Informal and formal learning

Informal and formal learning

Neuroscience asserts that ‘human beings are lifelong learners’. We start learning when we are born and stop learning when we die. We acquire skills and competencies both formally and informally over our lifetime. Interestingly institutions and organizations spend more time and money on formal learning as a tool for development while adult learners widely report they prefer learning informally. Is there an opportunity here? Can we do more to support informal learning?  

Informal learning is what happens when the learner takes responsibility for meeting their own learning needs. It is a natural process that is social and collaborative in nature. Informal learning occurs anytime a learner gets help or uses accessible resources to meet a learning need. Generally the learning occurs at the point of need and in a just in time manner. Studies show that of successful learning in the workplace, some 70% (Kim, Collins, Hagedorn, Williamson, & Chapman, 2004) was learned informally.

Formal learning is delivered by educators according to a curriculum and provided by an organization or institution. Design and content is set and repeated for batches of learners according to a learner to instructor ratio. Courses run at a time that is convenient to the organization and instructor. Formal learning solutions are efficient at meeting the learning needs of large groups of people in a consistent and easily scalable manner.

Both formal and informal learning are useful.

Consider that for us as adult learners, our work becomes our curriculum. Events like getting promoted, taking on a new job, responding to a unique challenge or a difficult negotiation really define what we need to learn. We will always be somewhere on that journey of unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. We experience moments when we reach the limits of our competence and capabilities with some intensity. We step onto our performance edge, the limits of what we can and can’t yet do, intrinsically motivated to try and to succeed. In those moments we reach out to those we trust - the people in our network, mentors, bosses, friends and colleagues. We do what it takes to get what we need. Meeting our needs informally is efficient and quite often at no, or low cost. The process encourages us to be resourceful and active in our development.

The possibilities for leveraging informal learning in organizations and institutions are intriguing.

Good solutions will require some thought. To take something autocatalytic and informal and turn it into a program can undermine the autonomy of the learner. The pace of work has also diminished the opportunities for informal learning. People may want to help each other but not have the time. It is clear that innovative, loosely structured and highly flexible enabling solutions are required.

Informal learning in this digital age, needs freedom from structure and access to drivers of behaviour such as:

  • People’s innate curiosity and ambition
  • Change
  • Increasing specialisation and affiliation to communities of practice
  • Enabling technology
  • Social networks, relationships, trusted advisors and sources
  • The systemic nature of work and need for enterprise wide action
  • A performance culture

Learning needs to be understood as work. As professionals we need to be invested in our development. We need to tune in to our own interests and curiosity. We need to be self-aware and recognise when we are approaching a learning edge. We need to find and pull to us the things we need to learn.

This also has implications for how we think about productivity. Organizations can’t expect employees to be 100% utilized. Employees need access to the internet, social networks and communities of practice. Managers need to look for and recruit  switched on people who are interested to learn and improve. Jobs must be designed to be interesting and engaging for employees.

The nature of progress is that we are always pushing into the unknown. We will always need to learn to succeed and we should make use of all paths to learning.

Andre’ Kotze’ is a Consultant at Impact Americas.