An introduction to informal learning

Become a lifelong learner and succeed at work

In open organizations with cultures of adaptability, learning should be continuous—and won't always happen in a formal setting. Do we really understand how it works?

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Continuous learning refers to the ongoing, career-driven, intentional learning process people undertake to develop themselves. For people who consider themselves continuous learners, learning never stops—and these people see learning opportunities in everyday experiences. Engaging with one's colleagues in debate, reflecting on feedback, scouring the internet for a solution to a frustrating problem, trying something new, or taking a risk are all examples of the informal learning activities one can perform on the job.

Continuous learning is a core competency for anyone in an open organization. After all, open organizations are built upon peers thinking, arguing, and acting alongside one another. And thriving in the ambiguous, discourse-driven world of the open organization requires these sorts of skills from employees daily.

Unfortunately, the scientific literature has done a poor job disseminating our knowledge of learning at work in a way that helps individuals appreciate and develop their own learning abilities. So in this article series, I'll introduce you to informal learning and help you understand how viewing learning as a skill can help you thrive—in any organization, but especially open organizations.

Why so formal?

To date, the scientific study of learning in organizations has focused primarily on the design, delivery, and evaluation of formal training as opposed to informal learning.

Investing in the development of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of its workforce is an important way an organization maintains its edge over its competitors. Organizations formalize learning opportunities by creating or purchasing classes, online courses, workshops, etc., which are meant to instruct an individual on job-related content—much like a class at a school. Providing a class is an easy (if expensive) way for an organization to ensure the skills or knowledge of its workforce remains current. Likewise, classroom settings are natural experiment rooms for researchers, making training-based research and work not only possible but also powerful.

Recent estimates suggest that between 70% to 80% of all job-related knowledge isn't learned in training but rather informally on-the-job.

Of course, people don't need training to learn something; often, people learn by researching answers, talking to colleagues, reflecting, experimenting, or adapting to changes. In fact, recent estimates suggest that between 70% to 80% of all job-related knowledge isn't learned in training but rather informally on-the-job. That isn't to say that formal training isn't effective; training can be very effective, but it is a precise type of intervention. It simply isn't practical to formally train someone on most aspects of a job, especially as those jobs become more complex.

Informal learning, or any learning that occurs outside a structured learning environment, is therefore incredibly important to the workplace. In fact, recent scientific evidence suggests that informal learning is a better predictor of job performance than formal training.

So why do organizations and the scientific community focus so much on training?

A cyclical process

Apart from the reasons I mentioned earlier, researching informal learning can be very difficult. Unlike formal training, informal learning occurs in unstructured environments, is highly dependent on the individual, and can be difficult or impossible to observe.

Until recently, most of the research on informal learning focused on defining the qualifies characteristic of informal learning and identifying how informal learning is theoretically connected to work experience. Researchers have described a dynamic, cyclical process by which individuals learn informally in organizations.

Unlike formal training, informal learning occurs in unstructured environments, is highly dependent on the individual, and can be difficult or impossible to observe.

In the process, both the individual and the organization have agency for creating learning opportunities. For example, an individual may be interested in learning something and performs learning behaviors to do so. The organization, in the form of feedback delivered to the individual, may signal that learning is needed. This could be a poor performance review, a comment made during a project, or a broader change in the organizational environment that isn't personally directed. These forces interact in the organizational environment (e.g., someone experiments with a new idea and his or her colleagues recognize and reward that behavior) or in the mind of the individual via reflection (e.g., someone reflects on feedback about his or her performance and decides to exert more effort into learning the job). Unlike training, informal learning does not follow a formal, linear process. An individual can experience any part of the process at any time and experience multiple parts of the process simultaneously.

Informal learning in the open organization

In open organizations specifically, both a decreased emphasis on hierarchy and an increased focus on a participatory culture fuel this informal learning process. In short, open organizations simply present more opportunities for individuals and the organizational environment to interact and spark learning moments. Moreover, ideas and change require a broader level of buy-in among employees in an open organization—and buy-in requires an appreciation for the adaptability and insight of others.

That said, simply increasing the numbers of opportunities to learn does not guarantee that learning will occur or be successful. One might even argue that the ambiguity and open discourse common in an open organization could prevent someone who is not skilled at continuous learning—again, that habit of learning over time and a core competency of the open organization—from contributing to the organization as effectively as they could in more traditional organizations.

Addressing these kinds of concerns require a way of tracking informal learning in a consistent manner. Recently, there have been calls in the scientific community to create ways of measuring informal learning, so systematic research can be conducted to address questions around the antecedents and outcomes of informal learning. My own research has focused on this call, and I have spent several years developing and refining our understanding of informal learning behaviors so that they can be measured.

In the second part of this article series, I'll focus on findings from a recent study I conducted inside an open organization, where I tested my measure of informal learning behaviors and connected them to the broader workplace environment and individual work outcomes.

About the author

Colin Willis - Colin Willis is an industrial organizational psychology consultant at HireVue. He recently obtained his doctorate in IO psychology, where his research focused on studying learning at work. Colin is an avid supporter of using science, data, and technology to improve the workplace.