How to manage informal learning

By Helen Mayson

Informal learning – where employees learn from colleagues, on the job or even through YouTube – is a valuable process, but try and manage it too tightly and you stifle its effectiveness. Given the growing awareness of the significant role that informal learning plays in the workplace, and the obvious connections between capability and performance, using informal learning to create capability would be a wonderful thing to do if it were possible.

Although there are varying definitions of capability, and also of informal learning, the word that perhaps creates the biggest question is ‘using’.

Why? Because ‘using’ presupposes we can manage informal learning and use it in a purposeful way. There is an obvious tension between the idea of learning happening in an informal way, and somehow managing it. There are many who say it can’t be done and that the process of managing anything to do with informal learning tends to kill the informality, and thus the effectiveness. They say the real power of informal learning comes from its very informality, and any interference with that free-flowing informality renders it impotent.

I remember when I was a child growing up in New Zealand, my brother and I used to catch beautiful bright coloured butterflies, and hold them in our cupped hands. Perhaps you did this too when you were a child, and learned like we did that holding the butterfly too tightly without enough room for their open wings did not go well for the butterfly. But if we held them loosely with enough room for their wings, surprisingly they would settle and stop frantically trying to escape. We could open hands and they would sit there thinking butterfly thoughts, and in time fly off to continue their butterfly life.

1. Use a light touch

I imagine holding butterflies when I think of managing informal learning. Managing it too tightly will indeed destroy the informality and its effectiveness. So the question becomes, how can you manage it loosely enough that it thrives and survives while not holding it so loosely that you have no effect on it?

2. Identify your skills gaps

If we are to use informal learning to enable capability, it will be with a specific capability in mind, and therefore it is likely that we will have a list of things that we would want people to learn in order to develop that specific capability. How can we encourage people to learn through informal means the list of things we want them to learn, without holding the butterfly too tightly?

3. Know your ratios

70:20:10 is an organisational learning model that is becoming ever more popular as a principle behind the learning and development strategies of organisations. It posits that around 70% of what people learn in order to do their job is learnt experientially, around 20% is learnt socially, and only around 10% is learnt formally in a scheduled and structured way.

Using informal learning as a tool means that we need to manage the 70% and 20% components. We need to manage the experiential and social aspects of learning in such a way that people are at least likely to learn what we want them to learn and therefore develop the capability and performance we are seeking. In order to learn experientially and socially people need to do things and interact with people in situations that will trigger the kind of learning we are looking for.

So let’s design and facilitate those situations.

4. Create a ‘safe space’

Think of how an apprentice learns in a traditional apprenticeship. They first do menial tasks like cleaning up, and putting away tools. While they are doing this, they learn by observation of the master craftsman and the other tradesmen. And then one day the apprentice thought would never arrive, they get given their first real job to make a simple item. From then on the master craftsman tasks them with ever more complex and difficult jobs, each one designed to help them learn new aspects of the trade. The apprentice learns to use new tools and new materials from observing and asking others, and through his own trial and error.

A good master craftsman holds a safe space around the apprentice so they can learn at their own pace, in their own way, yet knowing they can reach out for help and advice when needed in order to accomplish the task.

The key to the learning is in the tasking. It is through setting tasks that you can set the direction of someone’s informal learning, and therefore enable a specific capability.

This article first appeared at ILM.