Informal learning’s role in learning transfer

Informal learning has a major role in learning transfer, yet this role is mostly ignored. It is vastly more important than you’d ever think given the way we usually carry out learning, training, and other staff development. In most organisations, despite the popularity of the 70:20:10 model, people still do very little to utilise the huge proportion of learning that is informal. They may talk about 70:20:10, but then often continue delivering L&D services in much the same way as they always did, perhaps with some extra blended approaches. If you look at what they are actually doing, you wouldn’t recognise much that will effectively make use of the enormous power of informal learning.

What is informal learning?

Informal learning is learning that is going on when we don’t think of it as learning. It is learning that just happens. It is not scheduled. It is spontaneous. It happens when we make a mistake. It happens when we observe others doing either well or badly. It happens when we reflect on our experiences. It happens when we ask someone a question or for help. It happens when we hear a story. It happens when we use Google, or a handbook or manual. And yet we usually do not notice this huge amount of learning that we do naturally and effortlessly.

Learning theories

There are many models and theories of learning that try to explain the incredibly complex process of learning. Learning is a process that has evolved within us as we, in turn, evolved to become homo sapiens. It is such an integral part of who we are and what we do that we are, to a large extent, not even aware that we are learning unless we look back on situations in hindsight.

If you ask the scientists and academics involved with learning research, they will give you models and theories, although none of these seem to be the one model that rules them all. If you are interested in the various models, visit the website for a list of the learning theories, with simple and easy-to-read summaries. But if you ask most people how they learn something, they will say they learn by doing it, and by practising it. Even if they know the theory, it remains abstract until they put it into practice and discover how it works for them in their world, in their context. Proficiency and performance grow out of practice and experience.

Ask yourself and think of your own experience. How did you come to learn what you know in order to do your current job? A lot of extra understanding is available when information is applied in a real-life situation, and that understanding evolves as the situation provides feedback over multiple iterations.

Learning is a side effect of life

In fact, think of everything you have ever learned. You learned most of it through life, through living. You could almost say that learning is an unavoidable, and thankfully desirable, side effect of life. Without our ability to learn as we live, we would have been consigned to the evolutionary dustbin a long time ago. How did you learn to run a household? I’ll bet you didn’t go to formal classes on it, and yet here you are running a household with at least some level of proficiency.

It is virtually impossible for us to imagine a world without informal learning. Learning for us is such a fundamental part of our existence that we usually don’t even notice it, any more than we notice the air we breathe. People are learning all the time; without that learning, organisations would be dead in the water within months, and probably even just weeks.

Behaviour follows experience

Learners, especially adult learners, develop their behaviour according to their experiences, not teaching. This was first highlighted by John Dewey as far back as 1938, along with his contemporaries Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget. His ideas were built upon by others, including David Kolb. Adults do not learn in the same ways as children do, therefore applying the learning theories of pedagogy to adults is a mistake. Adults already have a great deal of prior experience which they build on, and usually they wish to learn because of a pressing need. In other words, in a work context, they respond to pressures in their professional lives and seek to find rapid and practical solutions. This means they won’t always look for a teacher, or a course, and this results in informal learning.

Informal learning is not some new-fangled thing, but we are still not really leveraging what it can do for us in an organisational context. Generally, informal learning is not directed by anybody. It is a natural response to observing others, having conversations, trying things out and reflecting on experiences. It is triggered as a result of what’s going on, or it might be triggered by ad hoc researching of relevant blogs, videos, articles and so on as people seek to understand what is going on or find out what they need to know to accomplish something. For more information on informal learning, including case studies, see Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times by Paul Matthews (2013).

Informal learning MUST be part of a learning transfer workflow

In terms of learning transfer, a significant amount of informal learning MUST take place after a training course if the training course is to have any impact on performance and business results. To get the benefits, we must realise that classroom learning is only a small part of the total learning workflow that is required if the organisation is to benefit from the new knowledge and skills introduced by the training programme. The learning workflow must continue well beyond the learning event that occurred in the classroom and include structured application, experimentation, and practice. How are people ever going to get good at something if they don’t practise?

Think of learning transfer as a process that moves systematically from classroom instruction to closely supervised application in practice assignments and then to increasingly independent application in real work settings, but with some degree of ongoing support. That is, transfer of learning is facilitated by a process of systematically decreasing support and increasing the real-world nature of the application contexts. Transfer should never be assumed, but rather planned for within a learning workflow designed to embed new skills and behaviours.

Informal learning is a component of learning transfer

Informal learning as a component of learning transfer is a special case, or if you like subset, of informal learning, because it needs to be focused on some specific outcomes rather than the way most informal learning happens, which is coincidental. When it comes to learning transfer, the necessary informal learning often doesn’t happen, because it is not triggered anywhere near frequently enough, or in the right way. If we want to generate informal learning that is focused on the training course material, we must find some way of triggering it, and directing it.

Our goal is to reduce the time to proficiency and therefore we need to accelerate and intensify the informal learning inherent in experience, rather than wait for the universe to haphazardly provide the necessary experience. Therein lies part of the problem.

Harnessing the power of informal learning for learning transfer

Informal learning is very powerful, but its power comes largely from its informality and from its place within the flow of our lives. When we seek to direct it, we can kill its power by killing its informality, separating it from the natural flow of our lives. So, we need to ask how we can direct informal learning without rendering it powerless. How can we tap into its power for specific learning outcomes to support and extend our formal learning event, rather than the happenstance outcomes that usually result from its informality?

It seems to me that we need a halfway house where we can ‘manage’ informal learning, but with a light touch that does not destroy it. It is like ‘managing’ a butterfly you hold in your cupped hands. Too tight, and you kill the butterfly. Too loose, and the butterfly escapes, and you have no influence over it at all. By and large, informal learning happens through activities, through people doing things or observing things, and then reflecting on those things. That reflection is magnified if they discuss those things with somebody else.

Therefore, create a process to delegate activities that have been carefully designed to trigger the desired experimentation, practice, reflection and so on that are required, and then debrief those activities to get the magnification effect.

For more on this approach see how the People Alchemy Learning Workflow Platform delivers a sequence of activities to accomplish genuine learning transfer and lasting behavioural change

Find out more about Learning Workflows in this interview

Further reading