What Is Informal Learning & Its Role in the Workplace

Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
April 4, 2022

Companies in the U.S. last year spent a staggering $92.3 billion on formal training opportunities in the workplace, an overall increase of 12% in 2020. Formal learning programs have the purpose of providing employees access to essential skills, trainings and tools to perform the tasks of their role, and is an important investment for most companies.Despite the massive investments in formal learning programs and curriculums, informal learning is actually how people learn best. Informal learning experiences reinforce, deepen, and expand upon formal learning opportunities, like corporate trainings programs and courses. Take the 70-20-10 model, for example, which says:

  • 70% of employees’ knowledge comes from job-related experiences (informal learning).
  • 20% of it comes from interactions with others, like co-workers and managers (informal learning).
  • 10% of it is from formal learning events.

Simply put, this model demonstrates that a majority (90%) of learning comes from experiences, not presentations or workshops. When employees take learning into their own hands, it can foster empowerment, creativity and collaboration since they can pursue their career development interests and learn directly from other team members and leaders.

What is informal learning?

One researcher defines informal learning as “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs… [It’s] is like riding a bike. The rider [learner] chooses the destination, the speed, and the route.”Some other key qualities of informal learning, highlighted by the LearnUpon Blog, include:

  • Learner-driven and self-directed
  • Doesn’t impose the same pressure or time-crunch as structured learning
  • Expands employees’ understanding of their role and the business

In other words, learners decide what they need to learn and then establish their own objectives and agenda. And it can be a powerful tool for employee engagement and development, provided employees know where to look for resources and have tools to support their informal learning experiences. However, informal learning can still be formalized through corporate mentorship and connectivity programs, which is discussed in further detail below. Companies that have robust employee learning and development programs will have a mix of formal and informal learning programs for their employees to participate in.

Benefits of informal learning

Promoting informal learning for employees makes career and leadership development a part of company culture. It encourages ongoing learning that can lead to a smarter, more engaged staff. It's personally fulfilling for employees and demonstrates to them that senior management values their growth. “Having an employee in your organization who is in complete control of what they are learning and the pace at which they learn is extremely beneficial to their skill development and overall job performance,” states The Training Associates. “With all the different ways for a learner to take advantage of informal learning nowadays, from videos or podcasts to various social media platforms, the knowledge that they control their learning pace and information accruement is motivation in and of itself.”

Drawbacks of informal learning

Informal learning isn’t appropriate for all types of learning and development programs that companies need to do. When employers need to communicate critical information about professional conduct, like sexual harassment training or implicit bias workshops, formal learning is more appropriate because it’s crucial that everyone is on the same page. Other scenarios where formal learning is better include:

One downside of informal learning is that when 10 employees learn informally, you can wind up with 10 ways of doing the same task instead of a single, standardized approach. That’s fine for some things, like making PowerPoint presentations, but there can be serious consequences if everyone on a team calculates financial data differently.

Examples of informal learning in the office

The good news: informal learning strategies are easy to implement. Many organizations may already have programs like these in place for their employees. Whether your organization is just getting started or has a few programs set up, here are some ideas.

Mentorship programs

Mentorship programs are one of the best ways to engage in informal learning opportunities at your company. The relationship between a junior and senior colleague can help build strong bridges, close knowledge gaps, and set the junior employee out on a path to success. It’s critical for building a strong, growth-centric workplace. However, not everyone has equal access to mentorship. Black women, in particular, have less access to senior leaders, so they are less likely to be mentored or sponsored. That’s why implementing a solution like Ten Thousand Coffees is key to democratizing access to mentors and opportunities.

Connectivity programs

Less formal than mentorship programs, corporate connectivity programs make introductions to coworkers with similar interests or career goals. Solutions, like our 1:1 Smart Match Introductions, automatically send emails to pairs with shared interests and goals and offer suggested topics for them to discuss. This informal transfer of information strengthens relationships and trust across departments and between junior and senior employees. It’s also a way for employees to learn about their coworker's roles, the obstacles they face and how their future goals.

Emulating leaders at your company

Shadowing, observing coworkers or managers in action, is one of the most common ways people experience informal learning at work, whether it’s in the form of an internship or a part of your organization’s first few weeks of onboarding. It’s a great hands-on way to soak in the various aspects of a role. Another valuable use of shadowing is to observe people in roles across departments. It helps break down silos and lets employees understand how to be effective team members. For example, a marketing professional might sit in on a sales call to better understand what prospective customers want.

Promote informal learning to put employees in control of their careers

When it’s done right, informal learning empowers employees. Instead of being told what’s new or innovative, they discover it on their own. This is a winning recipe for creating an engaging employee culture. If you’re interested in learning how our solutions can help promote opportunities for informal learning through mentorship, connectivity programs and networking, reach out for a demo of our product.

