What is Informal Learning?

by Jay Cross on May 20, 2006

People acquire the skills they use at work informally — talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal training and workshops account for only 10% to 20% of what people learn at work. Most corporations over-invest in formal training while leaving the more natural, simple ways we learn to chance.

Informal learning and formal learning are at opposite ends of the learning spectrum.

Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs. Informal learning is like riding a bicycle: the rider chooses the destination and the route. The cyclist can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or help a fellow rider.

Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. People new to the territory often ride the bus before hopping on the bike.

Traditional training departments put almost all of their energy into driving busses. For experienced workers, most bus rides are as inappropriate as kindergarten classes. Mature learners, typically a company’s top performers, never show up for the bus. They want pointers that enable them to do things for themselves.

Learning is what enables people to participate successfully in life and work. It is a knowledge-age survival skill.

The Business Case

Executives don’t want learning; they want execution. They want performance. Informal does not mean unintentional. Those who leave informal learning to chance leave money on the table. Informal learning is a profit strategy. Companies use it to:

  • Improve knowledge worker productivity 20% – 30%
  • Increase sales by Google-izing product knowledge
  • Generate fresh ideas and increase innovation
  • Transform an organization from near-bankruptcy to record profits
  • Reduce stress, absenteeism, and healthcare costs
  • Invest development resources where they will have the most impact
  • Increase professionalism and professional growth
  • Cut costs and improve responsiveness with self-service learning

Free-range Learners

Training is something that’s pushed on you; learning is something you choose. Many a knowledge worker will tell you, “I love to learn but I hate to be trained.” Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they’re asked to do. They rise or fall to meet expectations.

Reinventing the wheel, looking for information in the wrong places, and answering questions from others consumes two-thirds of the average knowledge worker’s time. Good connections vastly improve knowledge worker productivity.

Knowledge management is no longer the intellectual high ground it once was. Why? Because it didn’t work. Knowledge lives in people’s heads, not in mere words. You can no more capture true knowledge in a repository than you can trap lightening in a box.

The informal organization is how most business gets done, yet executives miss it because they can’t see it. Mapping social networks make the patterns clear.

Skills for Today

The best thoughts in the world won’t help you or anyone else if you can’t communicate them effectively.
Engaging in business and learning depends on how well you converse, tell stories, speak in public, and write. All knowledge workers must master these skills in addition to learning how to learn. Stress, unhappiness, and emotions also impact learning — and deserve a spot on the learning agenda.

Most training pessimistically assumes that trainees are deficient, and training is a fix for what’s broken. Training professionals need to think positively: everybody wins if the starting point is “Be all that you can be.”

Look, talk

Humans are sight-mammals. Images+words communicate twice as much as words alone. Pictures translate across cultures, education levels, and age groups.

Graphics are not fluff. Visuals are particularly useful when you need to:

  • Bring deeper understanding to complex subject matter
  • Share results of dynamic meetings with others
  • Help the team “see the big picture” and focus attention
  • Improve the decision-making process

Conversations are the stem cells of learning, for they both create and transmit knowledge. Open conversation increases innovation. People love to talk. Bringing them together brings excitement.

Business conversations at a major pharmaceutal no longer consist of knee-jerk emotional responses, because people have a means of critiquing the quality of their conversations. They ask, “Is the information valid? Are we making an informed choice? Are we exercising mutual control over the conversation?”

Communities

Business meetings used to come in one flavor: dull. New approaches are creating meetings that people enjoy, often organized in scant time, and at minimal cost. These meetings are not events; there’s typically activity before and after. If something is working well, why not share it with everyone? And why not keep it alive as long as you can?

Successful gatherings are those where everyone participates. No better-than-thou. No podium. No positions carved in stone. Instead of presentations, participants have conversations. Free-range learners co-discover new ways to look at things. practice, although you may not have thought of it that way.

For a long time, I maintained that communities were organic. Like truffles, they sort of sprouted up on their own, where they wanted, and the most you could do was to nurture them by giving then time and space to grow. Times have changed. A quarter of the world’s truffles are cultivated on a plantation in Spain.

Communities of experts in a dozen of Cisco’s strategically vital areas create content through conversations. As fast and easy as it is to search Google, sales people pinpoint and extract precisely what they need from this vast information resource.

Customers are frequent free-range learners. For example, LEGO hobbyists are a community of practice. They bring novices up to speed. They create building standards that enable them to assemble large displays quickly. They suggest new products to LEGO’s marketing department.

The Web

The internet did change everything. Ten years ago, there were 16 million internet users; today they number more than a billion. Google is the world’s largest learning provider, answering thousands of inquires every second.

This informal, spontaneous, vernacular knowledge sharing is not just for surfers. Imagine having an in-house learning and information environment as rich as the internet. You’d have blogs and search and syndication and podcasts and more. You’d also have a platform just about everyone knows how to use. Some companies are already doing this

Learning Ecology

The informal learning train is leaving the station. Why now?

  • The generation coming into the work force has no patience for spoon-feeding, single-track instruction, or working alone.
  • Soon, the Boomers will leave the work force, taking their knowledge with them unless it is transferred to newcomers by informal means.
  • As the global economy shifts from factory work to service work, workers need the human, judgmental expertise and emotional intelligence that one doesn’t learn in class.
  • Time is speeding up. It’s impractical to try to learn in advance when what you need to know won’t stand still.

As work and learning become one, good learning and good work merge to become a single activity.
Don’t start with problems, for that starts you down the wrong path. You may solve the problem, but miss a fantastic opportunity that was yours for the taking.

Formal learning takes place in classrooms; informal learning happens in learnscapes. A learnscape is a learning ecology: learning without borders. Learnscaping involves removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation, and growing networks. It’s a natural way to learn and grow.

Author

Jay Cross is an internationally acclaimed strategist, speaker, consultant, and designer of corporate learning and performance systems.

He is the author of Implementing eLearning and founder of Internet Time Group (whose clients include IBM, Cisco, Defense Acquisition University, and SmartForce).

Jay developed the first business program offered by the University of Phoenix. He coaches organizations on performance improvement and marketing. He often writes white papers, articles, and presentations that help vendors educate their customers. A popular speaker, Jay has keynoted or spoken at events in Abu Dhabi, Austria, Canada, Germany, Scotland, Taiwan, and virtually all of the major learning conferences in the U.S. Jay is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School. He and his wife Uta live with two miniature longhaired dachshunds in the hills of Berkeley, California.

Update:

Pfeiffer published Jay’s book on Informal Learning in late 2006.

For information, workshops, and implementation advice, see the Informal Learning Blog or contact Jay.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: