What is Informal Learning?

A popular topic that has been thrown around the adult education community is the concept of informal learning.  Informal learning is the learning that takes place independently from a structured learning environment.  If you are an organization who has decided to embrace informal learning as part of your training program, there are some things to remember.

First of all you cannot force informal learning to occur.  You can however, foster an environment where informal learning is likely to occur.  One of the earliest examples of informal learning in all our lives is the playground.  As children, many of the new skills we learn come from this environment.  We learn much of our early social skills from this environment.  Children watch other children at play.  Once they understand the parameters of the activity they will join in.  If newcomers break any of the rules the larger group will correct their behavior.  The only formal aspect of the play ground was a school or community building it in the first place.  What games children played, and the skills and knowledge learned, is up to the children themselves.  It's important to note that each child may get something entirely different from their experience as well.

So how do we duplicate this model in the workplace?  Create a workspace that is conducive to collaboration and discussion.  In an office building where I recently worked, they had space throughout each floor dedicated to where several employees could sit and relax with a coffee (a Starbucks and another restaurant were located on the main floor).  Employees were given a comfortable environment in which to discuss their work and learn from each other.  In addition, the desk space was organized into open concept group pods rather than isolated cubicles.  If you wanted to have a group conversation or share ideas, one had to only swivel their chair around to be facing a half dozen of their colleagues.

Rather than being limited to just email, employees in this office have Office Communicator, Microsoft's corporate version of Messenger.  It has all the functionality of the consumer version but in this case restricted to communication within the company.  Employees were able to download versions of the software which would run on their company provided BlackBerry's and other smart-phones.  Communication with one another could occur anywhere and any time.  Introducing a social networking type tool provides the environment in which learning can occur through the sharing of ideas and resources.

Rather than blocking certain social sites from office workers, give them access to tools that will allow them to share ideas with one another.  Concern for questionable web practice usually disappears when employees can all see each others screens.  Like the playground, employees will generally correct any inappropriate behavior amongst each other.  Also giving employees a shared work space online can create a collaborative environment where each can teach what they are knowledgeable about, while simultaneously learn from one another.  Tools like Sharepoint do this very well.

It's important to only provide the framework.  Too much intervention on the part of the organization and then you have lost the real value of informal learning.  The beauty of this model is that it will seem like leisure and playtime, rather than contributing to the skills and knowledge of your employees.  They will enjoy it and it will foster a positive attitude toward their work and learning environment.

For more information about informal learning, check out this informal video with Jay Cross on YouTube: