Perpetual Innovation
Through Informal Learning

by Marcia L. Conner

More than 70 percent of learning experiences in the workplace are informal or accidental, not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning is responsible for building many of the skills we use daily in our jobs and holds an invaluable role in helping a company excel. Find out how you can foster informal learning in your workplace.

Picture a company cafeteria with overhead projectors, pads of paper, and pencils on all the tables. Is this the sign of an organization in desperate need of more conference rooms? No, it’s the cafeteria at Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution, designed by senior managers to help employees capture what they learn during casual conversations and impromptu knowledge-sharing sessions.

Now picture a meeting during which everyone describes the five or six biggest mistakes they’ve made during the past year. Is this some kind of support group? Sort of: it’s a gathering of WD-40 Company’s global brand managers, who take the opportunity to share their “learning moments,” the times when they mess up and learn something as a result.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of learning experiences in the workplace are like the examples above: informal or accidental, not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. This kind of learning is pervasive, continuous, and profoundly social. It happens wherever people do their work: on a shop floor, around a conference table, on site with customers, or in a laboratory.

If formal education fulfills its duty to help build options, strengthen mental pathways, create frameworks, and widen perspectives, informal learning can then support the day-in and day-out culture building and skills development needed in an economy fueled by distinctive information and sparkling innovations. More than any of what we learn through formal means, what we learn informally can move ideas through the organization and help everyone in it create something new.

Despite such a noble responsibility, informal learning receives little attention. Perhaps that’s because it appears to be the way it sounds: ad hoc, unplanned, and unmanageable. Although you cannot usually schedule informal learning, as leader and as a colleague you can encourage it in the people around you. It might sound paradoxical, but you can create an organization-wide “discipline” of informal learning without destroying its spontaneity. Here are some steps to get you started.



Acknowledge It in You. Ask yourself where and when your most valuable learning takes place. Is it usually at a formal event or might it be during a walk around the block, a friendly argument with colleagues, or a hard look in the mirror? Become mindful of such impromptu opportunities. The next time you’re sharing war stories with acquaintances, notice that you’re probably learning what you might want to try the next time you’re in their situation. Announce to the organization that you are learning from many means and are dedicated to creating a culture in which everyone is learning every day. Challenge colleagues who tell you that you have something to learn by asking, “How can I learn it now?”

Uncover It Around You. Gartner Research estimates that the typical knowledge worker spends more than 25 percent of his or her time in face-to-face encounters. For a CEO, the figure reaches 95 percent. When people interact, the question is not, “Is informal learning going on?” but “About what?” Ask people what they discovered today that would enable the company to outshine its competitors tomorrow. Invite them to share the lessons they’ve learned that they’d like everyone to learn. Get a sense of where and when informal learning happens. Wander down hallways and listen. Get involved in conversations, whether with direct reports or with colleagues you barely know.

Liberate It in Others. People are natural learners—asking, observing, searching, speculating, and experimenting all the time—but many adults have little confidence in their learning abilities. Circulate learning-style assessments to help people understand their strengths and ask the training department to offer follow-up discussions on learning techniques. Ask the research group to publish search tips and librarians to help people find what they need.

Access It Wherever You Can. Find opportunities to disseminate the information already in your organization. If you use a knowledge base, ask someone to edit materials and find new items to include. If you have an intranet, establish guidelines about how to represent information and how to link it so that people can find it. Encourage people to publish the department job aids and cheat sheets they create for themselves. Create frequently asked question lists and make them available in a format that everyone can add to and edit.

Promote It with New Practices. Find and encourage new ways and times for people to talk about the work they share. Post a whiteboard near the water cooler, in the stairwells, and by the printer or copy machine so that people can capture conversations where they have them. Provide a guide to informal learning opportunities as part of your everyday meetings and new-staff orientations. Create ten-minute overlaps between shifts so that people can get to know one another. Encourage people to send instant messages to colleagues across the enterprise or those they can learn from across the globe.

Follow Its Influence. Informal learning may be difficult to quantify, but you can qualify it. Consider unconventional methods, such as job-readiness reviews and peer appraisals, to reveal what is being learned. Track informal learning by keeping individual and departmental logs that answer questions such as: What have you learned today? Who or what helped you? How will you apply what you learned? Ask managers to report regularly not only on business metrics but also on what their groups have discovered.

Celebrate Its Pervasiveness. Talk about the ongoing nature of informal learning and the improvements the organization has made as a result. Honor success by citing examples of learning from the executive suite to the manufacturing floor. Don’t change the essence of informal learning by trying to codify too much, though. Some people prefer the loose nature of their contributions and should have the opportunity to decide how much attention and praise they receive.

To elicit the potential of informal learning, find out what learning lurks on your walls and in your halls right now. In addition to helping people find innovative new ways of working, informal learning offers increased confidence and motivation, a feeling of security, personal growth, a sense of community, and rewarding relationships. Could there be better reasons for becoming a champion of informal learning?

Marcia L. Conner is a facilitator, coach and writer living in Virginia. She is author of Learn More Now: 10 Simple Steps to Learning Better, Smarter, and Faster (Wiley, 2004) and the forthcoming Creating a Learning Culture (Cambridge, 2004). Reach her directly at www.marciaconner.com.

 
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