I undertook an exploratory study on Informal Learning in organizations. For the purpose of this study, I defined Informal Learning as learning, which occurs outside of structured environments, is most often incidental, and at times not. When learning happens from material obtained from a company blog, or any other resource on the net or the library to name a few, and at the learner’s initiative, it becomes conscious self-directed learning, but stil informal. Here the onus of learning is more on the individual, rather than on the organization and neither on the superior who recommends training in a performance appraisal or otherwise. This is conscious informal learning. Unconscious or incidental informal learning is that which occurs during conversations which spring up spontaneously in cafeterias, on break-out sessions, or over those walk-in chats with mentors.
My sample consisted of 15 executives, managers and consultants from the training and development organization of companies and from other functions such as Supply Chain Management, IT infrastructure and others. I studied their impressions of informal learning, barriers to informal learning, and facilitating factors.
Not surprising that Organization Culture was considered the most significant factor that fostered or hindered informal learning. Support from senior management and supervisor was ranked second. Third most important factor was means to harness informal learning in organizations, which speaks to creation of Communities of Practice (Wenger,1987) as also use of Knowledge Management Software and Web 2.0 tools within the organization, among other things.
Some would comment that the moment we harness informal learning floating around the organization, we make it formal. I would say we just make that informal learning more available to others, just that it is no longer incidental. This still allows learner the opportunity to be self-directed.
To conclude, focus on informal learning is the call of the time, if the organization is to make learning a more meaningful activity- with far higher returns. While formal training cannot be eliminated, as was done by a corporation ( Cross, 2005) it is necessary that the learning and development divisions of organizations start appreciating the power of informal learning and find means of integrating it into formal learning initiatives. Simultaneous acknowledgement of informal learning at the highest levels in organizations will initiate and sustain a redesigned organization culture and design.
If there is an environment which breeds trust, team spirit and is not a totally individualized competitive environment as one of the respondents on my survey mentioned, then there is a possibility that informal learning initiatives can be a success in organizations. While informal learning is mostly incidental, creating opportunities for such incidents to happen more often than not would be the role of the senior management and the learning and development organizations, as has been done by Google, by creating fun environments at work so that teams and individuals get to come closer, and share an enriching working relationship (Cross, 2005).
As this is a relatively young , unexplored and underutilized mode of learning, organizations such as Training and Development and IT within the company need to be cognizant of their responsibilities in fostering this environment and sensitize people to exploit this opportunity e.g. through education of technology used to harness informal learning, so that employees can dip into that pool, as and when required. Over and above everything, while recognizing that organizations can do a lot to promote informal learning, it is also important for individual employees to take initiative for their growth and development, as mentioned earlier.
Finally, appreciation for informal learning is increasing, and organizations that go leaner and more networked will find it increasingly easy to harness that learning, assuming it is ready and willing to do so.
There are a couple concerns that need thought. ROI and Standardization of informal learning are not addressed in most of the literature that is around, but is definitely a concern for organizations, as mentioned to me by a Senior Learning Personnel from a professional services firm. My intuition is that leveraging technology and ensuring a conducive organization environment can address these questions. While i do not have any empirical data to support my claim, it would not be far-fetched to say that encouraging employees to form communities of practice, using blogs and wikis to read, reflect and respond and coaching those who require some help through apprenticeship will ensure some amount of standardization in content and context.
The Skills Minister of UK emphasizes effectiveness of informal learning and encourages organizations to facilitate more of it..