Blog: difference between formal and informal learning

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Formal vs Informal Learning: What’s the Difference?

Every learning and development team has one ultimate goal. They want to ensure every member of the organization is given every opportunity available to train. But for a modern, growing business, what’s the best way to do this?  Formal and informal learning are two opposing learning styles. One is pragmatic and organized. The other, casual and unstructured. We’ve written about the merits and methods of both in the past, but today, we’re doing an ultimate comparison. So, let’s dive in, scrutinize each, and figure out which learning practice will work best for your organization.

Formal vs informal learning

Formal learning is learning that is delivered “in a systematic intentional way”. It’s planned and guided by an instructor and it usually occurs in a face-to-face setting or through an online learning platform, like an LMS.  In a work environment, think of formal training in the context of compliance training or new hire onboarding. These are training types that need structure, have deadlines, and there’s a definitive goal.  Informal learning is on the other end of the spectrum. It’s unstructured, often unintended, and it occurs outside of a conventional learning setting. Importantly, it’s self-directed, asynchronous, and has no real objectives, rather it just happens naturally.  Within your business, it can happen whenever and wherever. For example, you could be chatting with a co-worker and she mentions that she found a more efficient way to automate a manual process that you can use too. Although it wasn’t deliberate, you’ve still learned something. formal and informal learning infographic

Formal and informal learning methods

When we compare formal and informal learning, both have very different methods of delivery. Here are the most common ways each one is used in the workplace:

Formal learning methods

1. Face-to-face

A more traditional delivery method, but still ubiquitous, formal learning takes place face-to-face or in a classroom-like setting. Popular as it adds a level of immediate interactivity, face-to-face training like seminars, coaching, and on-the-job training, does have its drawbacks though. It’s expensive and time-consuming to run, and your learners often have to miss full days of work to do the training.

2. Online training

Done with the help of a learning management system, online training delivery has become the new norm for businesses looking to deliver a formalized learning strategy. The big draw is that it’s quick and easy. Learners just have to log in to the LMS and take their training whenever they need to. There’s no missing work, no travel. There are also options with online training as you can offer a blended learning model with ILT’s and webinars and use social learning through forums.  The holy grail functionality of an LMS is that it makes training easily measurable. Say, for example, your business is delivering compliance training, that’s learning that needs to be formal. With an LMS, you can track and record every step of the training to ensure your organization is compliant.

Informal learning methods

As informal learning is organic and unplanned, it’s more difficult to identify tangible ways it is used within your organization. However, it’s important to note that informal learning is already happening in your business. You just might not be aware of it. Every time an employee decides to Google ways to improve a process or every time there’s a conversation between co-workers about a task, learning is happening.  Having said that, there are some ways to nurture informal learning within your organization. Firstly, developing a well of resources for your employees to dip in and out of when needed encourages casual learning. Then, there’s social learning, be it face-to-face chats, through a messaging app like Slack, or a forum in your LMS, stimulating ways for your employees to communicate increases their chances of learning.

When to use formal and informal learning methods?

When it comes to learning strategies within a business, it’s essential to understand one thing about formal and informal learning – they’re not mutually exclusive. Each has its own benefits and has a role within your organization. It’s just a case of knowing which method is appropriate to use.  There are a few rules to follow when deciding which one is suitable. Most critically, it should be based on one question: Does the training need to be measurable?

For the likes of compliance training, onboarding, job skills training, soft skills training, and product training, the answer is yes. These are all courses that impact the success of your business and knowing that your employees are getting the information they need to perform effectively in their role is an essential metric to be tracked.  Informal learning typically comes into practice when the material is “nice to know”, but not necessarily essential. What’s more important here is nurturing the conversations and encouraging independent learning so that your employees feel that they can gain knowledge in a self-directed way.  It’s up to you to decide what learning processes fit best in your organization.

But, remember: the most successful organizations make learning a priority, regardless of the form it takes. So, as long as your employees feel supported in learning, no matter the method, it’s a step in the right direction.

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