Informal Learning becomes Formal

informallearningIt’s now official. After surveying our entire research membership and having more than 30 conversations with leading HR and learning leaders (including with Xerox, Accenture, British Telecom, Edward Jones, Department of Defense, and Network Appliance), I am now 100% convinced that “informal learning” has become “formal.”  That is, if you want to build a high-impact, cost-effective, modern training organization you must “formally adopt” informal learning.

So what does this all mean?  A few statistics:

  • 78% of corporate managers believe that “rapid rate of information change” is one of their top learning challenges (800+ HR and L&D managers surveyed in 2008).
  • 80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts, and managers (estimated data collected from over 1,100 L&D managers late in 2008).
  • Over 30% of all corporate training programs (ie. classroom or other formal programs) are not delivering any measurable value (data provided through the same survey).
  • Nearly all Millenial employees (under the age of 25) expect to find an on-demand learning portal (similar to Google and YouTube) within their employer’s environment.


When we asked our research members to tell us their top research needs for 2009, the top request was “how do I build a learning culture which promotes informal and manager-driven learning in our organization?”

Clearly we have reached an inflection point.   Where “e-learning” was the big craze in corporate training in the early 2000’s, and “blended learning” was the craze in 2003 and 2004, today, thanks to the slowing economy and the widespread availability of social networking and online wikis and portals, “informal learning” is the next big thing.

And best of all, an informal learning strategy saves money.  By empowering people to publish their expertise and learn from each other, you can cut spending on content development, external content, and formal training – focusing  your energies on the “upper right” training programs in your organization.

So how do you make Informal Learning Formal?

That is to say how do you make it real and valuable?  Today we see organizations going through three major steps:

1.  First, redefine your role. 

Corporate training managers are no longer only “developers and deliverers” of training, but rather the facilitators and champions.  Informal learning content is owned and delivered by everyone else in your organization, not you.  Your role is to create the systems and processes to enable it to happen, and then monitor its success.

At British Telecom, for example, the corporate learning leader created an internal “YouTube” system called “Dare2Share” – which enables line employees and managers to post any “how-to” information through podcasts or videos online.  The usage is exploding.  (Peter Butler from BT will be presenting this strategy at our research conference, IMPACT 2009®, in April).

2.  Select a technology platform. 

You do not need, nor should you expect, an LMS to solve this problem.  People need a place to “put their informal learning assets” – which may include documents, slides, podcasts, videos, spreadsheets, and everything else.  BT uses Microsoft Sharepoint.  Other companies build these systems with inexpensive wiki and social networking software. Today you can build these systems without heavy investment, and unfortunately most of the LMS vendors still do not have much to offer in this areas.  (Saba and CornerstoneOnDemand are moving quickly in this direction.) 

3.  Create Context, promote, market, and monitor success.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must now become a champion.  You must go to the line managers in your organization, show them how to share information, and start promoting the use of peer-to-peer learning.  Don’t be afraid to let people share whatever they want. 

At BT, for example, the health and safety organization has become one of the biggest proponents of their informal learning solution.  Why?  Because now they can see what people are really doing, and they can help improve health and safety procedures by fixing problems they see every day.  Rather than “control” learning and processes, we can now monitor and promote them.

NetworkAppliance allows engineers to post videos of their inventions and best-practices on an internal “You-Tube” type of application.  They then enabled rating of the videos and started to track usage.  Now the company allows employees to sort and rank the “top ranked” and “most frequently viewed” informal learning objects, and gives employee rewards to the engineers which rank the highest each quarter.  What they are doing is creating a self-reinforcing culture of knowledge sharing – the most powerful organizational learning we could every create.

We have a lot of research on this topic, including case studies, our upcoming new Enterprise Learning Framework and two major research studies on this topic.  Come to IMPACT 2009® on April 14-16, 2009 in beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida and you will see informal learning in action, learn from industry leaders, and see many of the underlying technologies in the flesh.

Yes, it has really happened….  Informal Learning is now formally here.

9 Responses

  1. Jay Cross says:

    In late September, the New York Times ran a cartoon in The Week in Review that showed two guys standing under a sign that read “Wall Street.” A tiny wave is at the far right. In the second panel, the wave has grown to massive size. In the third panel, the wave washes over the two guys. In the final panel, one of the guys, now treading water, says, “Whoa! Didn’t see that coming.”

