Over the last few years, the concept of formalizing informal learning has seen quite a debate. Some believe that we should not formalize informal learning, as it is the heart of how most people learn and consume information to do their job. I completely agree that learners get the most relevant information through informal means like social learning and on–the–job training. But, if we ignore improving informal learning activities, then we’d only be focused on formal learning, which accounts for only 10 to 20% (O-S-F Ratio) of the information that learners use to perform their job.
I’m a believer that training leaders should be involved in all aspects of the learning experience. Formalizing informal content is not about eliminating informal learning. It’s about embracing informal learning and finding ways to put more structure around how learners learn in informal environments – and from informal resources.
In our book, “What Makes a Great Training Organization,” Ken Taylor and I posed it not so much as a choice, but a necessary best practice for building a high–performing training organization. Our research found that informal content is agreeably the highest consumed form of information related to how we do a job well. But the best practice is in making informal, on–demand content as organized, curated and structured as possible to make it an efficient way of learning.
A similar concept was made very popular from research done by Dr. Anders Ericsson and outlined in his book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.” Dr. Ericsson found through years of research that individuals who performed at a very high level, the highest of their profession, achieved expertise by being very deliberate about how they practiced and learned their skill. This idea of practice is similar to the concept of informal learning in corporate training. It’s basically learning by doing.
Informal learning is essentially the practice of learning while you are doing the job, using the informal consumption of information. Informal learning becomes deliberate when the learning is organized, curated, well planned, measured and reinforced.
For those who lead a training organization, an important question to ask is, “How do we implement a strategy for formalizing informal learning?“ The best approach is to first understand all the sources of information a learner/worker utilizes while on the job, and then create a plan on how each can be more structured, curated and supported to make access, measurement and feedback more efficient.
It may involve creating a structured on-the-job training program where practice activities are embedded into the daily job routine. When a coach or mentor are utilized to help learners, it is recommended to train the coach or mentor to help them be as structured and effective at providing feedback and direction. An evaluation method should also be used to help the learner assess their own performance and when they need to improve on certain aspects of the job.
If your organization is not well versed in these practices, it is highly recommended that you engage training consultants who are experts in designing learning systems that include each of these practices. These types of solutions are not about hiring companies to deliver courses for you. It’s about having resources to help in the design of learning solutions for on-the-job routines, technologies for curated content, and the production of job aids related to tasks and on-the-job problems a worker may encounter.
From where I sit, the concept of formalizing informal learning is not one that we can ignore. The reason we exist as training leaders is to create solutions that facilitate effective and efficient performance improvement. For too long our profession has been focused on creating formal courses and operating as a mini schoolhouse or corporate university inside the company. The future of training management is about creating performance improvement systems and less about creating courses. High–performing training organizations do not leave learning to chance; they are deliberate, organized and embrace all aspects of the learning experience.