A ridiculously long post on Informal Learning

Here’s my attempt at breaking the Guinness World Record for longest blog post. (2809 words). Don’t eat it all in one bite.

I’m preparing to lead an experiential workshop for change agents covering all aspect of informal learning. I figured it would be wise to revisit my recent writing on the topic. Here goes….

Informal Learning Revisited

Six years ago I wrote Informal Learning, Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. The book came out before iPhones and iPads. Facebook was only available to students. Twitter had not been born. eLearning was still haled as a panacea. Andy McAfee had just coined the term Enterprise 2.0, and nobody was talking about Social Business. It’s time for an upgrade.

Synopsis of Informal Learning
The book made the case that most learning about how to do a job is informal. An organization that fails to address informal learning leaves a tremendous amount of learning to chance.

Most corporations spend most of their training budget on formal learning, despite the fact that most of the learning that goes on is informal.

What is learning?
Learning is how people adapt to changing conditions, and things are changing faster than ever before.

Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs.

Corporations would bypass learning altogether were it not politically incorrect to do so. Executives don’t want learning; they want execution. They want the job done. They want performance.

Formal and informal learning
Learning is neither formal nor informal; it’s always a bit of both.

Learning that is more formal has a curriculum: content and objectives that are set by someone other than the learner. Often people learn formally in groups at set times. It’s like riding a bus. The bus follows the official route regardless of the requests of individual passengers. Formal learning frequently concludes with some sort of recognition, be it a certificate or grade or checkmark in a learning management system. People participate in formal learning because they are told to.

Informal learning is more personalized. The learner chooses the subject matter and often decides how and when to learn it. Learning may be solo or with others. It’s like riding a bicycle. The bike rider selects the route, often changing in mid-course. The rider may stop short of the original destination. People generally learn informally to get something done, and it’s the ability to do something that demonstrates that learning took place.

Listening to a lecture or attending a workshop are primarily formal learning. Asking questions of co-workers or trial-and-error are informal.

Informal Learning is Business

What makes informal learning effective
Informal learning is effective because it’s personal. The individual calls the shots. The learner is responsible. It’s real. We learn in context, with others, as we live and work. Recognizing this fact is the first step to crafting an effective learning strategy.

People with experience like to learn but hate to be taught. People who already know the lay of the land don’t want a curriculum. That’s someone else’s opinion of what they need to know. They prefer to cherry-pick what they need in the most convenient way available. They expect the freedom to connect the dots for themselves. Intrinsic motivation trumps following orders.

This is business
If a learning project–make that any project–does not make business sense, don’t do it. If the return on investment is not so obvious that you can sketch it out on the back of a napkin, do something with a higher return.

The appropriate measure of learning is how good a job one is doing. Training metrics should be business metrics.

Getting down to cases
The book describes how organizations have taken advantage of informal learning.

  • Communities of practice rely on practitioners to discover, document, and bring their members up to speed organically.
  • Workers become better learners when they understand how learning works, set expectations, know themselves, reflect, take notes, and cement what they learn by revisiting it.
  • Conversations are the stem cells of learning. Encourage meaningful conversation by recognizing its value, making room for it, supporting a culture of sharing, demanding candor and understanding, and relying on storytelling to communicate.
  • Organizations have relied on graphics to develop corporate strategy and bring it to life. After all, humans are sight mammals.
  • eLearning failed coming out of the starting blocks because learning involves a lot more than exposure to content, and you can’t take people out of the equation. A smart organization blends context, reinforcement, interaction, and more into the learning mix.
  • A few have invested in building learning ecologies, shared spaces where people learn. They pay attention to social networks to optimize organizational performance.
  • Replacing stodgy, over-planned meetings and conferences with spontaneous “unconferences” makes events more relevant and at the same time cut costs.

Controversy over informal learning

When the book on informal learning came out, nay-sayers attacked me as some kind of loony. Some still do. I’ve got a thick skin.

QUESTION: How do you know that informal learning works?
ANSWER: How did you learn to walk and talk? How did you learn to kiss?

QUESTION: How can you measure what people learn?
ANSWER: By judging what they do. Has their performance improved?

QUESTION: How can we assess the ROI of informal learning?
ANSWER: Cost-benefit analysis. But hold it, how to you assess the ROI of formal learning?

QUESTION: How do you know learning on the job is 80% informal?
ANSWER: Study after study arrives at that figure but it’s a generality. It depends on the context: what’s to be learned, who’s learning it, and where’s the learner starting from. The important thing is that informal learning is too important to overlook.

QUESTION: Do you want a doctor or pilot who learned informally?
ANSWER: Informal learning is only part of the solution. I want my doctors and pilots to have learned both formally and through experience. Yes, I want them to engage in frequent conversation with their peers.

