A new ASTD study - "Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning" -
offers up a new look at informal learning, and while some of the
data might be surprising, what is not surprising is that most
organizations are taking it far more seriously than originally
"If learning were an iceberg, then formal training and development would only be its tip," the report notes in its introduction. "Most learning is informal in nature and takes place beneath the waterline and therefore is much harder to understand. Informal learning, for purposes of this report, is defined as 'a learning activity that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support [taking] place without a conventional instructor and is employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth, and timing.' By its very nature, informal learning is difficult to comprehend in detail and equally hard to manage.
"Even so, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to
understand and leverage informal learning. More than half of the
survey respondents (56 percent) predicted that t Source: "Tapping
the Potential of Informal Learning" he use of informal learning as
a proportion of all learning at their organizations will increase
over the next three years, while 40 percent believed it would stay
the same, and only 4 percent said it would decrease.
"This expected increase in informal learning is not surprising in
the context of today's technology-driven corporate culture. Many of
today's employees scramble to keep up with floods of email, reams
of new data, and constantly shifting business information. There is
a sizable need to learn on demand rather than wait for more
conventional learning opportunities. Informal learning will
increasingly help fill this demand, enabling employees to stay
knowledgeable and productive in a dynamic work environment."
According to the study, which was produced by ASTD in conjunction
with the research and market intelligence company i4cp, informal
learning is already well established in many organizations and is
poised to play an even bigger role in the next few years. Forty-one
percent of respondents said such learning is occurring in their
organization to a high or very high extent, and another 34 percent
said it's occurring to a moderate extent. More than half said
informal learning will increase over the next three years.
The report suggests that respondents believe in the power of
informal learning to improve performance. According to the survey,
most respondents said that informal learning enhances performance
to at least a moderate extent, with 46 percent reporting it does so
to a high or very high extent. The study also found a significant
correlation between the degree to which informal learning occurs in
organizations and their reported market performance.
Where are the dollars?
Even though many organizations report they rely on informal learning to some extent, very few commit serious dollars to the proposition. Over a third of companies surveyed (36 percent) said they don't allocate anything to informal learning, and another 42 percent said they allocate 10 percent or less of their budgets to creating such learning opportunities. And that must sound a little odd. Even though there are very few examples of measurement of informal learning taking place, the use of any type of measurement was found to be correlated with better market performance. According to the study, "Organizational culture is crucial to the uptake of informal learning. Not surprisingly, a culture that supports informal learning is highly correlated with the occurrence of such learning, which in turn is associated with high market performance."
The gap between believing in informal learning and putting it into
practice continues to be large. There are especially large gaps
between the degree to which employees use informal learning to
share knowledge and the degree to which they should do so. For
example, there are large gaps between the extent to which seasoned
employees share their insights with others and the extent to which
respondents say this should be done. Many companies use informal
learning to help employees understand how to "get things done" from
a process standpoint. This use is most highly correlated with the
overall occurrence of informal learning, the study suggests.
Email and intranets are the most commonly used informal learning
tools, but some other types of tools that are used less often -
such as peer-to-peer coaching - may be just as important to
informal learning. Peer-to-peer coaching is associated not only
with the occurrence of informal learning but also with greater
market performance. Overall, these and other findings from the
study suggest that although informal learning remains a poorly
understood and measured process, it is becoming increasingly
important and has considerable untapped potential. If organizations
can harness the potential of informal learning, it can become an
unusually powerful and cost-effective performance tool in coming
"Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning" is available for free
to ASTD members. For more information, click here.