Posted by Paul Powell ● March 9, 2017

8 Tips for Successfully Implementing Informal Learning

social learning-1.jpgToday’s workforce is populated by on-the-go learners. Whether through social media, blogs, apps, or texts and watercooler conversations, learners have come to expect that help with performance needs will be quickly accessible and available when, where, and how they need it.

The ability to learn and practice without signing up for a course or earning a certificate is at the heart of informal learning. And while informal initiatives are becoming increasingly commonplace, plenty of learning leaders remain unsure about how the format fits within their organizational culture, or how to gain the necessary buy-in and support from senior leadership.

So how can you harness the power of informal L&D in a way that boosts your organizational performance? Here are eight tips for successfully leveraging informal learning.

1. Have clarity on what you mean by “informal learning."

Broadly speaking, we're essentially talking about the opposite of structured or formal learning, but that's not quite specific enough to build a strategy around. Informal structures are not dependent on learning managers, instructional designers, course outlines, objectives, or formal curricula. Rather, it is learner-driven and self-paced, and it can take place on-the-go, be acquired just-in-time, be barely planned, or not planned at all. Informal L&D can be a very conscious experience, or the learner may hardly be aware that learning is even taking place. The learning organization’s goal should be to harness it by enabling it to be stored, shared, and accessed to perform or create new learning assets. But before you can put a plan in place to do so, you need to determine which parts of that broad definition you’re aiming to capture.

2. Identify where it already exists in your organization.

Survey how your workforce is learning, and capitalize on that. Start by observing how the people in your organization informally learn. Figure out what workers do and whom they ask for help when they don’t know how to do something, or what performance support tools they turn to. Don’t discount out any particular format or channel, whether podcasts, videos, articles, books, conversations, meetings, email, practice assignments, interviews, online groups, webinars, or forums. Recognize all formats as viable and valuable. Acknowledge that informal learning is taking place all the time in all parts of your organization, then highlight and encourage more of it.

3. Centralize it.

White Paper: Leveraging Social Learning In Your Organization: The Five Key ElementsIf setting up a central site sounds paradoxical to informal L&D efforts, it’s not—you’re not structuring the learning itself, only the space where it can be acquired, stored, or created. Just because these learnings are not highly structured doesn’t mean they shouldn't be prompted and promoted. If possible, leverage a portal or use a social learning tool as a central learning space where people can acquire, share, or create opportunities to learn. Make it user-friendly, inclusive, and able to be self-managed by learners. Remember that people, not programs, drive nontraditional learning engagements, so avoid getting hung up on fancy functionality and precise submission processes.

4. Organize it... gradually.

As learning assets are acquired and stored—whether articles and videos, or insightful comments posted on a newsfeed—categorize them by competencies. This will allow you to eventually tie self-based learning assets to organizational or individual performance goals. Thus, when someone comes to your central site to develop in a targeted area, they will be able to select from a competency category that relates to the role or task they are seeking to do.

5. Focus on quality over quantity.

Make use of microlearning. Not only are today’s learners savvy and driven, but they are also busy. When creating learning assets for self-paced consumption, focus on making them impactful, not long. Performance needs are driving the learner’s search, and they’re more likely to engage again if they get the answer they need without excessive effort.

6. Repurpose existing learning, where appropriate.

Mine as much existing learning as possible—provided it’s not out-of-date or irrelevant. Learners are looking to be led to the right answers, so maximize the volume of available learning opportunities. Don’t throw out your LMS or view it as outdated, but rather create links between it and the learning site. If someone wants to take an existing eLearning course (and hopefully add comments or questions in the newsfeed), let them. They just might informally pass on to someone else what they learn.

7. Measure and track it.

Even if self-reported by learners, a trail of the topics and/or formats of the learning assets being accessed can be extremely helpful as you try to promote greater and more effective consumption, sharing, and creation of the learning assets. This can be done via high-tech means such as a learning record store or xAPI, or by more analog means like an email survey.

8. Market it and stick with it.

Seek to build a community of practitioners who can help you socialize and build awareness of the concept of informal learning. Put emphasis on helping people see the value in the common ways they learn. Be patient and celebrate all progress, no matter how big or small. Consider enlisting the assistance of your marketing function, or apply a change management strategy.

The ultimate goal of an informal system of learning is to help workers do more of what they do naturally to meet their performance needs. That said, this is not a substitute for a formal training curriculum. It can be designed to support formal training, but an informal L&D initiative does not do away with the need to teach specific skills and knowledge to improve performance.  

Download the White Paper: Aligning Learning and Development for Greater  Organizational Impact

Topics: Learning Trends