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Friday, 05 September 2014 22:11

Informal Learning in the Workplace

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Informal Learning in the Workplace

Today, organizations are realizing that staying competitive requires continuous improvement. However, organizations want to accomplish this while avoiding spending a lot of time keeping their employees’ skills up-to-date. In these circumstances, informal learning can be a viable strategy to organizations in pursuit of continuous learning.

A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the late 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, "Time-to-Learning", Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) showed that formal learning provides only about 25% of learning, whereas the other 75% is absorbed through informal learning. Organizations typically spend a significant amount of their training dollars to provide formal training. Not that this is a misguided effort and is imperative for their workers to learn new skills and provide corporate competitiveness.

More and more organizations today are building mentoring and other informal training into their strategy. Informal learning can be as simple as a hallway conversation or “water cooler” discussions. As communication technology becomes more prevalent and the means to share knowledge through blogs (like this one), chat rooms, messaging services it is advantageous for organizations to harness these tools for knowledge sharing to target informal learning capabilities.

The OECD, originated in 1948 to administer the Marshall Plan and is now committed to seek answers to common problems, identify good practices, and co-ordinate domestic and international policies, believes that lifelong learning includes a combination of formal, non-formal and informal learning. Informal learning may the most critical to improving both cognitive and social development throughout a person’s lifespan.

It would follow that organizations should find out where informal learning takes place and then how invest in it to continue its growth and maturation. Such initiatives are typically rooted in the concepts of mentoring and teaming, or "communities of practice." In this approach, management sets the goals, but employees help decide the team's methods.

Setting up such team efforts can be a straightforward process. Employees can be grouped into small teams and encouraged to break from their routines for team discussions. Sometimes these meetings consist merely of social chatter, but often work finds its way into the discussion because it is something all the members have in common. These discussions extend beyond “on the job training” and allows a forum for sharing similar experiences.

Informal learning is often determined and directed by learners themselves as an active and relevant learning process. Learning is often better attained and retained through informal learning than through formal learning, which can be less relevant.

Karen Watkins and Victoria Marsick define informal learning as:

  • Learning from experience that takes place outside formally structured, institutionally sponsored, classroom-based activities.

  • Involving some degree of conscious awareness that learning is taking place.

  • Including elements of action and reflection.

  • Happening as a result of confronting non-routine situations.

Informal learning takes place as part of an effort to achieve organizational results and as a way to meet individual goals. Contextual factors include organizational culture, industry factors such as the competitiveness of the industry, and organizational factors such as incentives, promotion criteria and job security.

Organizational culture has the strongest impact on informal learning. The culture of the organization can often determine its ability to thrive in a competitive environment. The norms, beliefs, values and practices that pervade an organization determine the extent and variety of informal learning.

Cultural variables that are essential to informal learning are divided into two main categories, which together create a corporate culture.

  • Organizational practices – actions that employees perceive as representing the ideas, values and beliefs of the organization, established from top to bottom.

  • Social norms and values – the rules for acceptable behavior, values and beliefs, generated from within the organization’s employees.

Research indicates that an individual’s motivation, personality, mental capacity and perceived level of experience affect informal learning. For example, employees who are motivated to learn will learn more than those who are not motivated. Organizations that create a climate of learning and growth are more likely to internalize the value of learning.

At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit or contact us at

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