Blog Post

What Informal Learning Is, and Isn't

Teala Wilson

Pop quiz! How much do you really know about informal learning?

Here are three learning situations. Can you spot the informal learning example?

A. A manager finds an article that they believe will be helpful to their employee in their role. In their 1:1 meeting, the manager suggests the employee read the article and bring their thoughts to their next check-in.

B. Sparked by a conversation she overheard in the lunch room, a marketing employee listens to a top-rated business podcast to learn more about improving her "personal brand."

C. A finance manager clicks over to his company's blog after receiving an email announcing a new blog series about leadership.

Of the three examples above, "B," the marketing employee listening to the podcast, is experiencing informal learning. She is self-directed, spontaneous and learning from a resource without a curriculum, leader or other formal structure.

The article scenario is an example of non-formal learning, which many people mistake for informal learning. Non-formal learning shares many elements with informal learning, such as the fact that the learning is voluntary in nature and short in terms of duration. Examples of non-formal learning could include participating in mentoring programs, attending a voluntary "lunch and learn" about your benefits program, or participating in an expert knowledge-sharing group. It's the difference between learning how to play basketball at a community pick-up game versus a basketball boot camp. A good way to distinguish non-formal learning from informal learning is that non-formal learning usually uses a curriculum and/or a leader or facilitator and is purposeful in nature.

But what about our finance manager reading blog posts? Surely that's informal learning as well? Not exactly. Because his inquisitiveness to read the leadership article was influenced by an email, his learning would not be classified as informal. True informal learning is purposeful, even if unplanned. Again, this would be an example of non-formal learning.

What informal learning is not: Highly structured, top-down learning initiatives mandated by an authoritative figure.

A formal definition of informal learning

HR leader and speaker Marcia Conner defines informal learning as a "lifelong process through which people acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge mainly from the mass media, from daily experiences, such as those made at work, at play, while talking with our neighbors and from various kind of interactions, in general."

Think of your daily work. Examples of informal learning probably plentiful: books on your shelf, podcasts on your commute and watching TED Talks on your phone. Informal learning is experiential learning, too, such as when we just try to figure something out by tinkering with it.

Informal learning happens when we least expect it. Maybe your company has a working culture they are proud of, one that has been defined and widely communicated. It's one thing to cite a list of company values, but how do you really learn about the company culture? By experiencing it. We learn by getting actual exposure to other employee's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors through our day-to-day interactions.

What informal learning is not: Targeted to specific objectives or given dedicated time for learning

Did we get it wrong? Not exactly...

As it turns out, many L&D shops have been working on integrating non-formal learning into organizations, while we thought we were focusing on informal learning. Stay with me... it may seem like nitpicking, but it is worth giving some consideration.

We love to embrace both informal and non-formal learning because it's immediate. No one has to ask permission or sign up for a class to search the web or watch a video. Learning should also be relevant. If your job requires a certain knowledge set such as being proficient with a particular software program, it's incredibly relevant to your job performance to seek out instructional videos online or walk down the hall to ask for hands-on help from a co-worker. The biggest difference is that non-formal learning may be spontaneous and just-in-time but involves the intent to learn. Informal learning happens organically, almost unconsciously through our daily interactions and experiences, even when we're not looking for it.

We're all doing more with less, so it makes sense that we continue to embrace non-formal learning while learners and managers alike also become aware of their lessons learned through true informal learning.

What informal learning is not: Schedule-in-advance courses, webinars and resources.

Might as well join ’em

The reality is that informal learning and non-formal learning are inextricably connected, so call it what you want! Happily, employees wholeheartedly engage in non-formal learning. They're motivated and curious. Bite-sized and on-the-fly content consumption are going to happen even more in the future. So, whether we call it "informal" or "non-formal", it makes sense that organizations give both types of learning some attention and use it to further business objectives by adding elements of tracking and accountability.

Technology is one way to codify informal learning through the use of tracking and recording "small bites" of learning. Encouraging a deep sense of learning ownership on the part of the employee can instill a desire to learn more and do more with the information received. Think about the last time you learned something new–you may have wanted to share it with others. This human impulse to share knowledge with others is a large reason why informal learning is taking off in organizations everywhere.

What informal learning is not: Something to be feared by executives or learning teams.