    Last week I got an email asking if I had a copy of the cartoon, which I’d described in a blog post. Unfortunately, I do not. But I chuckled at the source of the request: the official library of the Federal Reserve Board.


  2. Purwadi Santoso says:

    I think the current schooling system, something what we are doing now is no longer relevant with this trends. The meaning of school will go back to its phylosophical glossary. Everything informal is personal and unique. And education must be done informally.

  3. Maria Pickles says:

    I am a Manager in a vocational educational and training Institute in Australia. I find this very interesting. I have been thinking lately that the challenge for us for the next few years is to move into informal learning particularly as this is the only way we can facilitate learning that is current.
    We cannot expect our teachers and systems to maintain currency, and indeed they don’t, however we can facilitate current learning content through using technology and linking with real enterprises and research from all over the world.

    I also think this is the most practical approach also to meet the rate of change we will experience over the next few years. No one knows the answers to the current economic and environmental crises. No doubt these will be discovered or poor past solutions ( like nuclear) will be put into place. I think it is very important to give our youth an opportunity we did not have before of exposing some solutions using technology, solutions that would previously been covered up for a range of political and economic reasons.

  4. William J. Ryan says:

    We are creating links to organized and existing training modules (small chunks) from procedure documents – informal training can leverage existing work easily and quickly which is good for all!

  5. Lisa Maurer says:

    I am just beginning my foray into informal learning. I am an instructional designer who utilizes Department of Defense documentation to systematically design training. One key step is media selection. I am trying to get my head around how the media selection process might point to certain topics that would best be facilitated through informal or social learning. Typically the media selection process would point to ILT, or CBT or training devices, etc. How does informal learning fit into all of this, because the media that make podcasting, wikis, etc. are really what is facilitating the human conversation. Any thoughts?

  6. Phil LeNir says:

    Thank you for this article. My company offers management & leadership development to the enterprise using an approach that lies between informal learning and more formally structure training. Explaining whey this approach is effective compared to other options can be an uphill battle! Please keep researching and writing about this topic!

  7. nuphero says:

    I can’t believe that. This is actually one of the best article about learning I’ve read. The concept “informal learning becomes formal” is definitely true. But it has too few comments. Thanks you very much for useful information.

  8. Mary L. Salisbury says:

    Great information. Please direct me to your 2008 study indicating “80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts, and managers (estimated data collected from over 1,100 L&D managers late in 2008)” I would like to read the study.

    Thank you

    M.L.Salisbury RN

  9. Steve says:

    Yikes. I worry about organizations that displace all of their traditionally formal S&K solutions and shoulder the performer with the responsibility of acquisition. This sounds like a recipe for disaster. I also worry about a displacing shift within any organization from traditional sources to a completely formalized ‘assistive coach / cultivator available’ model without some contextual evaluation of the shift.

    Industry has a history of adopting trends. People listen to these trends without really evaluating how well they will apply in their circumstances, particularly if $$$ savings is the driver. We see the results of a still immature eLearning industry that continues to tout the eRevolution as the best thing out there. Many, perhaps most, still aren’t doing it right and they have vendors to support this misaligned level of implementation.

    Maybe there should be some additional steps for those organizations making the leap:

    1. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Technology and faith won’t fix all of your problems. Realize this up front and do what’s best for your circumstances.

    2. Redefine a few roles on a small scale in opportune places. You want to build a culture that propagates the right attitudes. Shutting down the old and trying to force in the new isn’t going to make a lasting change. Simply redefining someones role doesn’t make them valuable in the new role. Significant growth may be required for the role change, it might mean… training.

    3. Be wary of technology solutions. Don’t force a new burden onto your users. Challenge vendors to back up their claims. Do your research and start small. Don’t buy into the flavor of the month – think for yourself.

    4. Evaluate. Evaluate early. Identify the data you want / need to collect from your control groups and pay attention to the results. If the results say that the change causes or projects a performance degradation, change it. Expect to see these things and challenge yourself to be ready to say ‘this might not work as planned, is everyone prepared to commit to whatever is right – whatever that looks like?’