The Ultimate Informal Learning Guide For Beginners
Is informal learning the right approach for your remote work teams? Some of the most powerful training experiences are unplanned. Every day is a new opportunity to broaden our horizons and learn from mistakes. So, how do you duplicate these authentic life lessons and real-world experiences in your L&D program? Informal learning helps you engage employees and create more meaningful online training content. It’s less structured than formal eLearning as it lets staffers learn on their own terms. However, you can still set objectives, goals, and desired outcomes to ensure L&D effectiveness.
This epic article covers everything you need to know about informal training, including how to determine if is the best solution for your staffers. I also provide some prime examples of informal training that you can use as inspiration for your strategy. First, let’s explore some of the common characteristics of informal learning experiences and how they differ from formal training.
What You’ll Find In This Ultimate Guide…
- What Is Informal Learning: 6 Key Characteristics
- Key Differences Between Formal And Informal Learning
- What Are Some Informal Training Examples For Remote Work Teams?
- What Are The Benefits Of Informal Training Experiences?
- 6 Questions To Determine If Informal Online Training Is The Right Approach
- Debunking 6 Popular Informal Learning Myths
1. What Is Informal Learning: 6 Key Characteristics
What are the fundamentals of informal learning? Ultimately, this strategy empowers employees to seek out information on their own. The goal is to make them lifelong learners that take a more proactive approach to personal development, instead of just settling for the L&D status quo. Every organization utilizes different informal learning techniques to achieve the desired outcomes, but they should all include these common characteristics.
Above all, informal training focuses on the learner and their individual goals. In fact, it’s usually born out of necessity. For instance, an employee is unable to complete a task or runs into an IT issue. Thus, they seek out information to overcome the challenge and get back on track. Your informal eLearning initiatives should encourage them to play a more pivotal role in their own development, rather than just sitting on the virtual sidelines by reading a manual or watching a presentation.
Most informal eLearning experiences happen on the fly. Employees discover their pain points or knowledge gaps, then use online resources to address them. That said, in online training environments, informal activities are usually pre-planned. At the very least, you’ve laid the foundation for each exercise so that employees know what’s involved. For instance, they know where to find the online discussion forum and the rules of conduct. Or maybe they’ve scheduled weekly peer mentoring sessions that include informal learning activities.
For the most part, informal training doesn’t have a curriculum, per se. You don’t have to map out the learning path from start to finish. Instead, staffers can draw from the available resources to achieve their goals or even use the list of recommended support tools to bridge personal gaps. To illustrate, they aren’t expected to complete all the activities in a certification path or every module in the online course. It’s a more custom-tailored experience that caters to their preferences and needs.
One of the standout benefits of informal learning is that employees can go at their own pace. They don’t have to keep up with peers or meet deadlines. For the most part, they’re able to access training materials when their schedule allows. More importantly, whenever the need arises. Even the activities, themselves, don’t have to fit into a certain time frame. For instance, employees can spend 10 minutes or two hours coaching their peers or discussing L&D topics during a live event.
5. Real-World Centered
A crucial characteristic of informal eLearning is that it’s practical. Everything centers on real-world application versus memorizing theories, which means that employees should be able to use their newfound knowledge right away to overcome work-related challenges. For example, they attend an impromptu live event that covers customer service skills. Their team leader noticed a decline in satisfaction scores, so they scheduled the webinar at the last minute. They may not even have discussion points or a detailed outline. The host simply lets employees guide the conversation to gather feedback and identify areas for improvement.
Informal online training is flexible and adaptable. It bends to suit the needs of your employees so that everyone gets the most from your eLearning program. For instance, they can access the forum or do research on their own whenever time allows or cover new topics every peer coaching session based on emerging gaps. Informal training lets staffers take the reins and create their own L&D experiences.
2. Key Differences Between Formal And Informal Learning
What is formal and informal learning? The first step to determine if informal learning is the ideal route for your organization is to consider the other end of the spectrum. Formal learning is a more structured strategy that many organizations employ because it’s easier to track. That said, you can still measure informal learning performance, which we’ll cover in a later section. For the time being, let’s look at the key differences between formal and informal learning—myths and misconceptions aside.
One of the most noticeable distinctions between informal and formal learning is scheduling. Formal training usually follows a specific timeline or linear structure. For instance, employees must complete the modules in this order and by this date. On the other hand, informal training lets them dictate the terms. They can determine when to access resources rather than having to follow a pre-set schedule. That said, there are some informal learning events that may be planned in advance, like live events or coaching sessions that still follow the informal learning principles.