QUESTION: How do you know if people really learn this way?
ANSWER: You ask them how they learned to do what they’re doing. Studies find that only 15% of what’s learning in formal workshops shows up as changed behavior on the job. Can informal learning do any worse?

Despite the criticism, many readers were very supportive. I expected managers and executives to flock to informal learning. Corporations leave money on the table — lots of it — by not investing in the combination of working and learning that really works.

What happened? Not much. Companies continued to put almost all of the training budget into schooling novices. They acted as if the natural way of informal learning didn’t exist. Or was someone else’s responsibility. They largely squandered the opportunity to increase their effectiveness by becoming networked learning organizations. I think I’ve figured out why.


Business people confuse learning with schooling.

For the better part of twenty years, school indoctrinated us that formal learning was the legitimate way to learn, that teachers and books provided the knowledge one needed to master, and that grades were the measure of accomplishment.

It’s easy to poke fun at the foibles of schooling. Learning is active and most schooling is passive. What’s taught in school is often superficial, boring, and irrelevant. Since school learning isn’t reinforced in real life, most of what’s learned is forgotten before it can be put to use. Could you pass your college’s final exams? Grades that once seemed so important turn out to be meaningless outside of school systems.

Nonetheless, most corporate training departments are modeled on schools. They deal with learners who are enrolled. They provide top-down classes and rigid content. They take attendance, administer tests, and certify participation. They let non-training learning fall between the cracks.

The Road Not Taken

Nick Shackleton-Jones commented on a post on Jane Hart’s blog about this topic:

From Jay’s ‘engineering’ perspective the lack of investment in informal learning does seem perplexing, I agree. But unless learning professionals can demonstrate that they can really add to informal learning it is hard to justify this investment – I suppose that if you are successfully running a bakery, why would the business fund you to start up a newspaper?

I replied:

Nick, you nailed. When it comes to learning, some of the bakers already have expertise in running newspapers: they understand how people learn. They know that traditional training is ineffective. They appreciate that learning entails more than exposing people to content. They mouth the words that most learning is informal, social, and experiential. I guess I’m calling for chief learning officers to put what’s good for the company ahead of what’s good for their traditional department.

David Price followed up:

It feels counter-intuitive in command-and-control systems to trust that people will not veer off, if left to pursue their own learning…. So, the biggest challenge was convincing teachers that they still had a vital role to play in supporting (but not directing) informal learning. Feeling irrelevant is no doubt the challenge too for CLOs!

Trust is at the heart of this. If you don’t trust people to do what’s right, you can’t support informal learning. We’ll return to this subject.

In the next couple of posts, I’m going to point out how the world has changed since the book came out and things I’d do differently were I writing the book today.

The New Workplace

Six years ago few people believed that informal learning made much of a difference. Today’s common wisdom is that most workplace learning is experiential, unplanned, social, and informal.

Informal learning tops many training department agendas. Companies are attracted by the low price tag. However, few of them are doing much systematically. They’ve converted a few programs but they’ve failed to improve their learning ecosystems.

We’ve shifted how we think about learning since the Informal Learning book came out. It’s a new ball game and we need to play by new rules. Consider what’s changed:

  • We used to think that communities of practice could only sprout up organically. Now we know we create them via artificial insemination.
  • The information explosion has hit. We create as much new information in a day as we once created in a millennium, and it’s growing exponentially. People trying to figure everything out all out by themselves are whizzing their way to overload and breakdown; collective wisdom and social filters are the only way to keep up.
  • Companies are connecting people with social network technology. Some have so embraced in-house social networking, microblogging, and discussion forums that they define themselves as “social businesses.” The merged workflow/learning that flow through these networks makes or breaks the enterprise’s sustainability.
  • Time continues to go faster. New businesses are created in a week and are acquired in less than a year. Competitors are faster on their feet.
  • Complexity theory used to be a riddle for scientists to tinker with. Today we all grapple with complexity’s outpouring of unpredictability, volatility, emergence, and uncertainty.
  • The tools for building and sustaining networks are at hand and are dirt cheap.
  • We used to think that knowledge resided in people heads. Today most of us believe the knowledge resides in networks.
  • Web 2.0 has become mainstream. People communicate with texts, Tweets, iPhones, email, and blogs in their personal lives, and expect to be able to do so at work.
  • People have become savvy web consumers. Young people who grew up with Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, and Google are entering the workforce. New hires ask “Where’s the network? Where do I post my profile?”
  • Internet Culture is proliferating. Openness and sharing are default behaviors.
  • The web gives unprecedented free access to college courses, how-to videos, advice columns, and experts.
  • Network access has gone mobile. Desktop PCs have given way to laptops and laptops are losing ground to smartphones and tablets.
  • Connectivity has undoubtedly shifted the 80%/20% ratio of informal to formal learning; it’s probably closer to 95%/5% these days.

