Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the classroom.” – Jay Cross

While studies vary on the exact percentage, most learning in today’s workplace is informal. In this post, we’ll distinguish between informal and formal learning and explore ways to identify and encourage informal learning within your organization.

What is informal learning?

Jay Cross was an expert on informal learning and one of the first corporate training professionals to recognize its power in the workplace. Cross defined informal learning as “personal, social […] unofficial, unscheduled, [and] impromptu.” Informal learning is such a natural part of being human that it is sometimes difficult to realize when it has occurred. If you change your approach or behavior as a result of an impromptu conversation, that’s informal learning. You can also observe someone else and copy their technique, or watch a video on YouTube to access informal learning.

How can you design something that is informal?

A client recently asked me to “design an informal learning program.” At first, I thought she was crazy. I realized that as soon as I started to structure the learning experience, it would cease to be informal. I was designing a new hire program for engineers of a Fortune 500 company. These new employees were recruited fresh out of college, with plenty of formal learning behind them, but very little experience actually working in the field. It was taking three to four years for a new engineer to learn enough about company practices, customers and regulatory requirements to be fully productive. Although the company invested heavily in formal training, a survey revealed that most employees credited their peers for their success, rather than any particular course or curriculum. Clearly, we had to try a different approach. I often find great instructional design ideas from other disciplines. In this case, we borrowed an idea from architecture called desire paths.

Use desire paths to identify learning connections.

Rather than dictate the path of walkers on the grounds of a college or corporate campus, modern architecture often lets the users of the space define their own paths by carving patterns in the grass with repeated foot traffic. These patterns represent the ways users “desire” to navigate the space because they are the most convenient or fastest. In some cases, a desire path emerges because there is some connection between one building and another. For example, biology students may walk between their classrooms and the lab several times a day, demonstrating a strong desire to find the shortest route between the two buildings. The same thing happens in informal learning. In the case of the engineers, our survey indicated that the less experienced employees had little or no social interaction with their most experienced colleagues. The “newbies” worked in a different building than their more senior colleagues and leaders. Could a new engineer walk across the campus and knock on the door of a senior engineer? Sure. But it was so much easier to just “throw it over the wall.” It sounded something like this: “Does anyone know where to find the documentation on DO-178B?” If no one nearby knew the answer, a few employees would gather together and figure it out. The practice was great for building camaraderie and team work, but not so great on accelerating the learning process. Once we understood the communication desire paths, we were in a position to influence those paths and support the most efficient ones. In this case, the client redistributed office space so that all the engineers were mixed together. Each person was now within a few feet of people more senior to themselves, less senior to themselves or working on a completely different project. The same desire paths started to form, but now they were connecting a much more diverse group of people, resulting in faster learning and greater employee engagement.

How do you nurture informal learning?

The conclusion I reached from this project was that you can’t design informal learning, but you can give it a nurturing environment in which to grow. Here are a few things you can do in your organization to make sure that employees have easier paths toward informal learning:

  • Understand how people in your organization communicate with each other. Who goes to lunch with whom? Who sits next to whom? How are daily how-to questions being asked and answered?
  • Look for opportunities to make communication easier. Keep in mind that your employees may be finding each other outside of your brick-and-mortar building, or even outside of your intranet and firewall. What social media outlets are they using? Find ways to support and encourage free-flow information.
  • Build time into your formal training to allow informal learning to take place. In the case of the engineers, they were often working so hard on their projects that lunch was seen as a waste of time. Reprioritizing work assignments gave new employees time to breathe — and time to seek out a colleague or mentor.
  • Implement Experience Application Program Interface protocols (xAPI) in your learning technology. xAPI is specifically designed to track a wide variety of informal learning experiences, such as books, YouTube videos, discussions or hands-on practice. The data you collect will also give you some great insights into more desire paths to support.
  • Stand back and let it happen. Perhaps the hardest thing for a learning professional to do is refrain from over-designing learning. Over the years, we’ve all been conditioned to believe that we’re the ones who make learning happen, when actually we are sometimes the ones who are most in the way. It turns out that people learn because they want to learn – not because we tell them to do so.

Informal learning will happen in the workplace. The only question is whether you are helping it along or standing in the way.