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Informal learning

Informal learning

Table of Contents

It’s no secret that employee training programs garner huge benefits for your business. From boosting performance to building an engaged workforce, investing in formal staff training is a no-brainer. 

When we say formal, we’re not talking about conducting training in tuxedos. But rather, formal training is a structured learning program (either online or instructor-led) that is planned and held regularly. 

It’s an essential part of any organization’s ecosystem, but did you know that there’s a whole world outside of formal learning?

It’s called informal learning, and it’s something we humans do all the time. 

We’ve prepared this guide to help you harness the power of informal learning in your own organization. 

So, get comfortable as we break down:

  • What informal learning is 
  • How to apply it to the workplace 
  • The benefits of informal learning 
  • Easy-to-implement examples of informal training


What is informal learning?

Informal learning is any unstructured learning that takes place outside of traditional formal learning environments, such as classrooms. 

When most people think of learning, they tend to think of formal learning: courses, instructors, exams, and assignments. But in reality, learning is all around us, all the time. 

In fact, as L&D professionals, we know that a large portion of employee learning happens on the job and not in a training room.

A learning experience is any experience where you learn something. Let’s say you listen to a podcast about learning and development, and you hear an unfamiliar term such as blended learning. Then, you Google it and read a few articles (or our glossary!) on what it is—that’s an example of informal learning. 

This type of learning can take practically any shape—podcasts, webinars, reading articles online, self-study, talking with your coworkers about your job, etc.

In contrast to formal training, informal learning doesn’t have a structure and has no set learning objectives. Informal learning is also a form of asynchronous learning because it doesn’t take place in a set learning environment. 

One major thing to keep in mind is that you can’t plan informal learning. It happens organically, unlike formal education. Learning opportunities are all around us, so informal learning is also incidental learning.

So, can you implement any of this in your organization? We answer that question in the next part of the guide.


Can you implement informal learning in the workplace?

In recent years, many organizations have realized the value of workplace learning. Smart organizations are now going a step further by creating the kind of environment and learning culture that encourages peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and informal learning.

So, in brief: yes, you can implement informal learning in the workplace. 

And you should. Many employees learn better through informal methods, and research shows that most of what we learn doesn’t come from traditional classroom settings but rather from informal sources and experiences.  

That’s the lesson from the 70:20:10 model of learning; 70% of learning happens through informal, on-the-job experience, 20% comes from coaching and mentoring, and just 10% of learning happens in formal training.

Centralizing your learning resources with the help of a Learning Management System (LMS) is an effective way to foster informal learning. Employees can use the learning platform to share knowledge, such as tutorial videos, articles, step-by-step guides, etc. 

With the top LMSs, such as Docebo, you can create channels for employees to share resources on specific topics, such as diversity and inclusion, problem-solving, or other key corporate competencies. 

Employees can then create and share playlists of their favorite educational content (both internal and external resources). 

In the next portion of this guide, we’ll look at what sort of benefits you can expect if you make informal learning a part of your learning strategy.


4 benefits of informal learning you need to know

Lifelong learning is, without a doubt, a noble pursuit. People can and should learn all the time. Informal learning is a part of that idea.

But does incorporating opportunities for informal learning into your learning and development strategy have tangible benefits? 

It does. Despite the fact this informal learning process has no learning plan or set learning outcomes, it gives your employees more autonomy, takes off the pressure inherent in formal education, and ends up saving you some money. 

Let’s look at the benefits more closely now.


Benefit #1: More autonomy

Adult learning theory teaches us that adults need autonomy in learning situations. This flexibility is often missing in educational institutions and formal learning programs. 

But with informal education, learners get full flexibility. Informal learning can take place anywhere and at any time. Whether it’s attending a webinar, browsing the company’s knowledge base, or participating in a mentoring session.

Because learners choose how to digest learning experiences, informal learning also respects their learning styles. Some people will learn better from reading a long-form guide, and some will benefit from video content.


Benefit #2: It’s effective

We’ll point your attention to the 70:20:10 principle again. According to this, only 10% of what we learn comes from formal learning. The rest is mentorship, on-the-job training, experiential learning, and informal learning. 

Why would you decide to focus only on the 10%? 

Non-formal learning is very effective because learners are steering the ship, meaning that they’re learning about topics they’re interested in or that they need for their jobs. 

Also, formal learning programs tend to teach the same things over and over. It can be hard to push through new ideas and ways of thinking. But, when an employer encourages employees to research and learn on their own, they help expose them to many more concepts and ideas than any single formal training program can offer.


Benefit #3: It’s multidimensional

Informal learning can take place in a lot of different environments and contexts. It’s probably happening in your organization as you read this.

Whenever an employee asks a coworker about something, that’s informal learning. Heck, what you’re doing right now is informal learning.

Businesses can seize upon what is already happening and reap the benefits if they work on establishing a learning culture. That way, employees are likely to share even more than they already are. 

Encourage your employees to seek answers to some questions themselves. Whether it’s searching the corporate LMS knowledge bank or a Google search, they will be able to find educational content that suits their learning style.


Benefit #4: It saves business resources

Formal training programs are not cheap. Someone needs to come up with a lesson plan, create tailor-made content, and set the desired learning outcomes. 

“It’s a lot of work” is what we’re saying. 

Now, some training will always need to be formal. We’re not knocking formal learning at all. Certifications, compliance training, and such need to be formal and set expectations. 

But other things don’t have to. For instance, soft skills training is something that you can do through webinars, interesting articles on the subject, and some mentoring. 

