In today’s rapidly evolving workplace, the role of informal learning has gained significant recognition although many don’t realise how important it really is. It’s happening all the time, often when we are unaware of it, and it’s vital. Without it, our organisations would grind to a halt, unable to respond to change or new things.
Its ability to empower individuals to acquire knowledge and skills outside of formal training environments is a critical factor in personal and organisational growth. But what exactly is informal learning, and how does it operate within our conscious and unconscious realms? To shed light on this topic, we’ll explore the nuances of informal learning and its varying dimensions, from the unconscious to the conscious, in this blog post.
Uncovering the dimensions of informal learning
At the heart of informal learning lies a spectrum that stretches from unconscious to conscious, revealing how learning manifests itself in different contexts. On the unconscious end, learning happens seamlessly, almost effortlessly, without our conscious awareness. We absorb information from our surroundings, process it and create insights and understandings, all outside of conscious awareness. Although we may retrospectively recognise that we’ve learned something, the act of learning itself isn’t actively pursued or acknowledged in the moment.
On the other end of this dimension, we find ourselves in a state of conscious learning. Here, we engage in activities with the explicit intention of acquiring knowledge or mastering a particular skill. For instance, imagine embarking on a DIY plumbing project. While the primary goal is to fix a pipe, we are acutely aware that learning how to carry out the task correctly will equip us with a valuable skill for future use. This distinction between what Alan Rogers terms “task-conscious” and “learning-conscious” underscores the varying degrees of intentionality behind our informal learning.
Managing the dimensions
Within this spectrum, managing informal learning becomes a matter of understanding where on the dimension a particular learning experience falls. At the task-conscious end, attempting to control or formalise informal learning might prove counterproductive, potentially disrupting the natural flow of knowledge absorption. It could also interfere with getting the task done which after all, is the primary goal of the activity. The best way to harness and embed the learning from an activity at this end of the spectrum is an ‘after action review’. This review is itself a very learning focused activity and so is at the learning-conscious end of the spectrum.
At the learning-conscious end, we can actively shape and enhance our learning experiences. Consider the scenario where someone has undergone formal training in pipe repair. It becomes crucial to ensure that the knowledge gained from that training seamlessly transfers into their practical work. Rather than passively waiting for a pipe repair incident to occur, proactive measures can be taken to provide opportunities for trainees to immediately practice their newfound skills. By allowing them to apply their knowledge promptly, we prevent the decay of newly acquired information as Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve sets in. This is where we find the overlap between informal learning and learning transfer.
Learning transfer accountability
The question of accountability arises: Who is accountable for facilitating effective learning transfer? This accountability should lie in the hands of those with the authority and capability to take meaningful action in the right place and at the right time. Too often, no-one is accountable and learning transfer is left to chance.
Within the essence of accountability lies the concept of ‘count’ – the ability to count or measure progress towards the intended outcomes. If someone is accountable for an outcome, how will they, or others, know what progress is being made and when the outcome has been achieved? This is where conducting a behavioural needs analysis (BNA) at the project’s onset proves invaluable, as it ensures the presence of quantifiable goals that individuals can be held responsible for achieving.
Experiencing learning transfer in action
Implementing a learning workflow approach has proven effective in bridging the gap between formal training and real-world application. By following a structured process that encompasses knowledge acquisition, practice, and feedback, organisations can maximise the potential of informal learning within the learning transfer process and drive tangible results.
Informal learning, paradoxically, is a vital component of successful formal training because it is essential for the learning transfer process. An understanding or informal learning and how it plays out at both the conscious and unconscious levels helps with the design of formal learning initiatives and subsequent learning transfer.
By understanding when to manage and when to allow informal learning to flow naturally, we can optimise the transfer of knowledge and skills. Furthermore, embracing accountability and establishing measurable goals solidifies our commitment to learning transfer and empowers individuals to take ownership of their development journeys. Through a mindful approach to informal learning, we can unlock its transformative power and harness it effectively in today’s dynamic landscape.
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