As humans, we learn a lot in informal ways. In fact, it is a significant way we learned as children. Let’s explore how to leverage informal learning in today’s remote work environment to drive creativity, innovation and engagement.

What Is Informal Learning?

There’s been a lot of discussion about informal learning over the years — what it is, what it isn’t and its place in corporate training. As corporate training departments are scrambling to deal with the implications of a remote workplace, this discussion is again popular.

What’s the difference between formal and informal learning?

Formal learning is usually mandated by an organization or by regulations. It takes place in structured eLearning courses, face-to-face or virtual classrooms, or as a blend of modalities. Informal learning, in contrast, happens organically, an extension of the way we have learned since childhood. It is self-directed, self-motivated and usually in situ, as a form of performance support.

Why Should Leaders and Learning and Development Teams Care About Informal Learning?

Informal learning provides significant benefits and value for individuals, teams and organizations:

    • Informal learning drives collaboration, as employees organically seek and create bonds within and outside of their teams, breaking down silos.
    • Innovation occurs within the intersection of creativity and collaboration, which are stimulated by informal learning.
    • Informal learning is driven by learners and is focused on exactly what they want, exactly when they need it.
    • Adults tend to find more fulfillment and intrinsic rewards through informal learning.
    • Informal learning tends to stick better than formal learning. Learners create mental constructs within which they store their new information in their long-term memory.
    • Informal learning typically doesn’t require formal learning and development (L&D) team direction, design or development.
    • Organizations with a strong culture of learning benefit from greater creativity.

What Are the Challenges of Promoting Informal Learning in a Remote Workplace?

There are some challenges to encouraging informal learning in a remote workplace. Firstly, it’s difficult to measure its impact. Additionally, remote work exacerbates information silos and scatters tacit organizational knowledge, increasing the risk that distributed team members aren’t equipped to proactively share knowledge with each other. Finally, some workers, especially employees who are used to traditional face-to-face communication, are more hesitant to reach out to a co-worker online.

It’s important that L&D leaders acknowledge and face those challenges head-on.

How Can You Drive Informal Learning in a Remote Workplace?

Here are nine ways your L&D department can encourage informal learning in your organization:

1. Create a Culture of Learning

Management consultant Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Create a culture of learning that’s built on the foundation of autonomy, purpose and mastery (three pillars identified by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”). Employees who find these three things at work will proactively seek informal learning opportunities.

    • Most people are driven toward mastery of their profession.
    • Truly engaged employees find purpose in the work they do.
    • Many workers have a newly discovered sense of autonomy now that they work from home.

2. Enable Social Learning

Create a digital social learning space where employees can ask questions, give feedback, and curate content and ideas. Encourage leaders to model constructive behavior by participating and encouraging others, and reward learners when they display similar behavior and participation. Schedule focused chat and idea exchanges, leveraging tools such as hashtags. Finally, don’t forget to establish rules so employees refrain from common social media behavior like contentious arguments or banal conversations.

3. Create Forums

Provide semi-structured forums where co-workers can virtually mingle with each other.

4. Offer Pretraining Content

Create pre-course preparation materials like interactive PDFs that summarize the foundational information required for formal courses.

5. Use Microlearning

Chunk content into bite-sized pieces (otherwise known as microlearning).

6. Source Digital Learning

Identify digital learning solutions, and facilitate access to tools such as online learning libraries and industry journals.

7. Facilitate Virtual Book Clubs

Encourage reading by facilitating the creation of virtual book clubs. As Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”

8. Create Mentoring and Coaching Opportunities

Coaching and mentoring are great ways to augment formal training. Support short-term coaching relationships for training participants, and identify high-potential employees and match them with mentors to help prepare them for their future roles.

9. Facilitate Interaction

Finally, facilitate small groups and one-on-one virtual interactions. Encourage employees to use live video calls, and remind learners that in a remote work environment, it’s important to forgive the dogs who in the background and the hair that’s not perfectly quaffed.

Informal learning, while sometimes difficult to measure and outside the control of the corporate L&D department, is more vital now than ever. Hopefully, this article will give you compelling information and strategies to help as you seek to unlock its potential.