Informal learning accounts for almost 80 percent of all the learning activities within the organization, then why do most companies focus all their efforts on formal training. “Most organizations don’t utilize the full potential of informal learning” says Ravinder Tulsiani, a Learning Consultant with Training EDGE. Ravinder advocates that “organizations should incorporate informal learning as an important approach to employee education and training”, and explains the factors that can enhance the effectiveness of the informal learning process within the organization.
Research has shown that informal group behavior within the organization exerts tremendous influence on the overall performance of the organization. These informal groups within the organizations also impart right skills to their group members and surprisingly account for as high as 80 percent of all the learning activities within the organization. The formal managers or education and training department of the organization have no role in this informal learning process and therefore, the informal learning may not serve as a very effective and desired training process from the manager’s perspective.
Management cannot control the informal learning process within the organization, but they can influence the quality and effectiveness of informal learning by considering it as an important approach to employee education and training. The managers should facilitate the informal learning process and ensure that their employees have access to the right information when they look for it. The training or human resource department should include the following guidelines for taking full advantage of informal channels of training within the organization:
1. Understand the informal learning process within the organization
It becomes highly imperative to understand the information learning process within the organization to effectively support and facilitate informal learning so that it actually aligns with the formal education and training within the organization. The managers should find out how their employees learn at the workplace in order to understand the informal learning process. The analysis of the worker’s learning process at the workplace can be carried out by using any combinations of the following approaches:
Conducting a Survey:
The managers can conduct surveys by drafting a questionnaire to collect important information as to how the employees improved their skills. The surveys are better than focus groups or interviews in quickly and efficiently obtaining the information but may require further clarification or follow-up questions to get a more comprehensive understanding of the informal learning process.
The managers can suitably categorize the employees into focus groups and engage in personal conversation with them to find out the source of their information and how they perform their routine jobs. During the personal interactions, the managers can specifically ask how the employees improved their efficiency, what they do when face any work-related problems and what resources are more useful in solving their problems. This will allow the managers to understand the resources that are more important to the workers.
The observation during the actual work is the most important approach to understand the informal learning process because the informal group code may prevent the employees to share information with the managers as to how they work and coordinate with each other in solving problems. Although observation is the most revealing method of understanding informal learning process, it’s equally time-consuming process. The workers may coordinate with each other in the following manners to resolve their work-related issues:
- Consult with senior colleagues through email, phone or personal interaction.
- Search the Internet for answers to their problem.
- Look for past references and information from hard copy records or shared computer-based records.
- Consult with subject matter experts in question.
The close observation and monitoring of such activities will reveal the true picture of the informal learning process taking place in any group or functional departments within the organization.
The analysis and understanding of the informal learning process will reveal the secrets of close informal groups as far the informal learning process is concerned, and the education and training department of the organization can have a clear picture as to what resources are utilized and which one are neglected by the employees. This understanding of the informal learning process will enable them to plan accordingly and improve the correct resource utilization for education and training.
2. Encourage and Support informal learning within the organization
The informal learning in the most natural process without any need of formal interference, but the informal learning process can be significantly improved. The managers can incorporate training modules on the following skills and activities in the formal training to encourage and support the informal learning process within the organization:
- Improving the information sourcing skills of the employees such as the methods of finding accurate information on the Internet.
- Improving the learning skills of the employees by making them proficient in mind mapping, taking notes, and personal reflection, etc.
- Motivating and encouraging the workers to become more responsible and dedicated in achieving personal learning goals.
- Encouraging employee’s access to an expansive personal network so that they can quickly find a solution to any work-related problems.
The role of education and training department of the organization lies in imparting formal learning opportunities to the employees for improving their working proficiency and thus increasing the overall organizational efficiency. The incorporation of these skills will provide additional advantages of smooth informal learning at the same time enhancing work efficiency of the employees through formal training. The encouragement and support to informal learning process by formal training certainly lead to dual advantages.
3. Provide access to authentic and quality resources for informal learning
The most important aspect of informal learning is that it provides support to the employee in the form of right information whenever they face problems. The informal learning can be improved by supporting the employee’s access to quality and authentic information sources. The organizations can use intranet to provide cost-effective and easily accessible authentic information to the employees. The easy access to quality information will naturally improve the informal learning once the usage and availability of information is promoted by using formal learning opportunities.
The organization should use the services of only those providers who can effectively deliver right knowledge base and meet the information requirements of the workforce.
4. Support employee’s access to subject matter experts
Generally, the senior colleagues with expertise on the concerned subject matters serve as informal advisors and provide a very instrumental role in the informal learning process. Virtually, the entire informal learning process within the organization revolves around their mentoring skills. The organizations can identify and develop the mentoring skills of these senior subject specific experts within the organization to encourage and facilitate the informal learning throughout the organization. The development of subject matter experts within the organization will encourage informal learning and improvements in their skills will ensure that they don’t act as the answering machine but actively encourage the employees to develop self-learning capabilities.
5. Develop Knowledge base and Information resources that can be easily updated
The employees within the organization persistently seek the right and updated information, and research has revealed that on an average 15-30 percent working hours of the employee is lost in seeking the most authentic information (IDC Information Worker Survey April 2003). This waste of time can be significantly reduced by incorporating an information management system where the information can be easily edited, stored and shared by the employees. The organization should incorporate the information management system but allow the employees to manage and develop the information resources. The extent of workforce ownership and sharing of the knowledge base will encourage informal learning by providing quick access to authentic and updated information. The monitoring and management of the knowledge base by the subject-specific experts will significantly enhance the potential advantages of using information management systems.
6. Encourage opportunities of informal learning
The cordial working environment conductive to informal group interactions enhances the effectiveness of informal learning as the employees can easily interact and share ideas and solutions. The organization should encourage and promote employee interaction through cordial working environment by incorporating the following aspects in the organizational culture:
- Creation of an informal working platform where workers can feel comfortable is the first step in promoting informal learning. The employees are more likely to engage in informal interactions when they are assured that their activities are not going to create any negative implications.
- Encouraging informal relationship between the formal training professionals and the employees create additional avenues of informal learning. The formal education and training department of the organization is concerned with the formal training to the employees, but the behavioral aspects in the organization cannot be neglected and if an informal relationship develops between the trainers and the employees, it creates additional avenues of informal learning.
- Encouraging team work and coordination across the functional divisions within the organization in any project creates additional avenues of personal interactions with employees from different teams and departments, significantly increasing the scope of potential informal network. The cordial working environment across the functional divisions of the organization can infuse totally new perspective among the various stakeholders of the organization.
7. Monitoring, Evaluation and corrective measures
The adaptation to the behavioral challenges of the organization is an ongoing process, and the avenues of informal learning have to be constantly explored. The evaluation of the supportive measures becomes very important for encouraging informal learning process. All the policy measures that don’t bring desired changes have to be refined. The technical advancements such as sophisticated software, monitoring systems, the Internet, etc. create additional opportunities that can be incorporated within the organizational culture to increase the effectiveness of informal learning. The workforce participation in finding the most appropriate technological improvements conductive to informal learning is another very crucial factor for promoting informal learning within the organization.