The design of the eLearning resources, themselves, or another key difference. Formal training activities are created to achieve a specific goal or objective. You can estimate seat time and use support tools to fill in the gaps, while informal training activities are generally more of a framework. For example, you pose a problem and ask employees to find the answers on their own. Or, the live event has a general theme, but staffers can ask questions and veer off-topic—as long as it’s still a productive conversation that touches on L&D issues, of course.
In most cases, formal learning follows ID models and theories. Everything is founded on these core principles and learning behaviors. Formal learning is based on psychology. However, it doesn’t include as much theoretical application. For example, you don’t necessarily have to use an Instructional Design model in your strategy, especially since informal learning is an online training method in and of itself.
The way you deliver information differs as well. Formal learning focuses on pointing learners in the right direction and highlighting the key takeaways. Informal training is more about letting them find the information on their own, whether it’s through a meaningful discussion or online research. They can also use the support library to enrich their experience and save time.
Most formal learning courses involve formal assessments. Maybe employees have to complete a multiple-choice test at the end or several pop quizzes throughout. This is how you evaluate their performance. Informal training centers on real-world applications instead of structured diagnostics. For example, are staffers able to use the knowledge to complete tasks and improve workplace productivity? Did the informal learning activity help them build certain skills or core competencies?
3. What Are Some Informal Training Examples For Remote Work Teams?
If you want to implement informal training for your remote workforce, it’s good to have some examples to follow. Think of it as inspiration for your L&D team. Keep in mind that every organization has unique objectives and gaps. So, you should evaluate all the options before deciding on an informal learning game plan. Fortunately, these informal learning examples are versatile enough to suit any subject matter or online training outcome.
Peer coaching and mentoring are personalized. Employees decide what to work on and how to structure their online meetings, whether it’s in a group or one-on-one setting. They can also determine how long each session should be and what to cover next. However, when you dictate the terms of peer coaching, then it becomes formal. Thus, it’s best to set some basic ground rules, then let staffers collaborate on goals and gaps. You should also provide them all the tools they need to meet up whenever they prefer, such as video conferencing tools and PM platforms they can use to keep in touch.
Peer coaching is a great way to ease your team into informal learning and make the most of in-house knowledge sharing!
Virtual events using a web conferencing tool are another activity that could go either way depending on your approach. But you can make them informal by removing some of the “formal” limitations. For example, attendees can choose their own topics or you can create basic guidelines for them to follow. Maybe they have to solve a problem or brainstorm ideas. They arrive at the desired outcomes, but it’s less structured and they pave their own path.
Host a live group roundtable where employees share their thoughts and ideas with co-workers. There should also be a team leader or moderator to gather their findings or possibly even to guide the conversation in a certain direction if you’re looking for targeted results. This is a great approach to not only broaden their horizons but collect online training feedback.
You have a problem that requires employee input, or you notice a common pain point among staffers. Online troubleshooting allows them to talk through all the challenges and come up with viable solutions. It might even be a mini IT troubleshooting meeting for employees who have trouble with work-related software. The goal is to develop lateral thinking skills and help them see things from a different perspective.
Employees create their own online training content, which involves a variety of skills and tasks. First and foremost, they need to do their homework, then summarize the concepts in their own words. They can choose which topics resonate with them. While some may focus on their strong suits, researching their weaknesses is also beneficial. For example, they lack the necessary communication skills so they look up demo videos, articles, and tip sheets to bridge the gap. Create a quick tutorial to demonstrate active listening and non-verbal communication.
Gamification is another prime informal learning example because it involves friendly competition and learner-centered training. Employees complete activities to earn badges and points or move up the leaderboard, which also maximizes social learning benefits. You can also use serious games in your strategy to entertain and engage remote work teams.
4. What Are The Benefits Of Informal Training Experiences?
Now that I have gone over the basic principles and applications of informal learning, let’s review the “why.” Why should you launch informal learning in your organization? How does it improve on-the-job performance and help build a stronger team dynamic? Furthermore, how can you use informal learning to stretch available resources and reduce L&D spending? Below are just a few perks that informal learning experiences can bring to your business. You can also download our Informal Learning Guide to discover which activities are worth the investment.
