Information is everywhere you look, whether a friend shared a great way to remove a wine stain from carpet or you read an article on your company website on how to increase productivity while working from home. Learning happens through many teachable moments that are, in essence, informal learning. Informal learning is attractive to learning professionals and organizations because of the benefits it provides to both the learner and the organization:
Benefits of Informal Learning for Learners
Informal learning is …
- Learner-focused: It is customizable to meet individual needs — a place where formal learning often fails.
- Low-stress: With no tests or pressure to perform, informal learning focuses on the learning journey, not the results.
- Social: Informal learning promotes social interaction, belonging and collaboration.
- Easily accessible: With fewer time and budget constraints, all learners can participate in informal learning.
Benefits of Informal Learning for Organizations
Informal learning …
- Builds a learning culture by creating an opportunity for all employees to participate in career development.
- Improves motivation by empowering employees and making them feel supported, respected and engaged.
- Fosters collaboration by promoting cross-functional learning among teams that may operate in solos.
- Enhances performance by helping to overcome learning gaps and improve outcomes.
7 Strategies to Foster Informal Learning
Here are some strategies for achieving those benefits for your organization and your learners:
1. Foster Communication and Transparency
While working remotely, maintaining consistent and effective communication is critical. Managers should prioritize using regular check-ins with phone, email, digital communication platforms or even a handwritten note to understand their employees’ needs. C-suite leaders can share information informally through a digital “open door” policy and by hosting office hours where employees can schedule an informal chat or express concerns.
During times of high stress, encourage managers to learn, formally or informally, about empathy, conflict management and change management. There are a variety of reasonably priced options on the market that you can use to equip managers for improved team communication.
2. Create a Sense of Belonging
A sense of belonging is a fundamental need we all have as human beings, and it is important for leaders who are responsible for creating high-performing teams to understand its importance in meeting business outcomes. Building diverse teams, including when it comes to race, culture, identity and educational levels, is essential for creating a sense of community across your organization.
There are several ways informal learning can contribute to the goal of creating a sense of belonging, including forums for sharing information digitally. By creating spaces and opportunities for interaction through employee resource groups (ERGs), virtual social events and book clubs, you can help ensure that all team members show up with their full selves and make authentic contributions. Give employees a spotlight to share their talents, and embrace a storytelling culture in which employees teach others and connect through experiences.
3. Support Mental Health
The pressure to perform at work and home can be overwhelming. You can help employees stay informed through newsletters, lunches, initiatives and challenges for employee participation. Encourage employees to prioritize their health by highlighting virtual benefits, including telehealth, 24-hour mental health counseling hotlines and other online resources. Informal learning can also strengthen employees’ awareness of their own mental health and help them build empathy.
4. Encourage Collaborative Brainstorming
Sparking ideas by sharing information for discussion or planning doesn’t need to be expensive; use whatever you have to share information and encourage collaboration. There are many digital tools available for both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration. For example, brainstorming in shared documents can later provide a valuable crowdsourced resource.
Consider: If budget, materials and time were not constraints, how would you bring synergistic ideas to your organizations?
5. Encourage Coaching and Mentoring
Coaching and mentoring are important for professional growth and development. When an employee is new to a role, it helps him or her build a sense of belonging and confidence to have someone to connect with and ask questions about process, unwritten rules of the workplace and other expectations. Interactions with coaches and mentors provide invaluable informal learning opportunities that impact confidence, motivation and performance. Digital tools can help make mentoring a quick and efficient way to give employees feedback along their journey.
6. Support Performance
Providing information at the moment of need is why YouTube is so successful and why a lot of performance support — a type of informal learning — is now digital. It can be anything from an online repository of job aids for discrete tasks to a chatbot that can walk employees through the process of finding the answer to a question … even if they don’t know what they are asking yet! The key to successful performance support is creating short, easily digestible content and putting it somewhere that is easy to find.
7. Enable Praise and Recognition
Providing instant positive feedback reinforces high performance. If your company doesn’t already have a system in place to support employee recognition, a simple Slack or Teams channel dedicated to praise works well and is quick and easy to set up. Open it up for team members to give kudos in addition to managers.
Recognition helps build a culture of support and appreciation and places value on the team’s work, not just the outcome. Encourage leaders and team members to thank each other for helping in a pinch, going above or beyond, being part of a successful project, and making an effort. By focusing on the journey and personal growth in addition to the outcome, you can ensure that team members learn what the organization recognizes as success and applies that definition to their daily performance.
What Does Informal Learning Need in Order to Be Successful?
A Shared Problem to Solve
Just like anything we do as learning professionals, there must be a need, a problem or a gap to address.
Trust is key for informal learning. To avoid breaking trust, it’s important to have a clear purpose and rules for engagement to give the audience an idea of what is expected and frowned upon.
A Sharing Culture and Management Support
Nothing kills sharing and creativity more than an environment that is negative or competitive. It is also important to have management support that values and rewards a sharing culture.
Ideation and growth are enhanced by diverse perspectives.
Informal learning is a simple way to strengthen organizational effectiveness. From peer learning and leadership updates to onboarding and exit interviews, there is always a learning moment to seize. By embedding informal learning into your culture, you can help real-time information and knowledge sharing happen more quickly, enabling resilience and continuity across the organization.
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic “Creating a Social Learning Culture in the Modern Workplace,” which shares insights from learning leaders like these authors.