The problem with informal learning is people!

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am a big advocate of informal learning although I’ve never been happy with the term. In fact I’m living proof that it is effective. To find out how you’ll have to wait til the end of the post for my own experiences. But before that, I wanted to investigate further why people are the problem with informal learning.

I recently read an article in this month’s eLearning Age by John Helmer about informal learning. It’s about the 70 20 10 rule but in essence, the 70 and 20 of that rule equates to a lot of informal learning. I was particularly interested in a reference John Helmer made to “Jay Cross et all decreeing the shutting down of training departments”. It reports on suggestions that if 90% of learning actually goes on informally, “need they (L&D professionals) even show up for work?” It goes on to reference Epic’s Oxford Union debate raising concerns that we couldn’t risk the professional development of our medical experts, pilots etc to informal learning.

Like I said in the title of this blog, the trouble with informal learning is people. And the problem with people is they sometimes act rashly without thought. Or they think but don’t analyse properly. Or they misinterpret. And all too often they hear what they want to hear like ‘if informal learning means workers learn as they do their jobs and from their colleagues, we obviously don’t need all those trainers and learning developers’. The problem with some other people is when they hear the word ‘informal’ they really hear ‘haphazard, chaotic, left to chance, won’t happen’. It’s a bit like when people hear the term ‘blended learning’ they really hear ‘eLearning + classroom + a little more eLearning’.

So some people think informal learning is an excuse to axe L&D teams while there are others who when they hear ‘informal learning’ think “that’ll never work – can’t measure that – what statistics can we report back with that?”

Now before I go on any further, I’d like to share a little secret you may not know. Jay Cross isn’t advocating no formal learning at all – formal learning will be essential for certain areas such as training novices or for compliance and where death/safety/litigation etc might be a consequence of learning being left to the motivation of the individual. And of course this relates back to the 70 20 10 theory.

So what’s the future for L&D professionals with this movement towards more self-directed, workplace learning and less formal courses? If L&D professionals are shrewd enough, shout loud enough and they have the backing from senior managers, they can become the cement that holds the organisation together by working with individuals as coaches and cultivators of their personal learning journey. People will need support from learning professionals, they will need to learn how to use the new tools, they will certainly need to learn how to critically appraise the information they find. L&D professionals are just that – professionals in learning and development.

They have the opportunity to be the consultants they really are and advise senior managers how to encourage their staff to, as Jay Cross and the Internet Time Alliance refer to as ‘work smarter’. Formal learning will not disappear but its future will be more meaningful and relevant, more in line with business goals and therefore more effective.

Ok – so now we’ve accepted that informal learning is being taken on board how on earth do we know if it’s doing any good? Here’s my question to you. How do we know when a person is capable of doing their job? Does tracking every click through a screen or have everyone sit for hours in a classroom do that? Or is it by assessment of their skills?

In my view, the ONLY way we can assess competency is in them applying any learning to a work-based task. In preparation for that they may undertake a formal assessment followed application in the workplace. Tracking what I call ‘bums on seats’ or clicks through pages only tracks attendance. It doesn’t tell us anything about whether those individuals have even paid attention let alone learned anything. Therefore, does it really matter how they gain the knowledge or skills?

Formal assessments will still have your learning objective. After all, a learning objective should be a description of the assessment anyway. It’s referencing the END of the journey. How your workforce get there will depend on the level of experience of the individuals. Those dependent learners i.e. newcomers, or those with no prior experience will likely need a more formal approach. Those more experienced, who can build on prior knowledge and are used to a more self-directed way of learning would benefit from a more organic learning journey. So what if the individual has gained the majority of their knowledge by being self-motivated enough to follow current research, have conversations with experts whether face to face, by blogging and reading blogs attending conferences, connecting through tools such as Twitter, asking colleagues on best practice. At the end of it all, it’s still an assessment which will prove how effective any learning method has been.

As learning professionals, aren’t we supposed to be following the androgogical principles in our learning solutions? Ryan Tracey has an excellent post on this. Quoting from his article, androgogical principles are based on the assumptions that adults are…..

1. Adult learners are self directed.
2. Adults bring experience with them to the learning environment.
3. Adults are ready to learn to perform their role in society.
4. Adults are problem oriented, and they seek immediate application of their new knowledge.
5. Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

And we all know what assumption is the mother of don’t we? No? You might need to Google that one.

Ryan goes on to say that life isn’t that simple. We know from experience that adults’ motivation for effort (whether that’s for learning or working) is directly affected by circumstances and they can range from how pressured they are by deadlines to having to learn something brand new where they become novices again (and the actions of their superiors). Sometimes, a more formal approach to learning will be the solution, sometimes a more experiential, self-directed, informal approach will be the order of the day but what is a fact, it’s not about battling them out against each other but more about how they work together.

Going back to the article in eLearning Age, John Helmer calls for a ‘north star’ and says that “until we have templates, until we have frameworks, until we have proof, informal learning will remain more style than substance”. If you’re looking for guidance, there are plenty of case studies from major organisations who have successfully encouraged a more informal approach to learning which you can find on the Towards Maturity site As for templates and framework, you need to check out Clive Shepherd’s new book The New Learning Architect which not only gives an excellent framework to work with.

And finally, in defense of informal learning I would like to share with you how it has played an enormous role in my own personal development and, as such directly influential in my career progression, expertise and growth that has constantly helped shape the blended courses courses I deliver for my employer in the field of online learning.

When I joined the Digital Learning team in a previous job, I attended formal courses in all my now areas of expertise. It started with a blended learning course. That was the only ‘formal’ element of my learning journey in these topics. I was hooked. I always had a liking for technology and a passion for learning so I already had motivation. My destiny was then delivering that same course and I sat and observed, then delivered a bit at a time, then all on my own. That’s what I would class as application back in the workplace which embedded the learning. Since then, it’s instilled a passion that set me on my eternal informal learning journey. I also had amazing support and encouragement from my colleagues and line managers.

Now I research, connect, analyse, blog, read, collaborate to keep my knowledge fresh and up to date. No-one has forced me to do this, it wasn’t asked of me at work and it certainly hasn’t been managed or directed (apart from it being necessary to keep out of date). It’s all purely self-directed and informal. Without the technology such as Twitter (my biggest and best professional development tool), blogs, white papers, and then dabbling in blogging myself, I doubt I would have been as successful. Even thought I work from home I can assure you that I’m also able to access these tools when in the company office. None of our staff ‘waste’ our time on it – we don’t have the time to waste. But my passion has extended beyond work and I continue my professional development in my own time probably unhealthily so.

If you were able to track how many Tweets I read, how many websites and blogs I visit and read, how many people I speak to, that wouldn’t tell you whether I actually learned anything. My self-directed, informal path may not be measured by tracking but it is measured in the success of the courses I run, the feedback I get, the achievements of those individuals who have benefited as a result of my own efforts.

So the only piece of advice I can give to organisations is if you think it’s a risk to allow your staff to pursue a more informal approach in their own development and ban the use of the tools that facilitate that learning just take a moment to think about the risks of not doing it. Think about what you are are not achieving as a result. And for those individuals who are frustrated and complain that your organisation won’t allow you to learn this way, if you value your own personal development you will find a way on your own in your own time. It may not be fair but life rarely is.

To re-iterate my initial thought. The only problem with informal learning is people!

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