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For most people, talk of formal learning evokes images of classroom training, although formal learning also includes e-learning and other forms of learning - topics I covered in my previous blog. So what is informal learning?

Informal learning involves learning outside of a formal setting – from those around us, from unofficial sources, from user-generated content.  Most learning takes place this way, and it is the primary source for ongoing learning.  In practical terms, it encompasses elements as diverse as: worksheets each user or team creates for themselves;  the practice of users trawling through an online forum to find the solution to that tricky issue; new person Kim sitting next to a colleague for the first couple of weeks and listening to how the more experienced person handles the customer call.  What characterizes informal learning is that it is not centrally, ‘officially’ managed.

In many organizations, this informal learning is simply not included in any strategy for learning. Here we are starting to address a point I made in the first blog of this series. Many organizations put in place a regime for teaching, and assume therefore that the desired learning is happening. Generally, it seems to me that there is a lack of understanding of informal learning, and many organizations don’t even appreciate that it’s happening.  Those that do may even resent or fear it. “What if my users learn something that is wrong?” 

If we forget for a moment that we are trying to teach, and actually focus on the learning first, then this frees us to approach our learning strategy in a much more open minded way. It also means that we need to consider all aspects of learning, especially this most important aspect: informal learning.

You might notice that many examples of informal learning in an organization have a social dimension.  This is typical: informal learning is often generated and distributed in a social context. People talk – sharing information and misinformation. Lave and Wenger, the researchers that I mentioned in the first blog of this series, are big advocates of socio-cultural learning. Simply put, this means that we learn through interaction with others, and the environment around us.

Organizations need to accept that informal learning is always happening. You should not try to fight or limit it. It is much better to provide mechanisms that encourage and support information sharing, in an effort to manage it rather than eliminate it. The key is an appropriate forum – don’t provide an internal wiki to a business community with no history or inclination to use this method. If you make information too difficult or unfamiliar to access, then people will still pick up the phone to the helpdesk when they have a problem, no matter what size. Paper-based self-help can be useful, if you can find ways to manage it. For this method, you probably need small communities which self-police accuracy and relevance – a shared team bible, for example. The thing to avoid if possible is situations where every individual has their own version of the truth – but insisting on completely formal, central control is not the only alternative open to you.

A good super user community is essential to this approach – not a group of people who have slightly more training than their peers, but a true community. Sharing information between them, then cascading that to their individual peer groups means that you can disseminate the best information and best practices, whilst still allowing semi-autonomy and acknowledging that informal learning is real and powerful. Incidentally, distributing support like this also means that your central support function can stop spending so much time on user coaching and basic queries and instead start driving business innovation and increased return on investment. Have you ever met a CIO who didn’t wish IT support could produce value instead of just costing money?

Lave and Wenger picture communities of practice as being self-generating and self-managing – in my experience this doesn’t have to be the way. There is nothing wrong with supporting the set up and management of peer-to-peer information exchanges and knowledge communities. In fact, formalizing their establishment makes clear that they have management support and are a valuable source of learning and troubleshooting.  

So we are fast approaching the climax of this blog series. In the final instalment I will distill the concepts I've addressed so far, and bring it all together withsome advice on how you can build your organization into a Learning Organization.