informal learning

How to Use Informal Learning to Empower Employees

Remember that great day of in-house, instructor-led training last month?

Nope, I don’t remember it either because it didn’t happen! As L&D professionals know, training budgets in recent years have been slashed and the hours previously spent in seminars, workshops and offsite meetings have evaporated. But even though training budgets are slight, your employees can still learn in other ways. Informal learning is an excellent method that empowers employees to venture out into the world to discover their own learning content.

Informal learning is steeped in experiential roots, such as when we take something apart to understand how it works. You’ll know informal learning when you see spontaneous and flexible interactions surrounding an intent to learn. Think of the books, blog posts, podcasts or TED talks you’ve consumed lately. Although you may not have labeled it such, you were participating in informal learning.

Why We (Heart) Informal Learning

As the head of organizational talent and leadership development at Saba, I am in the unique position to hear about how our employees are diving into informal learning.

I’ve listened in on stories about colleagues who adore informal learning because it offers immediate information and the just-for-me flexibility most of us want.

Our leaders are excited about informal learning because it slots into the fast pace of today’s business world. We no longer have to labor two months on a training course about business presentations, for example, and send it through endless rounds of revisions. Someone, somewhere has already launched the information online.

Finally, informal learning is appealing to L&D pros because our learners are enthusiastic about it. They’re innovative in their search for new ideas, new solutions and new approaches to old problems. When our learners want to learn, many of them just do it — they don’t wait to sign up for a course or ask permission to dive into intriguing material (and that’s a good thing!).

Why Informal Learning Gets a Bad Rap

It’s not a secret that informal, online learning often falls short of its potential. There are definitely some pitfalls to avoid, such as assuming that all employees are ready and willing to search out the information they need online. With all of the pressures on employees today, learning can easily slip to the bottom of the to-do list.

And it’s easy to assume that most people in the workplace are rocks stars when it comes to finding the content they need online. But often employees are stymied in their searches. What do they need? What is a trusted source? Sometimes, the relevance of a video course or e-book can be hard to determine without a lot of wasted time.

One quirky detail that has been observed in research studies is the more choices we have, the greater stress we may feel so that we end up not choosing anything at all. In her book, “The Art of Choosing,” Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar notes that the ideal number of choices most humans can process effectively is somewhere between five and nine.

How to Do Informal Learning the Right Way

So, how do we start off on the right foot? Are your employees curious and eager to seek new information? Then you already have an organizational culture that embraces learning. That’s an excellent place to start.

Here are some tips for encouraging a culture of continuous learning and development:

  • During 1:1 meetings with employees, inspire your employees to set learning objectives as part of their overall goals.
  • Be a learning culture champion. Include funds in departmental training budgets for MOOCs (massive open online courses), subscription-only journals or paid industry news sources.
  • Provide employees with helpful sources such as industry podcasts and blogs so that they have somewhere to begin.
  • Encourage employees to share favorite content they have found (and provide them with tools that help them do so).
  • When creating mission statements, company goals and other aspirational content, include learning and development aspects.
  • Encourage managers to let employees know their informal learning choices will be supported (reasonably) by allowing time “away.”

More on the Way

Informal learning content, with its bite-sized and on-the-fly consumption, will likely only increase in popularity. Technology can help organize informal learning by tracking and recording what people are learning and discovering. Some organizations encourage employees to contribute to the learning ecosystem with incentives or badges. Sharing features on learning platforms tap into the very human impulse to share knowledge with others.

Business moves quickly, and for L&D teams who blink, the world moves on. Informal learning doesn’t have to be scary or vague. By encouraging what’s already happening in the workplace and tracking it through the use of smart technology, employers can feel confident they are helping launch inquisitive employees into a search for their own learning content. When employees are supported in their search for flexible and just-in-time learning, the organization benefits and employees feel empowered. That sounds like L&D success to me.