Is 'formal' informal learning the new shape of organisational learning?

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Ken Thompson looks at informal learning, exploring whether an inherently self-directed and personal practice can be scaled to benefit a whole community of practitioners but without destroying its very essence.

Informal learning is simply learning which has not been gained in a formal learning setting, such as a training course or an elearning program. It is becoming very popular for two main reasons – firstly learners enjoy it and secondly the effectiveness metrics are impressive.

Proponents of informal learning, such as Jay Cross, author of the book 'Informal Learning', argue that informal learning accounts for a staggering 85-95% of learning in areas which learners feel is essential to their day-to-day jobs. The flipside of this number is that only 5-15% of essential knowledge is gained through formal learning, a number which horrifies traditional training providers but which resonates with many consumers of off-the-shelf training.

In this article I would like to address two questions. Firstly what really is informal learning anyway? Secondly is it possible to 'formalise and scale' informal learning in some way or by so doing is the essence and benefit of it destroyed? In simple terms Informal Learning covers three main activities:

  • Operational: Learning on the job through trial and error and learning from mistakes

  • Research: Self-directed study where the learner decides they need to find out something

  • Conversational: Discussions (using all media) with peers, bosses and mentors

Each of us will have different informal learning styles and it’s a very useful exercise to try and identify your own primary informal learning style – Operational, Researcher or Conversational? It is also important to note that Informal Learning by definition is 'self-directed' and for it to work the right conditions need to be in place namely:

  • Motive: The learner must have a driving need and urgent desire to learn

  • Environment: The environment must be appropriate for informal learning – you might be somewhat nervous if you heard that your holiday airline pilot was gaining most of their knowledge from a self-directed informal learning programme.

Now that we have looked at what informal learning is let's look at our second question. It seems obvious if informal learning is even half as good as people say it is then it is far too important to leave it all to chance. Can informal learning be 'formalised' and scaled in some way without stripping it of the very things which made it work in the first place?

Informal learning events with enterprises can be carefully designed around four key ingredients:

  • Setup: curiosity/intent/commitment

At the start of any event it needs to be made clear that each delegate is totally responsible for what learning they take away. They are not there to listen or be taught but to actively learn. They are then invited to share specifically at least one thing they commit to learn from the event. Throughout the event they should be encouraged to share what they are learning and challenged to identify other concrete personal learning opportunities from what transpires on the day.

The delegates should also be told at the beginning of the event that they will be asked to close out the event by summarising their learning and relating it directly to the KPIs which drive the results they produce in their jobs.

  • Informal learning aspect 1: Operational setting

The event should create a way for the participants to lose themselves in a realistic but predesigned 'operational experience'. This is best achieved through a business game which could be computer-based or paper-based. This could range from a comprehensive computer simulation down to a totally paper-based experience where a different business scenario is presented to the participants in each round for them to react to. The important point is that it cannot be a straight-off-the-shelf thing as it must reflect their business environment so that they lose themselves in it and lose the idea that 'This is just a game'.

  • Informal learning aspect 2: Research and think-thru

The event should start by giving the participants specific goals and targets which they need to achieve and then give them time to do some research using prepared materials to help them define their game plans and their strategies for achieving their operational targets. This exercise enables them to surface their existing 'mental models' and creates the ideal environment for experiential learning.

An informal learning event gets off to the best possible start if these challenges to the teams and participants are articulated to them by a senior business person in their organisation and not by an external consultant or facilitator. The ideal scenario is if this senior business person returns later in the day to judge the performance of the different teams in terms of both their operational results and the new learning insights they have gained from the event.

  • Informal learning aspect 3: Conversational opportunities

It is critical that the event creates opportunities for the informal learning conversations to occur. The best way to do this is to have the participants work in teams collaborating with each other and competing with the other teams to reinforce the sense of operational realism I mentioned in an earlier point.

A well-designed event will create lots of conversational opportunities however some will be valuable ('How would we handle this in the real job') and some will be trivial ('That scenario would never happen in our business'). To make sure the teams are using the conversations for informal learning each team needs a coach or facilitator who will amplify the good conversations and shut down the trivial ones.

The facilitator also needs to make sure everybody is participating (including the quiet thoughtful ones), that the teams are doing evidence-based decision-making (not just running by gut feel) and they are using all the resources and help in the room to learn what they need to learn.

Informal learning is a growing discipline based on self-directed learning using operational simulation, research/strategy and conversations. It appears to be both effective and engaging for participants as it lends itself to team-based exercises and competitive business games. The personal nature of informal learning makes it challenging to scale, however with careful planning, the right tools and thoughtful facilitation it can be formalised to extend its power beyond individuals to whole business communities of practitioners without losing its secret sauce.

Ken Thompson is managing director of Dashboard Simulations designing Informal Learning events for major enterprises and organisations. Ken has also written two popular books on High-Performing Teams and Networked Enterprises

About Ken Thompson

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