Change is roaring across the learning industry like a tornado through the heartland. Digital natives and advanced technologies are fueling a new learning landscape, leaving many of us wondering what is necessary and what is nice to have.

One major change is a shift from formal to informal learning. Mobile devices, learning record stores, communities of practice, LinkedIn, instant messaging, YouTube and other tools facilitate on-the-job learning. Learners embrace these digital tools because they are impatient, mobile and networked, meaning they are not likely to wait two months – or even two weeks – to enroll in an instructor-led course to learn a new skill, according to a 2016 CEB report.

Consultant Jay Cross describes informal learning as “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs.” This description contrasts sharply with formal learning, which is sanctioned by a supervisor, provided by a learning professional (hopefully) and well-planned. Formal learning is like taking a bus across town. Informal learning is like riding a bike on a self-directed journey.

As we look to history for lessons, e-learning is a suitable place to start. The term was coined in 1999, and by 2004, it accounted for nearly 40 percent of all delivery hours, according to ATD’s 2006 “State of the Industry” report. Senior learning leaders saw e-learning as a gift – a way to deliver more training in a more scalable, less costly way. In “An Informal History of eLearning,” Jay Cross describes the early days this way:

“Come November 1999, Elliott Masie was relating ‘best practices’ of online learning at his TechLearn Conference at Disney World. TechLearn 1999 felt like Woodstock. We kept our clothes on, but everyone was entranced. We were in on the ‘secret knowledge’. … There was no limit to what we could do. Training would finally garner respect. That’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. No longer the flea on the wagging tail of the corporate dog. We’re going to change the world, man.”

But the reality didn’t match the hype. E-learning suffered the same fate as most bandwagons. It started with grand promises, excitement and the opportunity to change the world, but it quickly started developing a bad reputation. A 2002 research study by Masie and ATD found that barely two-thirds of employees offered voluntary e-learning never bothered to register. One-third did not register for compulsory e-learning. Many of those who did register dropped out early on. E-learning left a bad taste in their mouths. It was boring. Not surprisingly, the demise of classroom learning did not happen. In fact, as recently as 2016, ATD reported that instructor-led classroom training still accounts for over 50 percent of all training delivered.

In 2002, the term “blended learning” started to emerge. Practitioners realized that e=learning was not a one-to-one replacement for formal learning but an alternative channel that, when used in the right way for the right audience, could enhance the overall learning experience.

Today, informal learning does not stand alone. Because of its complexity in terms of content, delivery, timing and audience, it can best be described as a learning ecosystem. Organizations that use an ecosystem approach will be better positioned to deliver quality content and an effortless experience.

Within that ecosystem, however, six pitfalls often prevent successful execution of an informal learning strategy:

  1. No strategy: When asked, “How does this capability align with your informal learning strategy?”, learning leaders often answer with awkward silence. They are experimenting with new tools and technologies without a strategy for governing what works and what does not. It’s important to think beyond a specific method or tool (e.g., a community of practice or gamification) to develop an overarching strategy for informal learning. This strategy should articulate how informal learning will contribute to your organization’s business goals.
  2. Too L&D-focused: L&D initiatives should focus on achieving business goals by developing learners’ capabilities. Much like they did with e-learning in the 1990s, many organizations implement informal learning to reduce their costs or shorten deployment time. But if the solutions do not build capability or enhance individual and group effectiveness, then the expenditure, however small, is misguided. At the same time, informal learning processes and practices will only succeed if they are compatible with how workers learn and develop skills. The learner will always be at the center of the ecosystem.
  3. Unclear ownership: In theory, L&D should own informal learning. In practice, however, several functions have roles to play. Leadership, IT and HR all have a voice in prioritizing needs, identifying compatible solutions and implementing them in the workplace. While L&D leaders should orchestrate the effort, they need to engage the critical stakeholders.
  4. Chasing fads: Every year or two, we hear of another new idea that will revolutionize learning. Fearing they will be left behind, learning practitioners embrace the new practice and try to find a need to match it. Often, these fads fail to meet the hype and in the process, waste time, money and other scarce resources. For example, L&D’s interest in MOOCs has declined significantly in the past few years, according to Donald H. Taylor’s 2017 “L&D Global Sentiment” survey.
  5. Not integrated: Many organizations fail to integrate informal learning into day-to-day work. If employees don’t have access knowledge at their fingertips, or the learning is not relevant to their needs, even the best content and methods will fail to produce meaningful benefits.
  6. No clear success measures: The final pitfall is when organizations fail to establish success measures for their informal learning. Without clear success measures, organizations have no guideposts for what to implement or how to support the approach for adoption and sustainable use.

When you face pressure to incorporate the next “shiny new thing,” look back to similar paradigm shifts, like the rise of e-learning. Then, consider what fits into your organization’s strategic plan. Incorporate tools and techniques in ways that serve the needs of the learner as well as the needs of the business. Keep an eye on the future and an eye on the past, and hopefully you will avoid the pitfalls that others have suffered along the way.