Facilitate Knowledge Sharing
One of the most significant benefits of informal learning is to spread the knowledge around. Employees are encouraged to collaborate with their peers and share their expertise. Likewise, they can make the most of their co-workers’ talents and strengths when they run into a problem. The “freeform” structure allows them to express their ideas, questions, and insights without any limitations. For example, they host informal live training events to facilitate knowledge sharing and help their peers avoid common mistakes.
Improve Team Collaboration
This free exchange of ideas improves the team dynamic. Employees don’t rely solely on the formal training curriculum. They now have informal training resources to point them in the right direction. As an example, they don’t hesitate to email a co-worker to ask questions about company policy or compliance. You’ve broken down the communication barriers so that everyone steps into the role of teacher and student.
Reduce L&D Costs
Many organizations implement informal training because it’s simply more cost-effective. Of course, you still have to develop formal training resources for your team. But you can also use informal activities to supplement employee development. For instance, you may not be able to cover everything in your health and safety compliance certification program so use informal learning events and discussion groups to tackle emerging issues. Plus, employee contributions help reduce L&D expenses and stretch available resources.
Boost Employee Engagement
Staffers are more engaged because they pave their own way. If they have a question, they need to find the answer. If they don’t know the next step in the task, they must watch videos or ask a co-worker. In all respects, they need to play a more active role because that’s the only way they’ll overcome the obstacle. That said, you should have all the support tools they’re looking for. Or, at least, give them some recommendations so that they don’t spend an hour (on the clock) trying to find the right information.
Bridge Personal Gaps
Every member of your team has unique strengths and areas for improvement. Informal learning gives them the chance to focus on personal pain points and continually hone their skills. In fact, this often occurs naturally. For example, they may discover a hidden skill or negative performance behavior during the peer coaching session. Over the course of their conversations, new things may come to light to help them expand their knowledge base, as well as reflect on their habits and work practices.
Retain Top Performers
High employee turnover takes a bite out of your budget. You must pay to recruit, hire, and train new employees. Not to mention, you simply don’t know if they possess the same level of expertise or skills as the staffer who left. Better employee engagement, self-paced training, and knowledge sharing help you retain top performers. They also have a built-in support system in the form of co-workers and team leaders.
5. 6 Questions To Determine If Informal Online Training Is The Right Approach
While there are plenty of benefits associated with informal online training, you need to consider your employee development goals. Not to mention, employees’ personal preferences and emerging gaps. So, here are 6 all-important questions to help you decide if informal learning experiences are the best choice for your organization, or if you should consider another L&D approach.
1. What Are Your Current L&D Pain Points?
Most organizations implement informal learning because it addresses specific pain points within their existing program. For example, you notice that employees remain within their own “bubble” instead of sharing what they know or that they feel like your training program is too rigid and generalized. These are pain points informal learning can help you address. At first glance, some issues may seem to be at odds with informal training. For instance, low employee motivation might make you assume that formal training is in order since it provides more structure. However, it might actually be rooted in a lack of L&D personalization.
2. Do Your Employees Feel Rushed During Online Training?
Staffers may feel pressured to complete the training course within the time frame, while others are worried about keeping up with co-workers. If your employees feel rushed, informal training may be the ideal solution. They have the opportunity to set the pace and concentrate on training issues that matter most to them. Rather than trying to race through the course to finish on time or “one-up” their peers.
3. Is Your Employee Development Training Program Over Budget?
Trying to develop online training content for every topic, task, and objective can be costly. Plus, there’s no way to cover every question or concern that may arise. Informal training helps you stay within your L&D budget and make the most of internal resources. For example, employees who don’t understand the compliance regulations can attend a live event or sign up for peer mentoring. Those who are in-the-know can develop resources to benefit their peers, lowering your employee development expenses.
4. Do Your Remote Staffers Need More Autonomy?
Many employees feel limited by online training that’s one-size-fits-all. Some even dread the idea of formal training because they associate it with mandatory eLearning. Informal learning gives them more autonomy and self-reliance. Sure, they’re still able to use the resources you provide to fill in the blanks, but there are also informal activities that let them take charge and set the terms. This also empowers staffers to become lifelong learners because they’re equipped with the right skillsets and tools. For example, they know where to find relevant info and how to manage their time effectively.