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What Is Informal Learning & Its Role in the Workplace

Companies in the U.S. last year spent a staggering $92.3 billion on formal training opportunities in the workplace, an overall increase of 12% in 2020. Formal learning programs have the purpose of providing employees access to essential skills, trainings and tools to perform the tasks of their role, and is an important investment for most companies.Despite the massive investments in formal learning programs and curriculums, informal learning is actually how people learn best. Informal learning experiences reinforce, deepen, and expand upon formal learning opportunities, like corporate trainings programs and courses. Take the 70-20-10 model, for example, which says:

  • 70% of employees’ knowledge comes from job-related experiences (informal learning).
  • 20% of it comes from interactions with others, like co-workers and managers (informal learning).
  • 10% of it is from formal learning events.

Simply put, this model demonstrates that a majority (90%) of learning comes from experiences, not presentations or workshops. When employees take learning into their own hands, it can foster empowerment, creativity and collaboration since they can pursue their career development interests and learn directly from other team members and leaders.

What is informal learning?

One researcher defines informal learning as “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs… [It’s] is like riding a bike. The rider [learner] chooses the destination, the speed, and the route.”Some other key qualities of informal learning, highlighted by the LearnUpon Blog, include:

  • Learner-driven and self-directed
  • Doesn’t impose the same pressure or time-crunch as structured learning
  • Expands employees’ understanding of their role and the business

In other words, learners decide what they need to learn and then establish their own objectives and agenda. And it can be a powerful tool for employee engagement and development, provided employees know where to look for resources and have tools to support their informal learning experiences. However, informal learning can still be formalized through corporate mentorship and connectivity programs, which is discussed in further detail below. Companies that have robust employee learning and development programs will have a mix of formal and informal learning programs for their employees to participate in.

Benefits of informal learning

Promoting informal learning for employees makes career and leadership development a part of company culture. It encourages ongoing learning that can lead to a smarter, more engaged staff. It's personally fulfilling for employees and demonstrates to them that senior management values their growth. “Having an employee in your organization who is in complete control of what they are learning and the pace at which they learn is extremely beneficial to their skill development and overall job performance,” states The Training Associates. “With all the different ways for a learner to take advantage of informal learning nowadays, from videos or podcasts to various social media platforms, the knowledge that they control their learning pace and information accruement is motivation in and of itself.”

Drawbacks of informal learning

Informal learning isn’t appropriate for all types of learning and development programs that companies need to do. When employers need to communicate critical information about professional conduct, like sexual harassment training or implicit bias workshops, formal learning is more appropriate because it’s crucial that everyone is on the same page. Other scenarios where formal learning is better include:

One downside of informal learning is that when 10 employees learn informally, you can wind up with 10 ways of doing the same task instead of a single, standardized approach. That’s fine for some things, like making PowerPoint presentations, but there can be serious consequences if everyone on a team calculates financial data differently.

Examples of informal learning in the office

The good news: informal learning strategies are easy to implement. Many organizations may already have programs like these in place for their employees. Whether your organization is just getting started or has a few programs set up, here are some ideas.

Mentorship programs

Mentorship programs are one of the best ways to engage in informal learning opportunities at your company. The relationship between a junior and senior colleague can help build strong bridges, close knowledge gaps, and set the junior employee out on a path to success. It’s critical for building a strong, growth-centric workplace. However, not everyone has equal access to mentorship. Black women, in particular, have less access to senior leaders, so they are less likely to be mentored or sponsored. That’s why implementing a solution like Ten Thousand Coffees is key to democratizing access to mentors and opportunities.

Connectivity programs

Less formal than mentorship programs, corporate connectivity programs make introductions to coworkers with similar interests or career goals. Solutions, like our 1:1 Smart Match Introductions, automatically send emails to pairs with shared interests and goals and offer suggested topics for them to discuss. This informal transfer of information strengthens relationships and trust across departments and between junior and senior employees. It’s also a way for employees to learn about their coworker's roles, the obstacles they face and how their future goals.

Emulating leaders at your company

Shadowing, observing coworkers or managers in action, is one of the most common ways people experience informal learning at work, whether it’s in the form of an internship or a part of your organization’s first few weeks of onboarding. It’s a great hands-on way to soak in the various aspects of a role. Another valuable use of shadowing is to observe people in roles across departments. It helps break down silos and lets employees understand how to be effective team members. For example, a marketing professional might sit in on a sales call to better understand what prospective customers want.

Promote informal learning to put employees in control of their careers

When it’s done right, informal learning empowers employees. Instead of being told what’s new or innovative, they discover it on their own. This is a winning recipe for creating an engaging employee culture. If you’re interested in learning how our solutions can help promote opportunities for informal learning through mentorship, connectivity programs and networking, reach out for a demo of our product.

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