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Posts tagged ‘informal learning’

Informal learning

Informal Learning coverI am an avid reader, both in my personal and professional life. Occasionally I will come across a book, article or blog post which makes me wants to jump up and shout, ‘Yes!’, such does the content resonate with my thinking, work or experience. Informal Learning by Jay Cross is one such book. I have been exploring the complementary relationship between formal and informal learning from my perspective as a professional learning advisor.

So many interesting points have already presented themselves from the first few chapters of Informal Learning. Referred to by Cross as ‘the other 80%‘, informal learning is that which we naturally learn from other people, either on the job, in the coffee room, or in our everyday lives. However, formal training programs and receive the lion’s share of corporate budgeting for professional learning. He depicts the spending vs outcomes paradox as follows:

Cross is quick to point out that informal learning supports, complements and enables formal learning to be successful. It’s not an either/or option and an extremist approach is not recommended. However, ‘informal does not mean lackadaisical’ (Cross, 2007, p. 21); far from it. He suggests that people like change; they just don’t like to be changed by others. This is especially important to remember with adults and professional learning in the workplace. I am going to reproduce a list from chapter 2 of Informal learning.

People learn best when they:

  • know what’s in it for them and deem it relevant
  • understand what’s expected of them
  • connect with other people
  • are challenged to make choices
  • feel safe about showing what they do and do not know
  • receive information in small packets
  • get frequent progress reports
  • learn things close to the time they need them [‘just in time’ learning]
  • are encouraged by coaches or mentors
  • learn from a variety of modalities (for example, discussion followed by a simulation)
  • confront maybes instead of certainties
  • teach others
  • get positive reinforcement for small victories
  • make and correct mistakes
  • try, try and try again
  • reflect on their learning and apply its lessons. (Cross, 2007, p. 21)

It makes so much sense when you think about it. So how do we go about enabling the above conditions and ensuring an effective balance between formal and informal learning programs? For me, it comes down to starting with the basics: build a workplace culture in which professional learning is both valued and expected. It takes time but reaps ultimate rewards.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Image source Used without permission

Informal workplace learning

I am currently exploring concepts around building a culture of professional learning in a workplace. In particular, I am interested in the place that informal learning has in contributing to a workplace culture and the opportunities it presents to complement and help achieve an organisation’s goals, either short or long-term.

Bricks and mortar imageI have been reading a brief, entitled Informal workplace learning by David Cofer (2000). Although the brief is now ten years old and contains some dated references, the concept of using informal learning to complement formal workplace training and professional learning is as relevant today as ever. Cofer references research by Bell (1977), who uses a metaphor of bricks and mortar to describe the relationship between formal and informal learning. Bell suggests that the bricks relate to formal learning, acting as the foundation for personal growth. The mortar, on the other hand, comprises the informal learning that goes on to support the bricks, helping to facilitate the acceptance and development of the formal learning. The two elements support and complement one other but are not a replacement for each other; that’s important to remember. It’s also important to realise that informal learning opportunities require planning and organisation in order to make them successful. They don’t always ‘just happen’ on their own accord.

Scales clip artI am in the process of setting up several informal professional learning opportunities as part of a wider programme of professional learning. By keeping the focus informal, I believe that  some traditional barriers to professional learning in the workplace can be overcome and, in the process, encourage more ‘buy in’ from staff, especially from those who feel outside their comfort zone or are reluctant to participate. This, in turn, can help pave the way towards enabling further success with formal programmes of learning in the future. I’m interested in exploring the ideal balance between formal and informal learning opportunities. What is ideal? How do we know what’s working? How do we ensure our programmes and structures are both effective and complementary?

We are starting tomorrow with a series of paper bag lunches. These are informal learning sessions occuring one lunch time each week (yes, attendees can bring and eat their lunch and come for as much time as they have available). Attendance is entirely optional and the focus is on sharing innovation, best practice, and other helpful tips and ideas among colleagues. I have designed a simple format for presenting which allows plenty of time and opportunity for discussion, questions, and sharing. I am kicking things off with an introductory session about The world of RSS – bringing the world of information to you, rather than having to go searching online for it every day. The intention is that, in future, other staff members will share aspects of their work with colleagues, all contributing towards creating a culture of professional learning in our workplace.

Bell, C. R. (1977). Informal learning in organizations. Personnel Journal, 56 (6), pp. 280-283, 313.
Cofer, D. (2000). Informal workplace learning. Retrieved 18 October 2010 from