Leaders, it's your turn

Leaders can get into the informal learning game by following up with employees frequently. They should be asking things like:

What did you learn when you weren't looking for it?

How can you make yourself aware of learning that happened unintentionally?

Leaders can also make sure there is a place to share "found" content, whether that's a learning tech platform or in another online location. During 1:1 meetings, managers can coach their employees to continue their self-directed learning and hold them accountable to share their latest resources.

At the end of the day, scaling back the hours spent in seminars, classes, workshops and off-site meetings means employees are spending more time on their jobs. Training budgets today are limited but that doesn't mean your employees can't learn in other ways. No matter how an employee learns, managers must give employees a healthy dose of support when it comes to any type of learning. It's a win-win for everyone.

What informal learning is not: A hands-off way employees learn without support and accountability from managers.

Related Resources

Want to keep learning? Explore our products, customer stories, and the latest industry insights.

Taking A Company-Wide Approach to Learning & Development

Blog Post

Taking A Company-Wide Approach to Learning & Development

There’s a lot of coordination that goes into a company’s learning and development programming, from identifying skills gaps and creating engaging content to scaling initiatives company-wide. And because there’s so much complex planning involved, organizations can sometimes get caught up in the details, and overlook how L&D fits into broader organizational goals. A recent survey—titled "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change"—from Cornerstone People Research Lab (CPRL) and the Human Capital Institute (HCI) found that only 55% of organizations believe their L&D programs are well-aligned with their company’s overarching strategy. But CPRL and HCI’s survey reveals two logical ways to overcome this challenge. First, there’s a need for L&D executives to participate in strategic conversations around organizational goals to ensure that L&D planning aligns with broader business plans. And second, it’s important to share responsibility for learning effectiveness. If facilitating continuous learning is a part of everyone’s role, it becomes easier to integrate it organization-wide. Promote Cross-Departmental Collaboration and Responsibility To better align L&D efforts with overarching business goals, learning executives have to participate in strategic conversations about organizational direction. For instance, when business leaders gather to discuss goals and KPIs for the coming year or quarter, HR and L&D leaders should be involved in those conversations. And the opposite is also true: Business leaders need to help direct the learning outcomes framed against those goals. According to the "Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey from CPRL and HCI, only about half (51%) of learning leaders report being involved in these discussions. During these business planning discussions, it’s important to establish accountability, especially among people managers. CPRL and HCI found 67% of people managers report being involved in the creation of content, but only 47% are involved in the accountability for the results. By holding more people accountable to the success of L&D programs, it can be easier for a company to spot pitfalls or opportunities for improvement. It creates shared goals for measuring effectiveness, and establishes a process for making changes. For example, by getting people managers involved in L&D initiatives, L&D leaders can work with them to get a better understanding of a specific team’s skill gaps or what reskilling or new skilling solutions will work best for them. All leaders in an organization, in fact, should be eager to participate and own their team’s newskilling, reskilling or upskilling efforts. Ask a people manager in the IT department to reiterate the importance of learning to their team, and track the amount of time their employees spend on learning content. This approach will not only create a shared commitment to continuous learning, but can also help leaders outside of L&D and HR get a better idea of what content or formats work best for their teams and recommend adjustments accordingly. Continuous Learning Is Everyone’s Responsibility Aligning overarching business plans and strategy with learning and development efforts can improve each’s efficacy. The more cross-departmental collaboration that exists, the more information that HR and L&D leaders have about their workforce and its needs, strengths and weaknesses. And with more accountability, all stakeholders in an organization can become more involved in ensuring the successful partnership between L&D and a company’s overall strategy. To learn more about the findings from Cornerstone’s "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey and its recommendations for using cross-departmental collaboration and accountability to help with L&D efforts, click here to download and read the full report.

