Should we formalize informal learning?

Doug Peterson HeadshotPosted By Doug Peterson

Charles Jennings a champion of the 70:20:10 learning model. He explains it in this video: 70% of learning takes place through on-the-job experience, 20% of learning is through informal relationships such as mentoring and conversations with co-workers, and only 10% of learning takes place in formal settings like classrooms and eLearning courses.

I recently read an article in Learning Solutions Magazine entitled Stop Trying to Formalize Informal Learning! The author, Stephanie Ivec, makes some good points about what I would call “organic learning” (she emphasizes unofficial, unscheduled, and impromptu) and how informal learning can possibly be negatively impacted by trying to turn it into a formal process. Ms. Ivec’s position seems to be one of “let formal be formal, and let informal be informal,” which is something with which I agree – in general.

The article got me thinking about one of my favorite sayings: “Everything in Balance.” The article made me ponder what might be the right balance between formal and informal learning.

Should we try to take every informal learning experience, codify it, and teach it in a classroom or e:Learning course? Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, it would be impossible to do so in some circumstances: There are some things you are only going to learn and get better at by doing them on the job.

So then we should just let formal be formal, and informal be informal, and never the twain shall meet, right? Well, that’s where I think we need to find balance.

Consider Henry, the sales person who has been on the job for 30 years. He’s the top sales person in the company, and for good reason: He knows the company’s products like the back of his hand, he understands the company’s customer, and he has great people skills. Henry is more than willing to work with the other members of the sales team, and he provides great advice and insights to anyone who asks. He’s even taken some of the new hires under his wing for their first couple of months to “teach them the ropes.” There is some SERIOUS informal learning going on, know what I mean?

But Henry will retire in a couple of years, and he’s taking all of that (informal) knowledge with him. Somehow, that knowledge needs to be preserved within the company. This is where a bit of formalizing would be appropriate. What if Henry were asked to write a series of blog articles on his sales techniques, what he looks for in customers, how he customizes his pitch – and then new hires were required to read those articles (and take a brief knowledge check) as part of their onboarding?

Or maybe the training department could record a series of interviews with Henry, asking the right questions and capturing the right knowledge. The results could be made available in a podcast format. This means that rather than knowledge transfer taking place randomly (a junior sales person happens to be in the break room with Henry and has the courage to ask the venerable gentleman the right question), we can take some of that informal learning and add just enough of a formal wrapper to it so that we can make sure everyone benefits. We can track the learning as well as assess it.

Another concern I have about informal learning is that we don’t always know what’s being taught. Let’s say I work in a food processing plant, and at the end of each day we go through a cleaning and sanitizing process. If I mess it up, a lot of people could end up very sick. Human nature being what it is, people tend to look for shortcuts and simple ways to do things. So proper cleaning and sanitizing training is not necessarily something that should be left to on-the-job training (70%) or learning from a co-worker (20%).

Suppose my co-worker has a shortcut that appears benign and even saves time. He believes it works just as well as the proper procedures … but it doesn’t, and it’s not something that should be propagated through the workforce and to new hires. In this situation, the company might want to use observational assessments and Job Task Analysis surveys to understand what is really happening “out on the floor.” Then Formal training could incorporate the good practices and eliminate the poor ones. An alternative might be to run high-performing employees through formal training, certify their knowledge, and then designate them as “official informal trainers” back on the job: a formal/informal training hybrid.

I think there will always be, and should always be, formal, semi-formal, and completely informal learning taking place. Training organizations should support all of these, and they can help serve the company’s goals by keeping things in balance: determining what informal training should be formalized or at least captured in a formalized wrapper as a valuable learning resource.

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