I’m convinced that working smarter by boosting informal performance is a key to survival in today’s topsy-turvy business climate. I’ve resolved to show organizations how to increase the effectiveness and depth of informal learning — in the larger context of working smarter in the digital enterprise. Working Smarter is not education for intellectual enrichment; it is how people get better at doing their jobs over time.

Don’t drink the eLearning Snake Oil

The Tragedy of eLearning

We’ve seen this movie before.

The 1999 Online Learning conference in Los Angeles was ground zero for eLearning. CBT Systems told the world it was being reincarnated as SmartForce, the eLearning Company. When we unveiled signs at the SmartForce booth, we were the only vendor who mentioned eLearning in the crowded exhibition area. Yet at the ASTD Conference six months later, dozens of vendors claimed to have eLearning. Most of them had changed nothing but their brochures and signage. The “e”? Perhaps you could ask for help via email.

Soon thereafter, most eLearning morphed into deadly dull shovelware. The bad crowded out the good. Our dream of personalized, modular, always-on learning was dashed. eLearning, no matter how feeble, enabled training departments to check the boxes that they’d reduced costs and still covered the important topics. What they couldn’t claim is that it was working. The term eLearning is now meaningless.

I fear that charlatans and dummies are taking informal learning down the same road.

An Informal Learning Sequel?

While it took six years to arrive, informal learning has become L&D’s flavor of the day. Put on your crap detectors.

  • Numerous consultants are offering to help manage informal learning. (It doesn’t work that way. You nurture informal learning; micro-managing chokes it off.)
  • A brief quiz tells you whether your organization needs to adopt formal or informal approaches. (That varies by what’s being learned, who’s doing the learning, and a lot of other factors. It’s not an organization-wide choice.)
  • On Facebook, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether I’m an informal learner. (We are all informal learners.)
  • Some LMS vendors tell me they are measuring informal learning. (This is BS — unless they’ve incorporated business metrics.)
  • Other vendors claim to support informal learning with blogs and discussion groups. (No, no, no. We don’t need something else tacked onto work. Informal learning needs to be embedded in existing workflow, not heaped on top of it.)
  • Some people are trying to “formalize informal learning”; that’s a semantic fallacy — an oxymoron. (What they are really after is recognizing that informal learning is important and should be baked into the organization’s routine. Yes, of course, but the informal learning is already going on; the challenge is to make it better.)
  • And so it goes.

The Experiential Informal Learning Workshop

First come, first served.

The Informal Learning Experiential Workshop

This workshop is not a course. It’s more like Outward Bound meets Oxford. You learn by doing.

with Jay Cross

Four weeks

Five interactive video conversations with Jay
Hands-on experiential learning
Limit of nine participants
Identify high-impact opportunities
Focus on a project for your company that delivers $100,000+ in benefits
Review cases and examples of successful implementations
Benchmark your organization against peers
Develop and sell your implementation plan


Four to twelve hours/week for five weeks
Collaborate with a self-organizing team to solve problems
Join an on-going community of practice
Tweet, blog, link, bookmark, narrate, and record
Network socially with Socialcast, Buddypress, GoToMeeting, Google+

Become a Performance Ninja

The month-long event is appropriate for decision-makers, designers, CLOs, innovation leaders, managers of communications, and others who want to accelerate learning in their organization.

This is the alpha version of this workshop. Occasionally things will go off the rails. The upside is that you’ll receive personal attention and have a voice in selecting what we cover.

This workshop is not a course. It’s more like Outward Bound meets Oxford. You learn by doing.


By the close of the workshop, you will be able to…

  • understand what informal learning is, how it works, why it’s important
  • experience learning hands-on through collaborative work, community and social software
  • find out how to integrate learning into workflow
  • review models, cases, archetypes of successful informal learning
  • gain metalearning perspective, think ecologically
  • spot the fakes, e.g. “managing informal learning”
  • identify opportunities to improve performance by a minimum of $100,000
  • prepare a business case for that informal learning project
  • estimate business impact and sell the concept internally
  • implementation plan, change management, cost/benefit
You will receive

Two books and the Informal Learning poster

In addition:

Everyone also receives

  • Informal Learning, Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Learning & Performance
  • The Working Smarter Fieldbook: Informal Learning in the Cloud
  • 300+ PowerPoint slides for use in explaining concept to others
  • hi-res copy of the informal learning poster
  • membership in ongoing support network
  • certificate of participation
Start date:

mid-July through mid-August 2012

More information at the Informal Learning Center.


One thought on “A ridiculously long post on Informal Learning

  1. I believe the world of ‘schooling’ and corporate [informal] learning is coming closer together – soon to overlap, then intertwine. The rigid structure of Higher Ed is being challenged – MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are examples of organic, networked and in some cases informal learning. They are student / learner driven, learning outcomes are dependent upon what the learner wants to learn. Interesting. Thanks for the [longish] post.

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