Informal learning

5 min reading time

What is Informal Learning?

When you think of the concept of learning, what do you imagine? Courses, instructors, exams, assignments? These are all substantial aspects of learning, but in truth, learning isn’t always so by the numbers. Informal learning is a type of learning that happens every day, whether we realize it or not. Organic, unstructured, and learner-driven, informal learning theory is thought to be how we, as humans, learn around 90% of the time.

In recent years organizations have started to become more aware of the value of educating their employees, developing formal learning courses within their organization. But, smart businesses are now beginning to see the value of nurturing informal training too. Here’s our guide to what informal learning is, the positive effects it has on employee training, and how you can foster an informal learning environment in your workplace.

What is informal learning?

Informal learning is the name given to learning that’s unstructured and takes place away from traditional, formal learning settings, like a classroom. It has no clear goals or set objectives as it’s often unplanned and self-directed by the learner.

What does informal training look like?

There are a few hallmarks of informal training that differentiate it from more formal learning styles. The major one being that it is not a planned way of learning. It generally happens naturally and inadvertently with the learner stumbling into a learning situation.

If we think about it, it’s how we learn most of the time. For example, you’re reading a book and a word pops up that you don’t understand. If you Google it and discover its meaning, you’ve learned something, but it was unplanned. Or you’re playing a game with a friend and they give you advice on how to become a better player. Again, you’ve learned something even though it was unintentional.

There was no specific program to follow. No tests or subjects assigned. It happened spontaneously or asynchronously, and even though the learner may not have been aware of it, it’s learning nonetheless.

What is informal learning in the workplace?

Right now, it’s great to see that more businesses than ever are investing in training and development materials and software within their organizations. However, most of the training being encouraged is formal. While that’s awesome, it’s also key to promote and support informal training to your employees as there are plenty of advantages.

Benefits of informal learning in the workplace

1. It’s learner driven and self-directed

According to adult learning theory, adults thrive when learning is self-directed and under their control. Informal learning gives them control. They pick what to learn and when so, they’ll have a higher chance of engaging with the content as it’s more applicable and interesting to them.

2. It’s a relaxed experience for employees

Formal training types, although necessary, aren’t always easy going for the learner. With exams, assignments, due dates, and mandatory courses to take, it can become stressful for employees. As informal training is a more laissez-faire process, it’s less likely to become a point of tension or a burdensome exercise for the learner.

3. It expands your employees’ reference and knowledge points

Providing necessary knowledge to employees through formal training is great. But when created by subject experts, it can become myopic, only focusing on very specific points. When an employee is also urged to research the subject themselves, they potentially discover new thoughts, theories, and processes that broaden their knowledge. These outside learnings can then be brought into the company, improving your business.

4. It saves your business time, money and resources

Some training needs to be formalized, but some of it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t this means your team can skip developing a learning plan, building tailor-made content, and more. Your employee just learns when they want and need to with limited effort required from you.

Informal learning examples for the workplace

So, with it having so many benefits for your organization, how do you create an informal learning strategy within your business? The good news is that it’s highly likely that it’s already happening. And, to get the full benefit, you probably just need to discover how to nurture it more. Here are 4 informal learning examples you should consider for your workplace:

1. Encourage a knowledge-share culture

For your employees to learn informally, it’s helpful that they know that they’re in an environment that not only allows but actively advocates on-the-job learning. To do this, seek opportunities that enable your employees to share the valuable information they’ve learned. Ask employees to recommend resources, then collate them all into a company newsletter to be sent once a month. Or you could suggest individual teams invest time in sharing the knowledge they believe will help their co-workers.

We, here at LearnUpon, promote knowledge sharing through Slack. In fact, we have a busy #reading channel that always has helpful resources being added by co-workers. It’s a simple step, but it gets people sharing.

2. Collate valuable resources for employees

A place to share knowledge is a beneficial first step, but offering a space for your learners to find useful information adds another level. Whether it’s in a shared Google Drive or Dropbox or in the resources stored in your LMS, you should collate worthwhile materials for your employees.

Then when they want to research information, they can log in and self-select a resource to read in their own time that will help them learn more about a specific subject.

3. Offer social learning

A major aspect of informal learning is social. We gain a good deal of our knowledge from observing and interacting with the people around us. Within the work environment, there are lots of ways you can develop this. For one, there are good old face-to-face chats at desks or over lunch breaks.

Alternatively, there is a forum, a work-centered place where your employees come together, chat, ask questions, and learn. Again, with an LMS, having a forum is an easy feature to implement. Your learners can chat away to each other about specific subjects and share information. You, as an instructor or admin, can also add to the conversation and steer learning in the desired direction, while still keeping it loose and informal.

4. Allocate time to learn

A place to share, resources to read, and discussion to be had, now all your employees need is time to learn informally. Again, this comes down to encouraging them. Communicate with your employees and let them know that if they have an area of interest they’re free to research it. If they’re learning valuable information about their role and how to perform better, then it’s time well spent.

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