“From families sharing stories around a dinner table to a worker emailing a colleague for help with a software program, informal learning is a frequent occurrence in nearly all facets of life. Moreover, informal learning has been a primary learning method since early human beings passed on the knowledge of how to craft stone tools.” So Tony Bingham, President and CEO ASTD, introduces a 2008 survey by ASTD and i4cp, Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning. This is a really useful 72 page report which provides a fascinating insight into learning professionals thoughts on informal learning and some of the findings were shared by ASTD at their recent relaunch in the UK with the Learning Sanctuary.

Learning iceberg
Learning iceberg

The start of the executive summary makes the challenge clear in studying this area: “If learning were an iceberg, then formal training and development would only be its tip. Most learning is informal in nature and takes place beneath the waterline—invisible, and therefore much harder to understand. Informal learning, for purposes of this report, is defined as “a learning activity that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support…[taking] place without a conventional instructor and…employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth, and timing.” By its very nature, informal learning is difficult to comprehend in detail and equally hard to manage.”

Incidence of Informal Learning in Organisations
Incidence of Informal Learning in Organisations

Some of the basic findings were  75% of participants recognize the incidence of informal learning in their organisations to a moderate or higher extent. And 56% expect this to increase in the next three years.

Informal Learning Enhancement of Employee Performance
Informal Learning Enhancement of Employee Performance

Perhaps more interestingly 46% think informal learning enhances employee performance to a high extent and a further 37% to a moderate extent. The ASTD survey also found a positive correlation between improved organisational performance and higher uses of informal learning.
Almost half (49%) of the learning professionals believed that their employees want to ‘learn on demand’ and the top 4 means of doing this were:

  1. email for Knowledge sharing
  2. Reading useful information on the intranet
  3. Fingertip knowledge (e.g.  Google)
  4. Water cooler (casual unplanned encounters)

Usage of Informal Learning Tools/Processes
Usage of Informal Learning Tools/Processes

Conclusions The report concludes with a series of recommendations which we would endorse from our experience:

  • Use informal learning to reinforce formal learning. This study indicates that these strategies are complementary.
  • Make sure your culture supports such learning. This is the factor most highly correlated with the occurrence of such learning.
  • Allocate some budget specifically for informal learning, since doing this is associated with a greater use of such learning and with higher market performance.
  • Encourage and facilitate storytelling in multiple channels.
  • Use both high-tech and low-tech tools for informal learning. Provide the technology to share and capture knowledge as well as other work environment factors.
  • Support peer-to-peer coaching and voluntary informal mentoring
  • Try to avoid the proliferation of inaccurate information, which is a hazard associated with informal learning.
  • Try measuring informal learning in some way, but make sure that the act of measuring it does not impede it.
  • Consider using effective informal learning strategies in certain areas:
    • orientating new employees
    • communicating organisational values
    • showing people how to “get things done” in the organization
    • sharing best practices and lessons learned
    • teaching workers how to access specific types of information
    • developing general business skills
    • strengthening managers’ communication skills.