Informal learning is a cost-effective way to promote learner autonomy, boost engagement and productivity, and develop just-in-time skills. However, it can be difficult to track and measure, lack consistency, and go unrecognised. We share 4 practical tips for L&D teams to use informal learning to improve employee skills and increase learning impact.
Reading time: 4 minutes
Social learning, job shadowing, conference attendance, trade publications, peer learning, networking, on-the-job trial and error and many more.
The list of informal learning methods is long. But what do they have in common?
They take place outside formal learning settings such as classrooms, are led by the individual and driven by needs and interests.
The benefits of informal learning are also many. By developing skills in the moment of need, organisations can develop just-in-time skills, remain agile and succeed in competitive and challenging markets. It also makes learning learner-centred, promotes autonomy and can boost engagement, productivity and self-confidence.
The challenge with informal learning is precisely that - it is informal. Often connected to learning in the flow of work and driven by the employee, it can be difficult to track, measure its effectiveness and ensure employees are learning focused, relevant skills. There can be a lack of consistency between experiences, and some employees may miss out on opportunities. It can go unrecognised and unrewarded, demotivating and disengaging learners.
Wouldn’t it be great if L&D teams could make informal learning count?
Thankfully, the fuzziness over informal learning is over. Read on to discover 4 practical tips for using informal learning to improve skills and increase learning impact.
1. Create informal learning pathways
Start by mapping informal learning activities. Think of this as mining vital data for L&D.
You can uncover skills gaps and learning needs you didn’t know existed. You can identify how informal learning fits with existing formal learning initiatives and in the flow of work programmes.
Mapping informal learning resources and methods can be used to consolidate, streamline and curate a menu of resources, preventing duplication, saving time and costs. The data can be used to create informal learning pathways for a more cohesive approach to informal learning. Rather than leaving employees to navigate informal learning on their own, creating pathways can provide guidance, structure and focus for their learning journey. You can ensure that all employees have access to high-quality informal learning experiences and increase consistency across the organisation.
You can also integrate informal learning pathways with formal learning initiatives to provide a more holistic learning experience. By reinforcing key concepts and skills through informal learning activities, employees can deepen understanding, apply learning and accelerate skills development. Informal learning provides flexibility to for your in the flow of work programmes, increasing engagement and motivation. All powerful drivers for skills growth and increased learning impact.
But how can you map something so unstructured?
Use simple tools, such as surveys, interviews and observations of informal learning in action. Talk to internal experts who can advise you on how employees learn informally in their area of expertise.
And don’t forget technology. Analyse data from performance enablement, feedback and evaluations. Track search queries on the company intranet, HR and L&D systems.
2. Facilitate informal learning activities
We all know the challenges and importance of creating a culture of learning. By facilitating informal learning activities, you can help employees develop a habit of learning, supporting a quest for knowledge and embedding a learning culture.
You can help employees identify and access the resources they need to develop their skills and grow in their roles, focusing informal learning and increasing its impact.
Think beyond a standard report-back item in team meetings.
Tap into innovative and stimulating ways to facilitate informal learning:
- Communities of practice: These powerful groups can improve organisations’ performance through sharing knowledge, giving advice and solving problems. By creating groups with shared interests or expertise and nurturing them, you can facilitate their growth.
- Internal hackathons: A unique opportunity for participants to learn from each other and develop new skills. Bring together employees from different departments to work on a common project in a short time. Encourage collaboration to brainstorm innovative solutions to problems and solve your organisation’s challenges.
- Flexible learning opportunities: Offer diverse options such as Lunch and learns and webinars to ensure that learning fits into your employees’ busy schedules.
- Cross-functional collaboration: Co-ordinate cross-functional collaboration on projects or buddying schemes to encourage sharing across the organisation.
Use a range of tools and platforms to share and communicate informal learning activities. Wikis or internal social networks can be useful for quick answers. Leverage the power and popularity of social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.
3. Recognise and reward informal learning to motivate employees
Simple acts of recognition strengthen employees’ sense of achievement, competence, confidence and belonging. Recognising and rewarding informal learning shows that efforts are valued and appreciated, motivating employees to engage in more learning activities and continuing to improve skills and performance.
It also fuels others to get involved in informal learning. When employees feel motivated and engaged, they are more likely to be excited to share their learning, knowledge and expertise with others in the organisation. This too, can support the development of a culture of learning.
And not only this: increased engagement and a sense of belonging increase retention, particularly important as the war for talent continues.
The key to rewarding informal learning is to make the rewards visible and meaningful to employees. Encourage managers to recognise informal learning in their performance enablement conversations, team meetings or one-on-one conversations. Encourage peer recognition by setting up systems for employees to nominate and recognise their colleagues who engage in informal learning activities.
L&D teams can use gamification elements such as points, badges, competitions and leader boards to recognise completion of specific informal learning activities or achieving certain learning goals.
Rewards such as opportunities to be featured in a community of practice, participate in a hackathon or collaborate on projects can further fuel engagement. And why not reward informal learning with a suite of further learning opportunities? This can include sponsorship of formal qualifications and credentials, mobility, job rotations and leading projects. Help employees advance their career as a reward for participating in informal learning.
4. Measure the impact of informal learning
Informal learning can have a significant impact on employee performance and organisational success. Measuring this impact can help you and your L&D teams understand how effective informal learning methods are and make improvements where necessary.
Measuring the impact of informal learning can be challenging, as it often takes place outside of structured learning environments and can be difficult to track. By using a range of techniques, you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of these complex and multifaceted learning activities.
- Assessments: You can use short assessments or self-reflection to measure knowledge and skills gained. Encourage ownership of the employee’s learning journey through reflective assignments in the shape of case studies, simulations or real-world projects that support them to reflect critically and creatively about their learning.
- Surveys and interviews: You can run quick surveys or carry out interviews to gather feedback from employees who engage in informal learning activities and their managers to understand their experiences and the impact of their learning on their work. Group reflection activities multiply the benefits of reflection. Set up group discussions or peer feedback sessions so that employees gain different perspectives, fresh ideas and can learn from each other.
- Observations: Understand how employees are applying their informal learning in their work. Take the opportunity to provide personalised feedback to employees on their informal learning efforts and suggest ways to improve their learning and development.
Integrating informal learning into L&D initiatives can help to improve skills and increase learning impact by providing cost-effective, relevant, accessible, and continuous learning opportunities for employees. Ensure you make the most of this opportunity by following the four tips and implementing the advice that works best for your organisation.
Partner with the British Council to review your employees’ needs and implement learning solutions that drive up employee performance to meet your organisation’s goals.