When you learn formally, you make deliberate attempts at attending, concentrating, memorizing, retaining and applying information. This learning method can be very helpful in certain situations. However, while formal learning is important, there can be distinct disadvantages as to how useful it is on the job.
The importance of informal learning is addressed in my book, “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.” Here are a few of its advantages:
Informal learning helps you utilize your brain energy effectively. Focused, formal learning may keep you on point, but it will also tax your brain and can even disengage you.
Informal learning adds intuition. When you learn formally, you stay on task. While this is helpful, it can also be myopic compared to a wandering mind that stumbles upon an insight through informal learning. For instance, learning how to analyze big data can be helpful. Yet, you still need the intuition to prioritize massive amounts of information. Informal learning can help you develop these intuitions.
Informal learning helps you to anticipate the future. Formal learning keeps you embedded in what is — not what could be. You may learn what customers want now by learning the principles of customer experience, but unless you let your mind wander informally into the future, you will not be responsive to changing times and priorities.
Informal learning helps innovative thinking. Formal learning may also limit your ability to make connections, whereas informal learning can connect you to ideas not addressed in a typical curriculum. For instance, a client of mine recently recognized that luxury motorcycle dealers were learning all that they could to understand their competition. However, they neglected to understand that luxury watch brands were also their competitors, as they offer alternatives for the luxury buyer.
Informal learning may feel more relevant. Finally, when your mind wanders with informal learning, you feel more self-connected because, in the brain, self-circuits overlap with “unfocused” circuits.
How to Formalize Informal Learning:
How do you formalize informal learning? The key is to create downtime so that people can give their brains enough time to make the connections they couldn’t during formal learning experiences. You can create this downtime in the following ways:
Naps: Ten to 15 minutes of napping, for instance, can give you one to three hours of clarity to enhance formal learning. You can even formalize napping policies and/or provide nap pods, as companies like Google and Zappos do.
Doodling: Providing employees with doodle pads to use while listening to conference calls can also create valuable downtime. A study by Jackie Andrade and her colleagues found that doodling improved memory by 29%. While this may not prove true in all cases, doodling could make the brain, metaphorically, less rigid, so it can better absorb the learning at hand.
Becoming an actor: Then, there is a technique that I call “psychological halloweenism.” It involves people learning by embodying the personality of a person who could solve a problem. One study showed that this can help you become more creative. Say, for example, you wanted to solve a problem related to marketing. You could embody the personality of a speaker or singer who draws large crowds to spark new ideas around audience engagement. You could try this out at a team innovation meeting, or even while having lunch with a friend.
Group outings: Group outings that teach collaboration through food sharing, strategy through gaming or social cohesion through group challenges can also create downtime among teams.
Overall, formalizing informal learning is crucial and can be captured through activity assessments, idea tanks, online insight sharing tools and/or feedback devices. When you formalize informal learning by building unstructured thinking into employees’ daily lives, and then document the outcomes, you take full advantage of the brain. As a result, the learning feels self-directed, relevant and engaging.