Informal: The New Normal

I Attended a learning conference recently. The big buzz was informal learning. Yes, 70/20/10 bar graph slides were rampant. You know, 70% percent of learning happens informally through on-the-job training (OJT); 20% of learning comes from bosses and mentors; only 10% of learning is acquired through formal learning programs.

The really interesting statistic is that 90% of training budgets still go toward formal training.  If we were marketers and proposed investing 90% of the budget in an initiative that, year-on-year, delivers only 10% of sales revenue, would our marketing budget get approved? Would we be employed?

The other big point repeated about informal learning, as it enters its hype cycle, is that informal learning is not new.  It has always been there and has worked well enough to make up for what is not handled by formal learning.  What is new is that organizations are beginning to put research, budget, technology, and measurement against informal learning.  Although, as one CLO panelist put it, we just need to be careful not to formalize it to the point that we screw it up. The other "aha" is that the training organizations have never controlled informal learning and probably won't control the tools that are leveraged to facilitate informal learning going forward.

Another big idea from the conference is that learning professionals need to make a shift in how they operate to make informal learning successful in their organizations. Basically, it means letting go; facilitating great content and conversations, not just broadcasting small structured learning experiences.  Learning organizations do not have the subject matter expertise nor the bandwidth to keep up with the demand for knowledge in this long tail world.  Here's how training has to change according to Tamar Elkeles, CLO of Qualcomm, Inc.:

In several of the sessions, it was reinforced that technology tools can help foster informal learning but that many other factors were equally as critical to success:

  • Have thought leaders and management seed informal learning pathways with content to motivate others to contribute, show that management supports the effort, and give people "permission" to join the conversation.
  • Make seeking information and sharing information part of how employees are reviewed, recognized and compensated. Yum Brands actually branded the phrase "Building Know-How" to reinforce the need to seek and share information.
  • Informal learning adoption is much higher when it is implemented to support existing rubber-meets-the road business initiatives, particularly around sales.
 While a lot of the panel discussions at the conference reinforced that informal learning happens organically in small groups, has happened informally for centuries, and we can't control it, the reality is that in an increasingly distributed, global workforce, prairie-dogging over the cube only scales so far.  Like most things we do in business, technology is not a replacement for best practices but it can provide scale and automation.  For those looking to use technology to help facilitate informal learning, here are a few nuggets:
  • Tools must be easy to use.  If you need formal training on your informal learning solution, you are dead in the water.
  • Tools should not increase the friction of finding or contributing information. Ideally, they should make the process faster and easier. High friction equals low adoption.
  • Desktop real estate is crowded like store shelves.  Make sure your tool is available where your users already spend time (e.g., Outlook Toolbar, browser plug-in).  If they have to go to a completely separate place that is outside of their normal workflow, you have an uphill adoption battle even if the content is good.
  • Allow users to post in native file formats (e.g., Word, PPT, Excel, Visio) so they can author content with the tool that best fits the content.
  • Search is the key. How many friends' phone numbers have you memorized lately? If your platform does not have powerful search capability, then this massive amount of content you are hoping to stockpile will be useless to users.
  • Make sure there is metadata attached to content and that the tool provides for governance by automating periodic content reviews by authors/SMEs to ensure ongoing relevance and accuracy of the content.
  • Your tool should be able to mine existing repositories and deliver a relevant, consolidated set of results to searchers. There should also be pre-established hooks to popular knowledge repositories (CRM, SharePoint, Slack).
  • Make sure your tools are designed for the enterprise with robust security that keeps your private company information secure. It should also have granular permissioning and moderation features so you can finely control who can post and who gets access to what information.  This is particularly important when sharing information with partners, suppliers and other third parties.
Well, to sum it up, I went to a formal learning event and attended sessions on informal learning. I captured my initial thoughts informally on OneNote and then published on Linked In (with low friction) to share with you. Hopefully, you learned something or I will have to update my bar chart percentages which will require formal Excel training.


Mike Petersell said...


I attended the Technology Assisted Learning Conference in Chicago shortly after ASTD. The 70/20/10 slide showed up in several presentations that week as well.

Nice blog.

Tom Reilly said...

Thanks Mike I had to miss the TAL conference. I would like to hear about it. Let's connect. Tom