Informal learning is also known also social learning and collaborative learning (Read about it: What is Social Learning? by Rupa. As defined by Jay Cross, “Informal learning is unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu, way people learn to do their job.” How often have you heard people talk business during social gatherings? Students discuss what was taught in class outside. People share their thoughts on interesting reads during coffee breaks. People have been learning informally from each other over cups of coffee, after classes, over lunch, and so on. Informal learning has existed for several centuries (even before formal training). I think with the advent of Web 2.0, informal learning has been taken to another level all together. Given below are the seven reasons for this.
1. Ever-expanding networks
Before Web 2.0 came into existence, we interacted with people we ‘knew’ – colleagues, friends, clients, and family. Today, you can also interact with people you don’t ‘know’ but admire, people who share similar interests, experts in the field, fresh minds in the field, and so on. Using Web 2.0 tools such as Blogs, Linkden, Twitter, Ning communities, and so on, you can interact with people across the globe. The world is now a smaller place. Networks grow rapidly. You get regular updates as to what your counterpart is doing at the other side of the globe. There are no hierarchies and therefore, each person has a right to voice their opinions and is respected for it.
2. Faster, Quicker, Now
There was a time when we spent hours searching for interesting information. With Web 2.0, we have access to a huge amount of information. You don’t have to go looking for information, it comes to you. Most people today read articles and posts recommended by others. Information travels at the speed of light (I think so at least!) through different networks.
3. Personal Touch
Previously, the Internet was about news. Today, it is about people also. Social networking sites urge people to be human and make them more approachable. You network with a CEO, an expert, a famous celebrity, freshers, and so on. It encourages people to shed their egos and become humble; to give and share, to learn rather than act like they know everything.
4. Reaching Out
Due to all the factors listed above, today, a person may not think twice to say ‘I don’t know how to do this. Can someone help?’ Ask this in your social network and see the response. There are several people who will respond with links, advice, and support. You belong to a community and their community will help you when you need it.
Jay Cross mentioned that formal training accounts for just 10-20% of what people learn (I think the main reason for this is poorly designed training). Informal learning is definitely a far more powerful form of learning. Why?
5. Intrinsic Motivation
Remember how we went on and on about how eLearning screens should not be content heavy? We argued learner don’t want to read information off a screen. eLearning must be interactive was the motto (It still is btw!). But today, most of us read lengthy, informative blogs and think nothing of it. This is because learners are internally motivated to learn. I learn because I want to. And this is the most powerful aspect of informal learning.
In informal learning, learning is the learner’s responsibility. The onus is on them to learn, to catch up, and stay informed. The learner chooses what he/she has to learn to work better. People find solutions to tasks, seek advice, and look for ways to achieve their job goals. The learner willingly learns to increase his/her skill sets and knowledge.
7. Passive Learning
Even if the learner is a ‘lurker’ in various blogs, forums, and communities, he/she learns. The individual need not be an active blogger or contributor in forums. He/she will still learn a lot by just reading what others are saying.
But is informal learning sufficient? Can we do away with formal training? The answer to this is no. Formal training will not go away any time soon because of the following reasons:
- Formal training is the best way to teach new information. It will be far fetched to learn technical concepts or advanced concepts through informal learning.
- Since the motivation to learn in informal learning is internal, it depends a lot on how competitive, internally driven an individual is. Informal learning also requires the learner to understand what he/she needs to learn. Through learner research, we have known that there are several instances where the employees are content with the way they are working, but results show that this is not sufficient. Therefore, for informal learning to work in isolation, an organization must have:
- A really efficient and fool proof appraisal system, which will help employees understand their focus areas and motivate them to want to work on these areas
- A good hiring system to ensure that they hire people who are competitive, internally driven, achievers, and responsible people (so that they do not misuse Web 2.0 tools)
- Employees who will be able to distinguish between ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’ content
- An open culture that encourages people to explore, innovate, and experiment
- Confidence in employee’s discretion and self-restraint and they must encourage accountability in the organization
- Employees identify focus areas based on their internal motivations. But a line manager/supervisor may have differeing views on what these focus areas should be. For example: Trisha, a call center executive, follows up on collections and delayed payments. Tisha tries to call as many calls as she can in a day. Therefore, her goal is to be more efficient. Raj, her manager, feels that she needs to be more sensitive to customers. She must be less aggressive and their may result in speedy closure of payments.
- Informal learning may not provide all information required to carry out a new process or a new job role. For example: Priya, a business development manager, has moved from general insurance to construction domain. Priya needs to learn all about the trends in this industry, how it works, what the requirements, and so on. Formal training in this case will help Priya find find her footing.
- All organizations must be open enough to provide unrestricted Internet access and trust their employees to learn. Though organizations are slowly letting go, it will require a huge mind shift to give employees full control of their learning.
How can organizations benefit from informal learning? Organizations can encourage informal learning while investing n formal training also. Informal learning can and will:
- Reinforce learning delivered earlier through formal training
- Clarify queries and internalize information
- Build teams and employee-employee relationships through sharing, collaboration, and joint creation
- Encourage competitiveness and need to conquer a particular skill to work better
- Improve confidence levels of employees
- Facilitate knowledge management in organizations as employees gather and process information floating around into meaningful learning bytes
To do this, organizations must encourage a culture of information sharing, learning, and collaboration. Do not measure time spent on projects alone as productivity but value the quality of time spent on learning as well. Encourage them to take breaks, chat with other employees, socialize with people around the world and other organizations, and spend time on the Internet. A blend of informal learning and formal training will be a powerful combination. Organizations must invest in informal learning if they have to survive in today’s knowledge sphere. You cannot force learners to learn and informal learning may be the key to effective learning.
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