The Virtues of Informal Learning

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Staff

Although it garners less attention than formal training methods, informal learning may be the true foundation of organizational knowledge. Employees learn only about a fifth of their jobs via formal training, according to the Institute for Research on Learning (Cross, 2006). The rest is gleaned through other means of learning.

Various sources confirm the importance of informal learning. “Structured, formalized training is not the norm” in employee development programs, concluded a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and Catalyst. In fact, decisions about training, as well as the training itself, are often informally made. According to the survey, two-thirds of respondents say identifying which employees need to improve their competencies “is mostly an informal process in their organization,” and a similar percentage report that “development is assigned informally” (Gurchiek, 2005).

A survey of UK organizations conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2005) found that the most often used informal learning technique is research on the Internet or company intranet (frequently used by 60% of respondents). Other frequently used informal methods of learning include links to external professional and industrial bodies (41%), exposure to challenging work assignments (35%), observation of seasoned co-workers (34%), cross-disciplinary/cross-functional team projects (29%), and peer networking (28%). This confirms the findings of a previous CIPD (2004) survey in which three-quarters of UK employers said at least half of employee learning takes place through informal training.

Organizations that want to encourage informal learning have several strategic paths open to them. One is to facilitate inter-employee communication and support unstructured employee networks of knowledge-sharing (Cross and Colella, 2004). This seems related to what e-learning professional Jay Cross (2006) refers to as “free-range learning,” which he describes as “workers taking part in meaningful conversations, listening to and telling stories, building personal trust networks that yield advice quickly and learning things in small chunks as needed.”

Widening employees’ circles of communication can be particularly beneficial to such learning. Employees are already likely to seek out friends and other close colleagues for information, says Singapore Management University Professor Sheen S. Levine, but “the major indicator of a firm’s knowledge transfer ability is whether its employees routinely call upon distant colleagues—people unknown to them—for information,” a strategy he calls “performative ties” (Wharton School, 2005).

Social-networking technology can assist here; it has potential for expanding informal learning networks.The premise behind social-networking software is that it can open up unexplored vistas of friend-of-a-friend contacts. Such contacts can facilitate informal learning by helping workers to find experts who have the right knowledge and to gain a personal introduction that makes knowledge sharing more likely in the future (Fitzgerald, 2004).

In addition, formal training can be leveraged to create more opportunities for informal learning. That is, employers can provide the formal instruction, the resources and the appropriate work environment to help people learn on their own. For example, an organization might make coaches and teachers available for when workers need them. Another approach is to provide what some call “performance support solutions” that include components such as online materials, “how-to” instructions, and other types of self-help information (Stetar, 2005; Svensson, Ellstrom and Aberg, 2004).

Employers can also conduct multi-office training sessions so that employees meet more potential learning partners. To achieve a similar goal, management can “embed” individual employees in multiple teams and networks to widen their learning groups, suggests Prof. Levine ( Wharton School, 2005).

But perhaps the most productive thing an organization can do is to refrain from over-organizing or erecting barriers to unstructured learning. As Jay Cross (2006) says, “Frequently, the best way to take advantage of informal learning is to get out of its way.”

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Training and Development 2004. London: CIPD, April 2004.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Training and Development 2005. London: CIPD, April 2005.

Cross, Jay. “The Low-Hanging Fruit Is Tasty.” Chief Learning Officer, April 2006.

Cross, Rob and Sally Colella. “Building Vibrant Employee Networks.” HR,  December 2004, pp. 101–104.

Fitzgerald, Michael. “Internetworking.” Technology Review, April 2004.

Gurchiek, Kathy. “Developing Workers for Future Roles Often Informal, Ad Hoc.” HR News, April 26, 2005.

Sheppard, Guy. “How to Spread Knowledge.” Training. ProQuest. May 2004.

Stetar, Bill. “Training: It’s Not Always the Answer.” Quality Progress, March 2005, pp. 44–48.

Svensson, Lennart, Per-Erick Ellstrom and Carina Aberg. “Integrating Formal and Informal Learning at Work.” Journal of Workplace Learning. ProQuest 16, nos. 7/8, 2004.

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Do Talk to Strangers: Encouraging Performative Ties to Create Competitive Advantage.” Knowledge@Wharton, September 21, 2005.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.