Informal learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance

By Jay Cross

People acquire the skills they use at work informally — talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal training and workshops account for only 10% to 20% of what people learn at work. Most corporations over-invest in formal training while leaving the more natural, simple ways we learn to chance.

Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most of us learn to do our jobs. Informal learning is like riding a bicycle: the rider chooses the destination and the route. The cyclist can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or help a fellow rider.

Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. People new to the territory often ride the bus before hopping on the bike.

Traditional training departments put almost all of their energy into driving busses. For experienced workers, most bus rides are as inappropriate as kindergarten classes. Mature learners, typically a company’s top performers, never show up for the bus. They want pointers that enable them to do things for themselves. They are filling in gaps in what they already know, and they’re in a hurry to do so.

The business case

Executives don’t want learning; they want execution. They want performance. Informal does not mean unintentional. Those who leave informal learning to chance leave money on the table. Informal learning is a profit strategy. Companies use it to:

  • Improve knowledge worker productivity
  • Generate fresh ideas and increase innovation
  • Reduce stress, absenteeism, and healthcare costs
  • Invest development resources where they will have the most impact
  • Increase professional growth
  • Cut costs and improve responsiveness with self-service learning

Free-range learners

Many a knowledge worker has said ‘I love to learn but I hate to be trained.’ Training is something that’s imposed on you; learning is something you choose. Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what’s asked of them.

Reinventing the wheel, looking for information in the wrong places, and answering questions from others consumes two-thirds of the average knowledge worker’s day. Good connections vastly improve knowledge workers’ productivity.

Conversations are the stem cells of learning, for they both create and transmit knowledge. Open conversation increases innovation. People love to talk. Bringing them together brings excitement. The informal organization is how most business gets done, yet executives miss it because they can’t see it. Mapping social networks make the patterns clear.

Keep up

The informal learning train is leaving the station. Why now?

The generation coming into the workforce has no patience for spoonfeeding, single-track instruction, or working alone.

Boomers are leaving the workforce, taking their knowledge with them unless it is transferred to newcomers by informal means.

As the global economy shifts from factory work to service work, workers need the human, judgmental expertise and emotional intelligence that one doesn’t learn in class.

A flat world means global competition, faster production cycles, and more to keep up with.

Time is speeding up. It’s impractical to try to learn in advance when what you need to know won’t stand still.

Informal learning is learning without borders. Organizations improve it by removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation, and growing networks. It’s a natural way to learn and grow.

This article first appeared on the Informal Learning Blog.