The role of informal learning in employee and organisation development

Derek Stockley is a training and performance management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. (Google+).

Providing opportunities to learn and grow is key for organizational success, but organizations can sometimes overlook the contribution made by informal learning. In this article, Derek Stockley, an independent learning and performance consultant, outlines some of the factors successful organisations have in place to foster effective learning.

Informal versus formal learning

In society today, there is a lot of emphasis on gaining formal educational qualifications. Despite the cost, universities and colleges all around the world have many students enrolled in everything from graduate certificates to doctoral programs. Medium and large organizations conduct in-house training programs. Some are big enough to offer their own "university" programs. Many human resource departments conduct short courses and there are a wide variety of private and educational institutions that offer short-term programs.

Yet informal learning is still the major learning type. Estimates vary, but about 70 percent of learning is thought to be informal. Informal learning is ad hoc; it occurs because a training need has to be met immediately. Sometimes, something is discovered that leads to a better way of doing things. This could arise because someone went looking for a better method. Alternatively, things can be discovered by accident, as when a particular function key is inadvertently pressed and a software program responds by doing something the user has not seen before.

There are many different ways of learning; all are important. Informal learning is especially relevant; it often has an immediate effect on work performance, because it covers a topic directly related to the immediate work task. Often informal learning will complement formal learning.

In a work setting, learning occurs as part of the job. Team leaders and managers play an important role in providing "on-the-job" training. This may be part of a formal induction program, but often, training is provided as the need arises in an informal setting. Informal learning can occur through media such as newsletters, magazines, journals and books, for example, or a fellow employee may show another staff member how to complete a specific task.

An Organizational Approach

A commitment to providing everyone with learning opportunities is an essential aspect of good management. An effective learning environment and culture will support the development and growth of the individual and the organization.

Both informal and formal learning should be encouraged. To stay competitive and to meet new challenges, every organization has to adapt and grow. It is important to constantly look for better ways to do things. Obviously, this leads to greater efficiency and productivity.

One of the challenges of business is achieving 100 percent accuracy and consistency. Many organisations "get it right" most of the time. The real challenge is to get it right every time. A commitment by the organisation to learn from mistakes - and a constant focus on perfection - will lead to fulfillment of this goal.

Personal and professional development applies to all people, not just those involved in leadership and management positions. Learning should be available to everyone. And except perhaps for very new and inexperienced employees, everyone should be capable of training others in some aspect of the organization's activities and expected to help others learn.

Successful organizations encourage learning and innovation. One of the factors behind the success of Google is its policy of letting employees spend company time "doing their own thing," spending time researching and experimenting on matters that may have little relevance to current company operations. Learning that has arisen in these activities has been very successfully applied to the company's operations.

Personal and professional development

Personal development is about developing employees in the "soft skills" relating to communication and interpersonal skills. Every employee needs to be able to communicate well. They need to be able to relate well to others and to work effectively on a team. Most organizations try to ensure that new employees already have communication and interpersonal skills. However, soft skills can be developed through both informal (feedback) and formal training.

Professional development refers more to the specific skills required to perform one's duties. Most positions require a combination of soft skills and technical knowledge and skills. Professional development should be a continuous improvement process. It is an ongoing program, whether formal or informal, undertaken to ensure that we as individuals have the skills and abilities to undertake our work in a professional, efficient and effective manner.

There are three basic parts of professional development:

  • Keeping up to date: An accountant, for example, has to keep abreast of the changes in tax legislation.

  • Expanding into related but new fields of operation: The impact of technology means that accountants have had to acquire a wide range of computer skills, including the proficient use of specialized software packages.

  • Growing the role: assuming greater responsibility, either in the same position or through promotion. As he or she becomes more senior, an accountant expands into the role of business advisor. This involves a whole new area of knowledge and skills.

Professional development may be achieved through reading industry or company newsletters, attending seminars or conferences or through the whole variety of learning and training methods. Some larger companies organize in-house professional development activities. For example, the larger accounting firms often have in-house seminars to support employees undertaking external study to gain higher accountancy qualifications.

An Atmosphere of Learning

Employees need information to do their job well. They need to know the policies and the processes. They need to be able to apply their knowledge in the execution of their role and duties. Both formal and informal learning approaches should be used. Seeking out information should be encouraged. There is a place for structured education and training, as there is a place for ad hoc, informal training and learning.

At this point, it might be useful to explain why I make a distinction between learning and training, although the end result is the same: new or improved knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Learning can occur with or without the help of others, while traditionally, training was something done to you or by you to increase your knowledge, skills and abilities. When people talk about training, they picture some form of classroom setting with a "trainer" working with a group of participants, or alternatively, someone receiving skills training on-the-job from an "instructor." Informal training tends to be skills based - showing an employee how to do something.

The organization's performance management system is one way that learning and training needs can be identified. A quarterly, half-yearly or annual performance review meeting can document and review training plans and progress.

Given the extensive learning required by many employees, performance management processes tend to focus on the major items. This is in line with the importance of regular, informal feedback to employees. Employees value informal feedback more than the feedback received in formal reviews. Active and regular discussions about learning and development also have a positive impact on employee performance.

It is unwise to utilize the formal performance management system as the principal learning control mechanism, as by necessity, it has to focus on formal training. It is hard to document the myriad of informal learning activities that may be undertaken, although it is possible that the performance management system will document the results of the learning - improved performance!

Providing Learning Opportunities

Learning opportunities can be provided in a variety of ways. A wide choice of learning and training strategies should be used, and different circumstances require different responses.

Options include:

  • Providing access on the company Intranet to a whole range of policy, procedural and learning material.

  • Team leaders conducting informal and formal group sessions in addition to the on-the-job coaching they provide.

  • Organizing and providing in-house and external training courses and seminars.

  • Supporting further education and the pursuit of formal qualifications.

E-learning is one method, using the computer as a tool to facilitate learning. Many leading companies are providing just-in-time learning modules. These two- or three-minute e-learning programs cover a specific issue and are designed to be available 24/7, precisely at the time an employee needs to know something. The modules cover specific topics - how to fill in a form, company policy, "what to do" scenarios, etc.

These modules are very effective because the learning is provided exactly when it is needed. Every organization should regard its intranet as an informal learning tool. It does not have to have specific e-learning modules (although obviously, these are better). Staff must have the confidence to use the Intranet to find information and guidance. Such confidence comes from quick and easy access (using a good search tool) and current, comprehensive information.

Just in Time

One of the reasons that informal learning represents about 70 percent of all learning activity is that the learning need can often arise quickly and unexpectedly. The fast pace of organizational operations means that a quick and effective response is required. Often, informal training and learning can be organized in minutes. The important thing is that it is available and accessible. This particularly applies to information or e-learning modules provided on an Intranet or through a Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS does not have to be complicated. A basic system that provides access to a variety of material and tracks and records the modules started and completed can get you going. The LMS is your co-ordinator and tracker. Tracking can be very important if compliance training is an important part of your development programs.

Copyright: Derek Stockley and Capital Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

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