Magazine article Workforce

Informal Learning Gets Results

Magazine article Workforce

Informal Learning Gets Results

Article excerpt

Despite increasing time and money for formal training, a recent study concludes that 70 percent of learning takes place outside of the classroom.

It could be as simple as installing white boards prominently and keeping them stocked with markers for quick shift change notes, or as complicated as explaining subtle company culture characteristics. Both are examples of informal learning, which happens naturally in the workplace, for good or ill. People learn when to speak up and when not to. They make jokes about mission statements or live by the principles. They feel good about coming to work, and feel successfully challenged when they get there. Or they feel frustrated and complain or quit.

"A lot of our institutions are organized in ways that stand between people and learning," says Ellen O'Brien Saunders, director of Washington State's Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. The board was a partner in a two-year, $1.6 million study of more than 1,000 employees at seven companies in seven states.

U.S. businesses, according to the Department of Labor, spend up to $50 billion annually on formal training programs, with another $70 billion on indirect wage and salary costs when workers are at such sessions and not on the job. This new study suggests that training could produce far better results if its designers recognized what, how and why people already are learning at the workplace, in meetings, on breaks and in customer interactions.

Such informal learning is spontaneous, immediate and task-specific. Eventually, harnessing it could save billions of dollars for government and industry.

"The study has profound implications on corporate culture, worker satisfaction, productivity and improving the rate of innovation," reports Monika Aring, director of the Center for Workforce Development, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, which conducted the extensive study.

Their findings could have significant effects on everything from private sector competitiveness to how welfare-to-work programs are structured.

Informal learning yields best results. Despite increasing allocations of time and money to formal training over the past decade, researchers discovered that up to 70 percent of learning actually takes place informally. Informal learning is defined as "any learning that occurs in which the learning process isn't determined or designed by the organization," Aring stresses. Formal training includes both an expressed organization goal and a defined process. Informal learning can occur whether or not there's an expressed goal, and, when it works best, serves individual as well as corporate objectives. For example, informal learning might best occur when a mentor shows a new employee how to use a machine through an actual demonstration-rather than through a classroom presentation.

To reach these conclusions, the daily work life of many was scrutinized closely. Teams of researchers from different academic disciplines descended on the designated companies, sometimes trying to inconspicuously shadow employees, other times organizing focus groups (among other techniques) to get people to explain how they do their jobs, how they learn and how they convey information to others. The pilot study was done at Motorola in Illinois, widely regarded as an excellent "Teaching Firm," another concept developed by EDC upon which the new study builds.

"The [teams] wanted to be able to walk into a factory anytime," recalls Jim Frasier, learning research and evaluation manager of Motorola University in Schaumberg. "When they got here, they stood around in different places and watched what was happening. They sat down in cafeterias. We didn't lead them. That was part of the novelty. They were ethnographic researchers. They asked questions, they observed and actually worked on the lines and saw how workers helped other workers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.