not in the classrooms."
Many of you have known all this all along the way. Most learning takes place naturally, its informal, you grab it by working with other people and talking to them and 80% of more of what you know about how to do your jobs you have learned from informal learning.
Nonetheless the above, large organizations ironically spend the largest part of their internal development budgets on formal learning even though this is proven to be less effective, more expensive and less liked than other forms of learning.
If you look at the larger picture of improving worker performance inside an organization and at the many possible ways in which to modify, affect and change workers' behaviour, you will see that formal training accounts for only 10% of those change effective tools and approaches.
More interesting is the fact that within that 10% of training, 80% of the learning taking place is indeed informal. It is generated by people asking to each other how to do something, or by you going and observing a more senior colleague performing the task, or by reading about it from doing your own research online, or better yet from a mix of all those.
In reality, your training department is only doing 20% of the real training work needed, and sad to say only 20% of what is taught inside training departmern courses and workshops is actually successully transferred to the real job.
So if you now take 20% of 20% of 10%, you end up with less than 1% of behavioural change attributable to your organization expenditure in "formal learning".
According to Jay Cross, a renowned world expert on organizational learning, who has spent most of his 2005 doing active research on this subject, companies have not yet started to realize the importance of supporting and facilitating informal learning activities, which, according to his research, would amount to 80% of all that is learned inside a large organization.
Jay's research endeavour has not been driven by academic reasons. Being Jay Cross a business man, his interest was rather focused on going beyond words, theories and theoretical new ideas and fully into the pragmatical field of people's performance. His research is also going to be published as physical, printed book from Pfeiffer, which will be published in the late fall of this year.
If you look at the history of evolution, both in the fields of governance and in the one of learning, you may see a clearly distinct pattern which repeats itself: organization of governance or learning has evolved from chaotic and unorganized, spontaneous behaviour, to directed, top-down, hierarchical approaches and finally into distributed, peer-to-peer, networked and self-directed informal approaches.
Call it "tacit work", "improv wisdom", informal learning is already all around you even if you have not yet started paying attention to it in a conscious way.
According to McKinsey (The Next Revolution in Interactions), tacit work is in much greater demand, it is growing at a faster rate and it is paid more than other types of work.
In fact if you think of it yourself of how much work in your organization is really clearly structured, executive implementation of a clearly defined set of steps and how much is instead discretionary decision-making, empirical evaluation of alternative solutions or assessment of new resources based on exchanges with colleagues, you can see how large and critical is the knowledge and skill space that is not born out of the trainging department classrooms.
A lot of training programs are designed to provide basic, start-up skills that are only good for novices. The problem though is that there is no room for shooting beyond that level. If you have some high performers, individuals that want to go beyond the basic knowledge, it is much harder to design courses that offer them the true opportunity to learn according to their true abilities.
This is the real issue.
But hasn't informal learning been around for ages? Isn't this available to anyone when they need it?
While informal learning has indeed been around since humankind has started to organize and communicate with her peers, the key factor that comples us today to face this issue with different eyes is the speed of change at which things are happening now. As Jay Cross says it "we are at an inflection point", one in which the amount of stuff that goes on in our lives, professional and not, is just short of amazing.
Here is one figure that says it all: In the twenty-first century there will be as much change and happenings as in the equivalent of 20,000 20th century-like years pulled together into one. Source: KurzweilAI.net
This is why, when the pace of change is fast, being able to adapt, to inform oneself effectively in order to make smart decisions becomes of the uttermost importance. Change is a driver for learning. The more and the faster the change, the greater the need for proportionally faster and more effective learning.
And this is why in fast and chaotic times like these, those that will survive and succeed will be indeed those that are best at learning, not those that have most physical assets, resources, money or property.
What are the key differences between "formal" and "informal" learning?
The degree formality is one of the factors that makes most of the difference. In Jay's view "formal learning" is like riding a bus, while "informal learning" could be paralleled to driving a car or riding a bycicle.
But what are the pros and cons of each?
Well, going with a bus is great as long as the bus is going where you need to go and you have got time to leave the driving to someone else. Like with many courses, seminars and workshops, bus riding is very useful when you need to take several other people along the way. It does take some time to lay out a new bus route and so it is only common sense to use the bus for those journeys where the trip needs to be done more than once.
Informal learning is instead like driving a car or riding a bycicle. It is worth the extra expense (gasoline, dedicated equipment, etc.) because it allows custom learning. Informal learning is achieved by asking, searching, observing, talking to others.
Riding a bike is like driving a car, but with the added possibility to stop more easily and to help others, to coach and enjoy with a small group the beautiful view offered by a side, impervious road, to experiment and try out unmapped trails, to sit down and rejoyce with fellow bikers about the ride and the discoveries that came with it.
Informal learning may include reflecting, mentoring, storytelling, nurturing, modelling, connecting, giving feedback to others, as well as learning for longer perspectives and higher purposes.
That's why informal learning open the doors to a more customizable, personal learning experience, that can provide much greater rewards to those expert, senior knowledge workers, for which bus riding is nothing but lost time.
How can you support, facilitate and encourage greater informal learning activities in your company?
What Jay Cross has found to be largely missing inside organizations is an appropriate balance between formal training infrastructures and informal learning ones. If you look around yourself, it seems that informal learning is completely ignored in most organizations and that no tools, facilities or appropriate working environments are made available to further support and facilitate independent and self-driven informal learning activities by high performers inside the organization.
This is why the best cure in this direction is to to encourage your organization to start questioning more the validity of providing learning opportunities and facilities that satisfy only a very small percentage of its workforce while greatly handicapping the high performance workers and self-directed learners within it.
What Jay Cross advocates is what he calls "Free-range learning": putting the learners in the driver seat.
But again, what are the tools that you or your organization can use to favour greater informal learning? Here are some that you can start leveraging now:
Stop focusing on using only text-based communications in training and learning activities. Invest in improving resources and tools that enable knowledge workers to communicate more rapidly and effectively. Provide information design, data visualization and visual communication resources, including knowledgebases, examples and audio-visual presentations allowing individual learners to improve their visual communication skills through more informal learning approaches.
Conversations virtual or physical are once again at the center of our work universes. Like in old times when the marketplace was the center of the conversations that allowed business to thrive, today again, thanks again to the virtual village created by the Internet, conversations are the main vehicle to learn, dicover, promote and market just about anything. Jay Cross says that conversations are "the stemcells of intellectual capital" and I could not agree more with him.
3) Connections, Connections, Connections
Establishing virtual, human and physical connections (instant messaging, blogs, wikis, etc.) and making sure that these are also understood, analyzed and supported as best as it is possible to facilitate informal learning behaviours is also of critical importance.
Bottom line is that you and I need to learn how to get better at getting better. The pace of change has getting too fast for us to handle everything with one set of tools only. We need to focus more on how we learn and provide greater opportunities for informal, self-directed learning opportunities.
Great, effective learning takes place when you start treating organizations and professionals within it as a living thing, and not just as numbers that need to be trained according to one, predefined set of terms and information bits. Individuals are not just input boxes. They all need environments in which they can carry out rich and effective communications, build social networks and in which they can find the tools mand resources they need to investigate, learn and understand the things in which they are interested the most.