Informal Learning: Your Essential Guide

Informal Learning

Key points

  • Learning can happen within a formal context but also as a result of self-directed and intentional informal behaviours.
  • Engaging in informal learning behaviours may be linked to better performance, but they may not work the same way for everyone.
  • There are specific things that organisations can do to maximise informal learning behaviours.


According to experts and survey research, 70% or more of learning happens outside formal settings. The statistics may be imprecise, but suggest that formal training sessions are not the only resource for learning.

In fact, organisations can struggle to provide training for everything that employees need to know on how to do their jobs: certain skills such as customer service may be more difficult to teach in a classroom setting; some kinds of expertise may be restricted to too small a group to justify the design of a proper course; or perhaps people need access to the knowledge faster than the training schedule allows for.

In those scenarios, what can a manager do to support employees’ learning and create a culture where they are encouraged to take ownership of their professional development?

What are informal learning behaviours?

In 2017, Christopher Cerasoli and colleagues addressed this question with a meta-analysis. Their work looked at the characteristics of informal learning behaviours in 55,514 working adults, specifically what drives them and their outcomes on performance. Informal learning behaviours take place every time a person decides to take action with the deliberate intention of developing new skills or knowledge. Examples are illustrated in the infographic below.

Informal Learning

People who engage in informal learning behaviours display higher performance than those who don’t

Cerasoli and colleagues found that people who take initiative to engage in informal learning behaviours may gain greater knowledge and skills.

Due to the cross-sectional nature of the majority of studies around this topic, we can’t assume that informal learning behaviours cause better performance, but we can conclude that high performers tend to take action to own their development beyond formal training sessions.

Informal learning behaviours are not “one-size-fits-all”: consider the context

Despite the link to performance, we may still ask whether informal learning behaviours work equally well for all people in all situations. For informal learning behaviours to be possible, the context needs to allow flexibility and autonomy to experiment, provide support for the learning efforts and make resources available. This means that the answer may not always be yes:

  • Is the skill or knowledge needed suitable for informal learning? Is it safe and constructive for an individual to attempt learning independently, or is the learning curve too steep and the risk of failure too high? For example, if an individual is looking to increase their skills in customer service, it may benefit from informal learning behaviours such as shadowing a colleague to see different approaches; however, that may be less safe if a junior engineer was seeking to understand a formal process that impacts health & safety; for the latter, formal training should accompany informal learning efforts.
  • Is the environment suitable for informal learning behaviours? Some environments, for example start-ups, may have a higher need of people to engage in informal learning behaviours, for example because frequent changes require them to add to their skillset, or because there are little processes and procedures in place. In other more structured environments where processes and procedures are in place and job descriptions are more stable, there may be less need, or scope, to introduce informal learning behaviours.
  • Is the individual likely to thrive with flexibility & ambiguity? Not all people are likely to engage equally with informal learning. Some may prefer a more structured approach, and pushing them to find their own way may become counterproductive. For those people, more support from their manager is one of the most effective drivers of informal learning behaviour

Informal Learning

Takeaways for your practice

Recognising that informal learning behaviours will help your employees develop new skills and knowledge begs a question: what can you do, as a manager, to provide the support, autonomy and resources needed to encourage and promote such behaviours?

  • Understand their personal objectives: Use your one-to-ones to explore what they are looking for in their career, what tasks do they enjoy the most, and which one they would like to get better at, and then help them to understand which skills or knowledge they need to achieve their goals. This may also help you to increase your staff retention!
  • Recognise and praise informal learning behaviours: Are there members of your team who always ask questions, seek feedback, and look for opportunities to utilise new skills? Make sure you praise and encourage those behaviours, especially in front of other team members. Maybe, like Google, you can allow employees who are keen learners to teach each other!
  • Make time and resources available to them: If your employees are swamped with other activities they are less likely to be able to focus on their professional development. For example, some companies allow employees ‘own days’ to focus on a project they particularly care about. However, time alone is not enough: they will also need to know where to look: this may include handbooks, internal wikis, or by providing an organisational chart of who in the business has which expertise.
  • Allow them to craft their work: People may be more likely to get out of their comfort zone if they know that their managers are encouraging them, for example allowing or suggesting opportunities to take part in projects that allow them to develop or apply new skills or knowledge.
  • Cultivate psychological safety: Learning can be messy. Where possible, provide opportunities that allow employees to experiment and potentially fail (while not causing undue harm to organizational effectiveness, reputation, client or patient welfare, etc.) as good learning experiences. Certainly, employees should not be encouraged to engage in risky behaviour. Rather, they should be supported to experiment and try new things, knowing that they may not have a 100% success rate.


Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Christopher Cerasoli and his team, who supported and guided us with their valuable insights during the writing of this Evidence Summary.


Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies – is moderately appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore we can conclude that it is likely that informal learning behaviours have a causal effect on performance.  

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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References

Cerasoli, C. P., Alliger, G. M., Donsbach, J. S., Mathieu, J. E., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Orvis, K. A. (2018). Antecedents and outcomes of informal learning behaviours: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(2), 203-230.

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