For organizations interested in promoting employee growth, a mix of formal with informal education methods may be the key to success.
Informal learning refers to the spontaneous, ad-hoc learning most of us engage in every day when we feed our curiosity or explore answers to questions provoked by our environment. For instance, we might feel stumped about a computer setting and hop on Google to figure out how to change it. Or maybe something from a television program has piqued our curiosity and we search Wikipedia to learn more.
This may seem mundane, but some educators estimate that as much as 80 or 90% of the information we learn happens in this casual, unstructured way. In fact, individuals who regularly practice informal learning are often the most valuable workers a company can have. They tend to think outside the box, exercise better problem-solving skills, and are more self-motivated.
While some people may be born with personalities more adapted to informal learning, it can also be an acquired habit. Furthermore, organizations have an impact on how informal learning can be encouraged or repressed in the office. An office environment that strictly controls user access to the Internet will limit informal learning more than one which encourages employees to explore solutions on their own.
If the connection between informal learning and a thriving business doesn’t make immediate sense to you, here are nine advantages that may sway your opinion.
1. It’s a form of training.
Given access to the right resources, an informal learner can often be left to figure some things out on their own. But they can also provide training and mentoring to their coworkers.
Most of us can recall situations when we’ve helped coworkers learn to manage a task at work—or were helped ourselves. Such assistance isn’t just useful for the company; it also fosters a supportive atmosphere among coworkers. Organizations can inadvertently crush this spirit if they are too focused on productivity targets.
2. It’s cheap.
Informal learning isn’t free—it takes time to learn a new skill or absorb new information, even if one is doing so informally. But the cost in time and resources is far lower than that of a formal course. In terms of employee growth, it’s a relatively low-risk investment.
3. It’s empowering.
Give employees permission to explore areas of interest, and they’re likely to put that work to good use. This was the theory behind Google’s famous 20% policy, which encouraged employees to take one day a week to devote toward a side project. While Google has since amended that policy, it has been adapted by many other businesses.
4. It’s practical.
Moments of informal learning are usually triggered by something at hand. A learner needs to fix a problem at work, answer a customer question, or come up with a creative idea. This means that, as employees work to address the issue, the knowledge they acquire is immediately applicable. And as a bonus, knowledge gained under these circumstances is usually retained more thoroughly.
5. It’s immediate.
Formal learning usually requires time to curate and prepare materials. This involves a significant amount of effort on the part of the instructor, who must also teach the course and respond to learner questions.
By contrast, with informal learning, the process of identifying the material to be learned and learning it happens simultaneously.
6. It satisfies (and rewards) curiosity.
Informal learning can often be perceived as a distraction. However, have you ever considered how much energy goes into repressing curious impulses? If you’re the kind of person with a compulsion to look up answers to questions almost as soon as you think of them, you’re probably aware of how deadening it can feel to set that impulse aside till later. In fact, doing so might add an invisible mental burden that hinders productivity rather than encouraging it.
7. It offers a more productive break.
We all need breaks during the work day to stay fresh and productive. For some of us, that break may be a short walk, a snack in the cafeteria, or a chat with coworkers by the coffee station. Moments of informal learning also provide much-needed respite from the pressure of various deadlines. While it might seem counterintuitive, your employees will probably get more done if they feel free to look up an interesting idea on Wikipedia or catch up on a news article during work.
8. It encourages lateral thinking.
Most employers recognize the value of creative thinking. However, creativity is often fueled by input from wide-ranging sources, and the connections to the subject at hand are not always apparent. While employers may not see an immediate benefit in encouraging employees to feed their curiosity, the payoff might hit an unexpected moment.
9. It reinforces formal learning.
Informal learning is not a substitution for formal learning. Rather, the two go hand-in-hand. An employee taking a formal training course will doubtless find information within that is worth exploring independently. And that independent exploration may in turn lead to further areas of interest that are worth pursuing through a formal learning method.
Informal learning is a habit that organizations can cultivate.
We’ve all heard the expression “you learn something new every day.” It’s an unavoidable truth for most of us, but it can also be a way of life. In fact, I would bet that anyone who describes themself as a “lifelong learner” is probably the sort of person who engages in prodigious amounts of informal learning.
For most businesses, natural learners are an obvious asset. But to get the most from informal learning, organizations should find ways to promote and encourage it within the office environment. Doing so will most likely help employees feel more engaged with their work, which can only be good for the company.