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Informality: Learning at the Speed of Work


Robin Hoyle suggests that informal learning may be tricky to define but is definitely not an excuse to abdicate responsibility for employees’ development.

To describe the world of informal learning is a little like trying to bottle a cloud. Perhaps more correctly it is trying to grab the atmosphere generated when a team is working really well and wrap it carefully in tissue paper. To get some idea of why informal learning intrigues and frustrates me in equal measure it is perhaps best – and most fitting – to tell two stories.

The sales team that could sell sand in a desert

Someone new had been recruited to the sales team. She came with great credentials and enviable references. Her previous boss had been really sorry to see her go but recognised he couldn’t hold her back. 'How’s her induction going?' I asked the LD business partner in charge of sales training.

'The team wanted to take responsibility for her induction,” he answered. 'They reckon that she’ll learn most by rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty.'

My colleague and I exchanged glances. The business partner went on.

'You see they really hit their targets in that team. They could all sell sand in a desert.'

There was a pause. 'Didn’t they agree the time scale on those contracts that led to us having to call everyone in on overtime and ended up with us losing money?' I asked.

My colleague joined in. 'Didn’t they also run up an entertainment bill of over 5 figures for one client who cancelled his contract 3 months later?'

'I thought I saw them all heading off for a golf day earlier,' I ventured. 'What’s her handicap?'

The blood had drained from the business partner’s face. “'I’ll go check how things are going,' he said and with that he was gone.

The bean counter in need of some lateral thinking

Fast forward a month or two and a reputable L&D membership organisation is carrying out one of its annual state of the industry surveys. Alongside asking respondents whether they’ll be spending more or less on training next year, deploying more or fewer eLearning modules or continuing to purchase courses from business schools for senior managers, L&D managers were asked how much they were planning to spend on informal learning.

I stopped, stared and re-read the question. Yup. 'How much will you spend on informal learning in the next 12 months?' and 'Does this represent a:

  • Higher budget
  • Lower budget
  • About the same.'

Are either of these stories actually about informal learning at all?

In the first scenario, informal learning looks less like a planned strategy and more like abdicating responsibility for providing any kind of structured programme. In the second it’s a budget line in the L&D team’s plan for the forthcoming year. I decided I’d better find out about which – if either – of these was the reality when it came to informal learning. These investigations included interviews with learners, managers, strategists and L&D folks, as I sought to answer questions I’ve heard at every gathering of those interested in improving their organization’s capability:

  • Can you manage informal learning and if you do is it still informal?
  • What role does technology play in helping people share, collaborate and learn from each other? Is there a chance that online social networks actually make us stupid?
  • What about MOOCs (massive open online courses)? Are they informal or formal? Does it matter and what, if anything, can we learn from them in the world of corporate L&D?
  • Has the classroom course had its day to be replaced with YouTube videos and user generated content?
  • For that matter, has L&D had its day? If we all learn on the job, what role do trainers play in the modern organization?

My answers to these and many other questions can be found in Informal Learning in Organizations – and if you disagree with my analysis, at least you’ll have had the chance to do some informal, reflective learning of your own.