5. What Is Your Employees’ Primary Source Of Motivation?
Employee motivation and drive are other things to consider. Are they just going through the motions to get the training “over with”? Do they want to receive public recognition? Or, are they genuinely interested in exploring new ideas and concepts? Their sources of motivation can help you determine the best course of action. Top performers that want to continually broaden their knowledge and build crucial skills are more likely to choose informal social learning. It gives them the chance to actively pursue new training topics and not be held back by the structured curriculum.
6. Do Team Members Experience Cognitive Overload?
With heavy workloads and a variety of other stressors, employees may find structured online training overwhelming. On the other hand, informal training lets them digest knowledge in small doses. They’re able to focus on one challenge or topic before moving onto the next, as well as use different types of references to ensure that the info sticks. For example, they might prefer articles or forum discussions versus live events.
6. Debunking 6 Popular Informal Learning Myths
Most of the informal learning myths spring from ambiguity. There’s still a thin shroud of mystery surrounding informal training activities because so many organizations are used to their formal counterpart. For example, you still need to plan a curriculum and guide employees, even if your online training program includes a little spontaneity. Let’s debunk 6 popular myths that prevent many businesses from taking the informal learning leap.
1. No Way To Measure Success
There’s no way to track informal training because that’s the nature of this approach, right? You give employees the power to pave their path and you need to deal with the drawbacks. The truth is that many LMS solutions now feature social and informal learning analytics. For instance, you can let employees self-report their activities to receive credit, like participating in online discussions or attending events outside the structured L&D environment.
2. Every Online Training Activity Is Informal
Isn’t every online training exercise informal? After all, employees can usually train when it’s most convenient and move at their own pace. While that it is true, informal learning and eLearning aren’t interchangeable. In fact, many online training activities follow a more formal strategy. For example, certification courses are often more linear and involve formal assessments. Employees are still able to fit training in their schedules and use their preferred support resources, but there’s a more structured framework.
3. Doesn’t Have Any Structure
Speaking of structured, another common misconception is that informal doesn’t have any structure whatsoever, that you can just turn employees loose and leave them to their own devices (literally). However, even informal learning activities need guidelines, evaluation methods, and a solid foundation. Preferably, one that aligns with the desired outcomes and objectives. As an example, employees must explore a work-related problem and devise three possible solutions. You give them a list of recommended sites to use for information gathering and some basic guidelines, like how to cite references and how to present their findings. There’s still structure, despite the fact that staffers have more autonomy.
4. Substitute For Formal Training
You can simply transform your entire L&D program into an informal training strategy. Why not, when there are so many obvious benefits? In reality, the two should go hand-in-hand. You still need to scaffold knowledge and reinforce what employees already know. Thus, many organizations employ a hybrid approach that combines informal and formal training. To illustrate, you launch a compliance certification course for your customer service team, then pair it with peer coaching, blogs, and social media groups.
5. No Feedback Involved
Who needs feedback when employees identify their own faults and learn from their mistakes? The simple answer is everyone. All of your staffers require feedback to disclose hidden pain points and evaluate performance behaviors. This might be one-on-one sessions with their coach or peer-based evaluations. That said, you can embed feedback to be more discreet. For instance, ask a series of questions after the informal training activity so that employees reflect on their personal habits.
6. Completely Employee-Driven
Informal learning doesn’t mean that you can skip the support and hand over control of your L&D department. While it is learner-centered, you still need follow-up, JIT support, and assessments. Team leaders and instructors/moderators must still collaborate with employees to maximize online training benefits. Likewise, staffers need to be held accountable. For example, you may need to give them a nudge if they fall behind or experience skill stagnation.
Informal learning may not be a magic cure-all or quick fix for all your L&D pain points. However, it can help you improve remote employee engagement and address your current online training challenges cost-effectively. For this reason, many organizations pair it with formal training to provide a more holistic eLearning experience. In fact, you may want to determine which solution is best on a case-by-case basis. For instance, compliance certifications call for formal training, but you can always use informal learning activities for reinforcement. You can also hire an eLearning content provider to help you create a hybrid solution or informal activities to fill in the gaps. Our exclusive online directory features the top outsourcing partners for every industry and price range.
Which informal learning activities should you add to your L&D program? Download Informal Learning For Beginners: Are You Ready To Engage Your Telecommuting Teams? for all the insider info. We’ll show you how to use bite-sized podcasts and on-the-spot tutorials to enrich your corporate eLearning strategy.