Power of informal learning in developing managers

by Jay Cross on October 20, 2009

Here’s a six-year old article on informal learning I discovered while Googling for material on learning transfer. If you’re still relying on formal training to develop managers, you might want to give this one a read.

Informal Learning and the Transfer of Learning: How Managers Develop Proficiency
Michael D. Enos, Marijke Thamm Kehrhahn, Alexandra Bell


Formal training occurs in the absence of action; learners are removed from the day-to-day work to engage in lectures, discussions, simulations, role plays, and other instructional activities. Formal classroom training is the mode of instruction most widely used by corporations to develop managers (Bassi & Van Buren, 1999), but researchers suggest that most managerial learning takes place informally (Lowy, Kelleher, & Finestone, 1986; McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988). Informal learning occurs in the presence of both action and reflection (Watkins & Marsick, 1992) and includes “self-directed learning, networking, coaching, mentoring, performance planning . . . and trial-and-error” (p. 291).

The conceptual framework for informal learning is grounded in experiential learning theory, pioneered by Dewey (1938) and later expanded on by the work of Kolb (1984) and others. In contrast to formal training, which is structured learning that takes place in a classroom environment, informal learning occurs as the result of individuals’ making sense of experiences they encounter during their daily work lives (Marsick & Volpe, 1999). Studies that have investigated managerial informal learning in the workplace have demonstrated its pervasiveness. For example, McCall et al. (1988) found that of thirty-five managerial job skills (for example, negotiating skills), managers developed thirty of them through informal learning (for example, job assignments). The problem that HRD practitioners face is that reliance on formal training programs may result in a loss of competitive advantage if managers are not able to trans- fer what they have learned in formal training to their work. At the same time, overreliance on formal training may de-emphasize the value of harnessing informal learning opportunities to promote managerial proficiency.

Organizations and HRD practitioners would be well served to rethink their approach to managerial learning and proficiency. Our study suggested that managers learn mostly from informal learning, that proficiency is the product of informal learning, and that metacognitive knowledge and self-regulation skills moderate informal learning and the transfer process. In the light of these findings, companies should harness and leverage informal learning and cultivate the metacognitive abilities of managers, as opposed to increasing spending on formal training programs. By applying these strategies, companies may save money, develop more proficient managers, and gain a competitive advantage.

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