Why supporting neurodiversity is essential for any successful workforce today

Blog Post

Why supporting neurodiversity is essential for any successful workforce today

When we think of diversity in the workforce, we typically think of it along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. But focusing only on those four is its own sort of constraint. To truly create a successful and diverse workplace, you need to ensure you're also embracing neurodiversity too. Understanding neurodiversity In the late 1990s, a single mother in Australia named Judy Singer began studying Disability Studies at University of Technology Sydney. Her daughter had recently been diagnosed with what was then known as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” a form of autism spectrum disorder. As she read more and more about autism as part of her studies, Singer also suspected that her mother, and she herself, may have had some form of autism spectrum disorder. Singer describes crying as she realized that her mother, with whom she'd had a tumultuous relationship throughout her childhood, wasn’t purposefully cold or neurotic as she had thought. She just had a different kind of mind. In her honors thesis, Singer coined the term “neurodiversity.” For Singer, people with neurological differences like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or dyslexia were a social class of their own and should be treated as such. If we are going to embrace diversity of race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc., then we must embrace a diversity of the mind. The following video is an excerpt from the "Neurodiversity" Grovo program, which is available in the Cornerstone Content Anytime Professional Skills subscription. Neurodiversity in today's workplace Recently, neurodiversity has become a trendy term in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging spaces. And many organizations are working to hire more neurodivergent people, as well as give them opportunities to thrive at work. That’s why, at Cornerstone, we recently produced a series of lessons on neurodiversity. If your organization hasn’t prioritized neurodiverse inclusion yet, here are some reasons why it both supports your people and organization. 1) Neurodivergent people are underemployed Neurodivergent people, especially people with autism, are widely under-employed, regardless of their competence. In the United States, 85% of college graduates with autism are unemployed. According to a 2006 study, individuals with ADHD have higher rates of unemployment than individuals without. However, there is no evidence that neurodivergent people are less competent or less intelligent than neurotypical people. Organizations are missing out on talented people. 2) Neurodivergent people are more common than you may think Neurodiversity manifests in many different ways. It can encompass autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, and many other conditions. And as scientists have learned more about what makes someone neurodivergent, they're identifying more and more people. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 160 children have some form of autism spectrum disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in every 162 children have Tourette Syndrome, and roughly 8 percent of children under 18 have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. And that's just children. How many adults, like Judy Singer's mother, have struggled their whole lives without a diagnosis? People who are neurodivergent are everywhere. Diverse organizations are stronger Diverse organizations and teams not only have better financial returns than less-diverse ones, but they also perform better. Having the different perspectives presented by people who are neurodivergent can help your team solve more difficult problems. Different perspectives and different ways of thinking lead to creativity and innovation.

Why Selecting a Leadership Development Program Is Way Too Complicated

Blog Post

Why Selecting a Leadership Development Program Is Way Too Complicated

Many organizations face a leadership gap and cannot find the talent needed to grow. We could blame the retiring baby boomer phenomenon, the free agent nation, or the lack of investment made in developing leaders. But since blame is a lazy man’s wage, I will not entertain that debate because there are too many options out there for developing leaders. There are many leadership development programs in the market. In minutes, with a simple Internet search or over coffee with your head of human resources, you can discover myriad high-quality leadership development programs that you could use in your organization to develop leaders. The problem is not finding a good program, but in choosing one. Answer the Right Questions So how does one choose? The problem we face in evaluating leadership development programs is that we get caught up in evaluating the content rather than asking a simple question, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Each organization is unique in how it answers this question. And that is where the secret lies. If an organization can select a program that matches the answer to the question above, the selected program will likely be the right one. After all, each leadership development program is very good in some way. It is not so important which one you select. It is important that you use the one you select. In other words, the key is to not let it become another un-opened binder on the bookshelves of your management team. Be An Effective Leader Let me give you an example: If an organization’s answer to the question above is, "We want our leaders to be proactive and focused on the things that drive results," your choices are narrowed down to only a few programs that would deliver on that answer. And if I had to pick one program that would deliver on that answer, without hesitation, I would choose, "The Effective Executive" by Peter F. Drucker. It is a classic, and all five of the behaviors of effective executives taught in the book remain vital skills that any leader should practice if he or she wants to be effective in his or her organization. In the book, Drucker teaches that effective executives: Know where their time goes Focus on contribution and results Build on strengths Concentrate on first things first Make effective decisions This is not a book review or a plug for "The Effective Executive," though I do believe if you had to choose one set of skills to teach your leadership, it would be the five from Drucker’s book. This is a challenge for every organization to simplify the selection of leadership development programs, and ask, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Answering this question clearly will help you choose the right program. After all, many programs are excellent. The secret to success is not in which program you choose, but that you get people to apply the program you choose. Photo: Can Stock

Schedule a personalized 1:1

Talk to a Cornerstone expert about how we can help with your organization’s unique people management needs.

© Cornerstone 2022
Legal