Informal Training Takes Off

By Benson, George | Training & Development, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Informal Training Takes Off


Benson, George, Training & Development


Watching a co-worker show you how to operate a machine tool. Asking someone how to use the spellcheck function on a word processor. Listening to a supervisor explain a new accounting procedure. Those are just some examples of the informal ways people gain the essential skills and information required to do their jobs.

Such impromptu activities in the workplace have always complemented, and sometimes replaced, structured training. Until now, however, many training professionals haven't realized the immense scope of informal training that is taking place.

Trainers have always known the critical importance of informal, just-in-time training that occurs every day on the job. Some companies have been tracking and facilitating that kind of training. But for the first time, new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employees spend much more time in informal learning than in formal, employer-sponsored training. In fact, they spend on average 70 percent of their total training time in informal activities.

The data was collected in a 1995 survey, conducted in two phases from May through October. The first phase was a survey of 1,062 employers to gather information on their training expenditures and how much formal training they offered employees. Those results were released in July 1996. (See "How Much Do Employers Spend On Training?" Training & Development, October 1996.) The second phase was a survey of randomly selected employees from the companies participating in phase one. The total data offers the most detailed picture to date on workplace training in the United States.

The most significant findings were the first-ever figures on the amount of informal on-the-job training. Past research on employer-provided training tended to focus on the formal kind. The few studies that did investigate informal training estimated how many employees received such training, but failed to pinpoint how much informal training takes place during the course of a normal workday.

The 1991 Current Population Survey, for example, asked about the types of training that employees received in their jobs. A study by the Small Business Association asked employers to estimate the number of hours that co-workers and supervisors spent giving individualized informal instruction to new employees during their first three months.

The 1995 Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey on Employer-Provided Training was unique in the type of data it collected and its efforts to ensure accuracy. For example, it used time logs to track all of the training activities that employees participated in during a 10-day period. Experienced field economists visited each company to instruct selected employees on how to identify training activities - for example, "whenever you are taught a skill or provided information to help you do your job better." The time logs recorded the duration of each training activity, how the training was delivered, who was involved, and what type of skill or information was transferred.

Usable time logs were collected from 1,013 employees for a response rate of 47.7 percent. The log activities were designated as formal or informal training. For the purpose of the survey, formal training was defined as "training planned in advance with a defined curriculum."

Some surprising findings

A major finding was a lack of relationship between informal training and organization size. Past research has consistently shown a correlation between company size and the number of hours of formal training that employees receive. The larger a company, the more formal training it does. In the most recent BLS research, no such relationship was found for informal training. The findings indicate that informal training practices are similar in both large and small organizations and that in small companies, which tend to offer little formal training, informal training does not serve as a substitute for formal training. …

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