Encourage your employees to create, source, and share their own learning materials on the corporate LMS. For instance, the IT team could create a series of short tutorial videos that answer their most frequently asked questions. That way, employees improve their computer literacy skills, and the IT team reduces its workload.

Plus, as L&D professionals, we know creating and curating high-quality training content is a neverending story. So, encouraging employee-generated training materials is a great way to soften the workload and get key information into the business.

Whenever you can identify an area where you can let informal learning take over, you’ve saved some money.

So, what do informal learning experiences look like in practice? Read on through the next part of the guide to find out.


6 informal learning examples to use yourself

We’ve seen why your organization should implement an informal learning strategy. Now, let’s turn our attention to how. It’s actually easier than you might think.

As we mentioned earlier, it’s already happening all around you. But if you take the time to implement some of these ideas, you’ll make your employees much more likely to take the opportunity to choose informal learning when it presents itself.


Example #1: Quizzes

Here’s a great way to bridge formal and informal learning. After your employees go through a formal training program, send them fun little weekly quizzes to test their knowledge and boost retention. 

The benefit here is twofold. The results of the quizzes will tell you which parts of your training program your employees remember and which they don’t. Continuous microlearning content in the form of quizzes will foster learning outside of the classroom setting. 

The best way to deliver the quizzes is through an LMS. That way, you can track the results and easily share them at scale.

To take this to the next level, you can gamify your quizzes with points and leaderboards.


Example #2: Videos

It’s official. Video is the number one type of media on the Internet. In fact, did you know that more than 500 million hours are watched daily on YouTube alone? 

These days, many people prefer to watch a video on a subject rather than read or listen to a lecture. 

To take advantage of informal learning with videos, you can encourage your employees to share interesting videos, such as Ted Talks, interviews, and explainer videos. 

As we mentioned earlier, it’s also worth encouraging them to share their own tutorial videos or recordings of presentations, training sessions, or verticals. This can be as simple as HR recording a video showing employees how to log their business expenses.

If you’re using an LMS to power learning in your organization, the best LMSs also come with social learning features such as channels, forums, and chat where learners can communicate among themselves and share interesting related materials.


Example #3: Podcasts

Since their start in the early 2000s, podcasts have become a huge thing in the entertainment world. Millions of people listen to podcasts every single day on topics ranging from Marvel movies to applied physics.

More and more, podcasts are becoming an educational tool as well, and they’re great for auditory learners.

Various companies and institutions put out podcasts to connect with stakeholders and establish themselves as thought leaders. 

Whether you’re producing podcasts of your own or not, you should encourage your employees to listen to content that is relevant to their industry.

Share the podcasts in a monthly email newsletter or, just like videos, dedicate a channel in your LMS to sharing interesting podcast episodes.


Example #4: Mentoring

Mentoring is something that all organizations should be doing. It’s a way for more experienced colleagues to impart knowledge to new employees. 

Whether it’s asking how to use a corporate tool or advice on handling a difficult conversation, mentoring happens as and when issues arise. 

That’s why mentoring is an informal learning process. Through mentorship, both the mentor and mentee benefit. Mentees gain valuable knowledge from the experiences of their mentors. Mentors get to put their knowledge to the test and practice their soft skills. 

Mentoring doesn’t just happen in person. It can also be done virtually through video conferencing, communication apps like Slack, and an LMS.

Encourage employees to make use of the Ask the Expert feature on your corporate LMS. This allows employees to ask in-company experts questions about training content or topics directly in your learning platform. 

Firstly, you’ll need to identify in-house experts and subject matter experts (SMEs). For instance, do you have an Excel whizz on your team? Why not make the most of their expertise and ask if they would be willing to be the company expert? 


Example #5: Games

Many of the best LMSs support games and simulations. A virtual informal learning environment is engaging and doesn’t feel like work. 

You can use the framework of a game to push out microlearning content to your employees or use games as a means of boosting knowledge retention after employees have completed a training course. 

We recommend creating this type of content in an e-learning content authoring tool. Then, you simply upload it to your LMS as a SCORM file. This allows you to easily update your content and track the results.

These games take the form of Jeopardy-style quizzes, fill-in-the-blanks, drag into order, etc. 

You can then use the gamification features in your LMS to award points or badges for completing the game.

Using game mechanics as part of your learning programs boosts engagement and knowledge retention in a fun and informal way.

This is why games and gamification are such strong trends in e-learning.


Example #6: Seminars and conferences

Seminars and conferences (or webinars and online events) offer your employees the opportunity to hear and learn from the best in their field. Speakers are usually thought leaders in the industry, so they have a lot to offer. 

Typically, seminars and conferences also include discussion and Q&A sessions which are great informal learning opportunities. 

Informal learning is best when it’s engaging and provides space for social learning as well. 

Being able to listen to experts and then discuss ideas does both of these things. Of course, it may not be realistic for your whole team or department to attend. After all, somebody’s got to hold down the fort. 

Not to worry, though. You can simply record these sessions and upload them to your LMS so employees who didn’t attend have access to the information. Or, if that’s not possible, ask one willing volunteer to make a quick presentation summing up the key points.

Up next, it’s time to recap.


Now over to you

Informal learning is any learning outside the classroom setting. Even something as small as watching a video or reading an online guide is learning.

Best of all, informal learning takes place all the time in every organization. Businesses that want to harness it just need the right tool (a powerful LMS) and a plan to encourage peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. 

Whether it’s video, podcasts, or a webinar, informal learning aids in professional development and can help establish a learning culture in a company. 

If you’d like to learn more about different types of learning and how they benefit organizations, head over to our glossary.