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The rise of informal learning: The secret superpower of a thriving organisation


A few weeks ago, I wrote about ways to own our professional development in 2022. In this article, I highlighted the numerous strategies that exist in order to do this - both formally and informally. According to Growth Engineering:

In recent years, there has been a significant rise in informal learning. In fact, the OECD reported that informal learning is the most common form of learning seen in most countries. It includes social learning, learning by observation, learning by experience and a lot more...

Even so, at the majority of organisations, most training campaigns focus on a formal learning approach. However, formal learning only makes up the remaining 10% of knowledge intake.'

Just 10%. My mind is official blown.

While this is staggering to me, it doesn't surprise me.

I can recall moments in my career when I've learned significantly through informal means through discussions with colleagues, debate, problem solving in the midst of a challenging task, engaging in self-study during my master's research, or coming away with a new insight or best practice after reading a good book on my own. 

Given the stats mentioned above, and the current context for organisational learning, I wanted to share with you my most recent conversation with Felix Mynarek, a Senior Consultant Learning, Doctoral Candidate & Agile Learning Coach from Germany. 

Felix and I connected through our shared passion and research in adult learning, and I came away with some important insights worth highlighting for not only workplace learning professionals, but managers and HR professionals as well. Below is our chat:

Jane: Hi Felix. Thank you for sitting down with me today! I know you have many things happening for you at the moment, so I appreciate you shedding light on your work! Tell The Adult Learning Hub audience a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Felix: I am a doctoral student at the Chair of Corporate Management at the University of Hohenheim, Germany. The research team and I are currently working on a project to investigate how informal learning takes place in the workplace. 

Organisational learning has become an important topic over the last few years, especially with Covid, and this has only reinforced that fact that as our world of work has changed, way we are doing things and how we approach learning all needs to change. In this respect, the Coronavirus pandemic is certainly an accelerator and is bringing about changes that are in part disruptive in nature. Learning is increasingly becoming an inseparable part of work.

The term 'informal learning' is floating around education circles more often than not these days, but what is it exactly? And should we take notice of it?

Informal learning is so important from our point of view, because it is actually the most natural form of learning. It arises in organizations, for example, in finding solutions to problems and in exchange with colleagues.

You mentioned to me that up to 90% of our learning is informal. Through my own research, I've known that informal learning plays a large role in our workplaces, but this statistic is incredible to me! Tell us more.

Cerasoli et al. (2018, p. 203) indicate that "over the past two decades, research has shown a growing consensus that 70% to 90% of organizational learning occurs not through formal training but informally, on-the-job, and in an ongoing manner."

For us, this means that we should be gain greater clarity on the conditions and influencing factors that promote learning in the process of work.

So, why does informal learning seemingly take a back seat in organizations, despite the overwhelming evidence that it significantly contributes to our learning? And what would this mean for us in the workplace?

In general, we see that informal learning is repeatedly displaced in favor of training and seminars, i.e. formal learning in the perception of HR development. In this respect, learning at the workplace is simply very difficult to measure, because it is not really about the pure increase in knowledge, but about how I can use the knowledge to make my work easier, more beautiful and better, or to positively change my way of thinking and attitude. Learning can then become something very beautiful and ensure that I become happier overall on many levels.

With this understanding, we could have greater outcomes not only on an organizational level, but also on an individual level where the workplace becomes an even greater source of meaning for employees and they get the results they are after at the same time.

So, should learning EITHER be formal or informal in the workplace? Do we have to choose between one or the other?

In my view, learning in organizations should be happening on multiple levels, however there can sometimes be conflicting priorities sometimes. On one hand, learning should improve work performance, but on the other, it should also positively influence our way of working and also how we think about ourselves. However, we can create the conditions for continuous learning to take place in which new perspectives are to flow in again and again, and the existing is to be reconsidered and questioned, i.e. learning in an ongoing manner.

So, how can organizations proactively address this?

Many agree that learning always requires a certain emotional involvement, i.e. I can learn much better if I am really in the game, or I can bring my own ideas to the table in a supportive environment, or can also realize my potential. That's why it's so crucial that organizations work on a corporate culture that is conducive to learning for teams, but also on an individual level as well.

For example, making sure access to the best learning content is available, but also the context surrounding that learning supports personal development and ideas sharing. Organizations should create and pour resources into both physical and digital spaces where there is a good balance between knowledge, experience sharing, and reflection to take place.

In this way, this is the 'sweet spot' where new knowledge and new ways of thinking can emerge.  

Thank you to Felix for your fresh take on this subject, and for our conversation together! Did anything resonate with you about our chat? How can you maximize informal learning in your workplace? Get in touch with me at jane@theadultlearninghub.com to share your ideas!

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