Canada Association of Tourism Employees

Supporting Formal Coaching With Casual Studying

The challenge of modern learning

Often times, L&D teams focus on delivering and creating great training. Most of the training budget is spent on formal training. Regardless, however, the employees are constantly learning.

People have learned informally and with great effect for millennia. This includes communicating with SMEs – observing, listening and asking. As a rule, employees do not consistently apply formal training that is based on an LMS. As a result, the gap between employee learning and L&D team performance continues to widen. As younger generations move in and through the workforce, traditional learning strategies will no longer be effective.

Hence, L&D teams need to realign their efforts to achieve the value that informal and formal learning modalities bring to employees.

What is informal learning? Informal learning is spontaneous learning or learning “on the fly”. It’s an extension of the way we all learn informally since childhood. It is self-directed and self-motivated and is usually done on-site. It supports performance when it is needed.

Why should you invest in both formal training and informal learning?

There are several specific reasons for organizations to invest in informal learning that supports and enhances formal training programs.

The refrain that is common in the L&D world that up to 70% of learning takes place informally in most organizations is accurate and supported by research [1]. This is based on research and shows that the success of an organization depends on the quality of informal learning.

Informal learning is all around us, across all employees. Therefore, it makes sense for L&D teams to use these to create a healthy learning ecosystem and corporate culture.

Since it is clear that informal learning takes place regardless of efforts to support, ignore or control it by L&D teams, organizations can set goals for informal learning and try to create a learning ecosystem that facilitates informal learning.

Indeed, informal learning is the fundamental way that employees develop competencies in their professional roles and develop additional skills and abilities. Informal learning is everywhere. Informal learning is more precisely described as learning that exists on a continuum: one side stands for more formal learning and the other for more informal learning.

What is formal training and informal learning good for?

Formal training is important as it drives learning initiatives within organizations.

Formal training:

  • Adds structure to training programs and instructs employees.
  • Is goal-oriented and geared towards specific goals. It can be tailored to support specific business goals.
  • Often supported by subject matter experts with specific knowledge of the process, topic or situation. and,
  • Is easier to judge. Tracking programs are more robust for formal training programs.

Informal learning, which makes up 70% of all learning within an organization, is critical to the success of businesses and individuals.

Informal learning:

  • Just as the French composer Claude Debussy described: “Music is the space between notes”, the space between formal training is the place where true learning takes place. This space can be empty and left to chance, or L&D teams can try to fill it with thoughtful nudges, exercise and feedback opportunities, and a range of behavior-changing micro-experiences. It’s the small, everyday experiences that really change behavior, not the big, infrequent formal training events.
  • Employees learn more effectively if they are self-directed.
  • This is where the vast majority of learning takes place. and,
  • Is an area where employees use creativity, collaboration and innovation.

How do you create networked learning by supporting formal training with informal learning?

The concept of a learning culture based on a learning and achievement ecosystem [2] A networked approach to combining formal training with informal learning opportunities is crucial for effective integration of the modalities. To achieve this, L&D teams need to redefine the role of formal training, thereby structuring informal learning, giving employees a sense of direction and helping them acquire basic knowledge.

Much of the formal training needs to be rearranged so that employees understand:

  • How do you learn
    Many employees, especially those who rely on others to tell them what to learn and when to do it, may have either forgotten or never learned the art of learning.
  • How one Cut through the noise
    Between daily stand-up meetings, emails from HR departments, IT issues, and doing their basic duties, employees need to maximize their study time instead of being distracted by blank emails, social media, and other interruptions.
  • How one Eliminate distractions
    By focusing on the learning that guides them in their career and professional role.
  • How one Focus on the real results
    Learned and adopted behaviors, experiments and iterations, and improved cross-silo relationships.

It also confirms:

  • An inclination to act, clear iteration, learning, and honest evaluation and feedback are more valuable than head-down checklists and safe inaction.
  • The value of celebrating the learning process and recognizing failed experiments as learning opportunities.

When organizations promote a learning culture, employees have the courage and ability to continuously improve in the workplace. This allows them to use informal learning to practice, collaborate, and learn on the job, and turn to mastery.

Informal learning is a way for L&D teams to achieve the holy grail of learning – content that is tailored to the individual. L&D teams can provide instructions, recommendations, and access to content and space so employees can curate and share their own content and experiences. In the future, this can then be used by L&D teams for even more focused and efficient formal training and learning paths.

It is also important for L&D teams to strike a balance and incorporate informal learning strategies [3] to support formal training by:

  • Investing in informal learning platforms;
  • Supporting self-directed learning, social learning, curation and learning in the workflow;
  • Mapping informal learning efforts to formal training goals; and,
  • Create advanced learning solutions that don’t focus on a specific point in time, but include ongoing practice, evaluation, and follow-up opportunities.

How do you rate informal learning?

Informal learning has a 75% chance of changing behavior and encourages employees to adopt new behaviors, compared to an effectiveness rate of 5% to 20% for more formal training solutions [4]. This is a different take on the 70:20:10 rule that is followed by many L&D professionals.

While sometimes difficult to do, the following are examples of readily available and objectively measurable indicators of the effectiveness of the corporate informal learning culture:

  • Interview employees and ask questions like:
    • How did you expand the knowledge and skills that you needed for your job over the past year?
    • What did you learn?
    • What kind of media did you use?
    • How many hours have you devoted to these activities in the past month?
  • Evaluate the number of silo crossing collaborations in the organization
  • Identify the quality and speed of product and service innovations
  • Assess the level of information sharing and curated content within a social learning platform
  • Assess employee engagement – higher engagement means more learning
  • Gather thoughtful feedback for formal training
  • Identify employee-generated content and SME recognition

Farewell Thoughts

Creativity, innovation and effective tactical execution start with a healthy learning culture. I hope this article provides the insight you need on how to use informal learning to augment, support, and empower formal training, and create holistic training programs to drive business success.

In the meantime, if you have specific questions, please contact me.


[1] Livingstone, DW (2001). Informal Learning for Adults: Definitions, Findings, Gaps, and Future Research. WALL Working Paper No. 21.

[2] Using a Learning and Performance Ecosystem for Employee Development – With a 4 Step Guide

[3] 9 strategies for promoting and promoting informal learning in a remote work environment

[4] Conner, M. (2002). At the water cooler of learning.

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EI design

EI Design is a leading provider of learning and performance support solutions focused on transforming learning – keeping it relevant, impactful and ongoing.

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