Can your Workplace Adopt/Embrace the Informal Learning Concept?

Many, many moons ago I wrote a post on Knowledge Management Systems that illustrated Marc Rosenberg’s KM model. This model depicts an organization that has a truly integrated system of sharing knowledge that includes formal training and an ongoing mentoring system for it’s employees. This model includes use of social media to connect employees.  Since I wrote this post, the use of social media online for both connecting and learning has exploded. Many more company executives (though not as many as there could be) are now schooled on the finer points of using social media as promotional vehicles as well as within the organization to enhance employee learning and knowledge.

Recently, On his blog, Jay Cross presented an adapted version of Jane Hart’s 5-Stage Model of the Evolution of Workplace Learning.

Here’s the visual that illustrates this.

From (Jay Cross)

As Cross points out in his post, the more familiar your workers are with online networking tools and media,  the more they can readily use social networking support to improve their learning and skills.   You need to be able to assess where your audience of learners skill lies in the following areas: Web/Tech Expertise and Social Networking Familiarity.

From (Jay Cross)

Going back to the “5 Stages” illustration shown above, the newbies or novices to the workplace, culture, organization, or system would be FIRST guided to the LMS where formal learning can take place (your essentials such as terms of service, legal information, safety, organization mission, organizational structure, job skills, compliance training, etc.). If you need to track learning in a blended model (both face to face and online), you can use the LMS to keep track of who’s completed what training as they come into your workplace or program.

In the grand old days when most training was done in face to face sessions complete with massive binders and glossy handouts, training really only took place at the beginning and employees or trainees were expected to absorb what they could from the training. If they couldn’t remember everything that was okay because they had their gigantic binders as a print reference.  This system works when the nature of the work can be completely documented in print and is static. In other words, nothing changes about the nature of the job and there are NO variables.

Some workplaces assign ‘buddies’ or coaches to new employees. It’s often part of the work coach’s job to model or teach these learning behaviors to their employees. At one entry-level job I had many years ago, I remember my work coach or mentor telling me something as basic and obvious, as “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” In sharing this with me she was essentially letting me know, “It’s safe to ask questions here. We’d rather you do things right or learn by asking, and we won’t punish you for what you don’t know.”

Can you imagine what would happen if this guy afraid to ask questions about his job?

A truly rich “Informal Learning” environment can provide learners with the support they need to deal with variables NOT covered in formal training. And here’s the big “But,” you have to teach effective mentoring behaviors to all staff and reinforce these behaviors as much as possible. The informal learning model explicitly sets the expectation that learning and workplace improvement inherently part of the work culture. Employees must see it as part of their job responsibility to take  the new guy under their wing. The sooner you get the newbie up and flying the sooner everyone can be productive and creative. Managers and employees can build checklists of knowledge, skills and ‘tribal knowledge’ that new employees need to know. These lists and even ad hoc information can be shared during social or work activity.

But Informal Learning isn’t just what you’d learn about your fellow employees from washroom or smoking break talk. Informal Learning can happen via chat and discussion forums. The other day a work colleague and myself noted that we both got ourselves unstuck from work-related ‘problems’ by looking up similar situations or issues in professional forums online. It’s just as easy to set up an internal online work chat or forum.

I’ve seen some older employees cringe at the words “Informal Learning.” Many of the more ‘traditional’ workplaces place a lot of value on formal learning (lectures, lessons, face to face training, etc.)  because that’s the people, are used to.  I think  the key to building a truly learning rich environment and workplace is to highlight where social learning is really happening naturally and successfully and then introduce less familiar methods of leveraging informal learning. But again, if your company or organization doesn’t have a clear definition of what it means to learn effectively (outside of formal training) the concept of Informal Learning will be a hard sell. Maybe it’s just a matter of re-branding it or camouflaging it.  As for the acceptance of learning via social media… Maybe we just have to wait until the technologies that propel Informal and Social Learning (forums, chat, wikis, etc.) become more commonplace and accepted by the majority.  It will happen, eventually 🙂

3 Responses to “Can your Workplace Adopt/Embrace the Informal Learning Concept?”

  1. 1 Jay Cross May 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    I agree with you except for one point:

    “highlight where social learning is really happening naturally and successfully and then introduce less familiar methods of leveraging informal learning”

    This was what we all thought several years ago. Now companies like Cisco have shown that it’s possible to seed new communities where no social learning was happening before. Hence, you can both support what’s happening naturally AND create new opportunities for learning.

    Thanks for the attribution in your post.


  2. 2 nkilkenny June 1, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Hello, Jay,

    You are absolutely right. Many workplaces in the corporate and business world are embracing (and wisely) the concepts of informal learning as well as seeing the intrinsic value of online social networking as platform for learning on the job. Ironically, in the field of education, and especially where I work, we’re a little behind in accepting and embracing these concepts. The door is slightly ajar, I think, but we need to put our foot in it and pry it open even more 🙂

  3. 3 jltitus June 19, 2010 at 11:58 pm


    What a great post. I like the approach you suggest to get on the “informal train”. I do have to say that where I work, a large healthcare company, I have approached the transition to a more informal method in two ways.

    My group develops training for other teams within our organization. As an example, we developed formal project management training and track completion of that training in our LMS. Once learners have completed that training they are directed to our online user group where we have project management templates and tools. Learners can go to the user group to post questions, get answers, find tools, and templates. Basically, it’s a place to bring people from all over the U.S. together to share and discuss project management.

    We’ve also implemented a less formal method to bring people together and share knowledge informally. We have a large group of web-based training developers. It is difficult for them to connect, share, and learn from each other. I developed an online user group for them, provided WebEx delivered training on what the group was and how to use it. I have to say we’ve had it for just over a year and seen a phenomenal growth in the group. In addition, we have seen the development of informal experts in the group.

    I would suggest approaching the implementation of informal learning in a formal and informal way. I will say though that one of the biggest issues I see is helping those that are less technologically savvy understand and appreciate the value of informal learning and how they can be part of the solution by sharing what they know. It’s a culture shift for many.

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