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The rise of informal learning in the workplace

Conference Board of Canada report finds trend becoming increasingly popular
The Conference Board of Canada defines informal learning as any type of learning that takes place without a formal curriculum. Shutterstock

By Brian Kreissl

In the adult education field, we often refer to three different types of education and learning: formal, non-formal and informal. Formal education is generally in an academic context and would usually be taken for credit as part of a formal academic credential.

Non-formal education, on the other hand, is generally non-credit and is somewhat less structured, generally with little or no formal assessment. Most corporate training programs would likely fall into this category.

Informal learning is even less structured and often wouldn’t be thought of as “education” in any true sense of the word. Learning that is completely self-directed or experiential, or “public pedagogy” programs such as exhibits or attractions at institutions like public libraries, museums, art galleries and science centres are generally of the informal variety. 

This also has implications in a workplace environment because a lot of learning and development occurs informally on the job as opposed to in a classroom setting.

This is in line with the 70/20/10 model developed by Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, which provides that approximately 70 per cent of workplace learning should take place on the job, while 20 per cent should come from coaching, mentoring and feedback, and only 10% from formal training and reading.

While some doubt has been cast on the universality and the specific proportions of learning activities in this model, the basic principle is probably still sound. The overall message is that more learning and development in the workplace should probably come from informal and on-the-job learning than from formal training.

This is in line with adult learning principles or andragogy, as promulgated by Malcolm Knowles. Recall that Knowles argued adults generally prefer learning that is practical and has real life applications.

Conference Board report on informal learning

A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada confirms the importance of informal learning on the job. The report, entitled Informal Learning: A Spotlight on Hidden Learning in the Canadian Workplace, found 62 per cent of learning activity in Canadian workplaces is informal, compared with only 38 per cent that is formal. This was a significant change from 2004, when the figures were 88 per cent and 12 per cent the other way around.

The Conference Board defines informal learning as any type of learning that takes place without a formal curriculum. According to the report, 78 per cent of survey respondents indicated they spend up to two hours per week on informal learning.

However, the report also found a disconnect between employers and employees, with 80 per cent of employers believing managers and supervisors are supportive of informal learning, with only 36 per cent of learners believing their leaders are supportive. In fact, 45 per cent of respondents indicated their employer provides only the “bare minimum” or “basic learning opportunities” required for them to do their jobs.

Implications for employers

This report has a number of potential implications for employers. Firstly, it shows just how much learning takes place informally on the job these days. Because of that, employers should be more supportive of informal learning. Human resources and learning and development practitioners should probably be more deliberate about the way informal learning activities are structured (although, by definition, that might make them somewhat more “formal”).

This also has implications for formal training programs, since the trend over the past 14 years tends to suggest less traditional classroom training is being delivered to employees in the workplace. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and there are other ways to deliver workplace learning – it may explain at least some of the skills gap in today’s workforce.

I also think this has implications for technology-driven learning such as e-learning, webinars, microlearning, gamification and virtual reality. The speed of business and the ever-increasing demands placed on employees dictate that learning is increasingly being customized and delivered in bite-sized chunks on a just-in-time basis.

Managers and employees these days have much less time to devote to classroom training, and technology will therefore need to step in to fill some of that void. While learning and development practitioners will need to be very deliberate in structuring this learning from pedagogical and instructional design perspectives, much of this learning will feel quite “informal” to the learners themselves.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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