“Formal education is a walk through the zoo, informal learning is a walk through the savannah”
- Dr Stephen W Hart, The Workplace Change Project
Training and development focuses on facilitating change to improve employee job performance. Organisations cannot afford to miss the mark when providing training. Adult learners are more ready to learn (and change) when they know and understand what is expected of them as a training outcome. The first step is usually identifying training goals through a training design process. This is where the human resource professional must evaluate the best ways to deliver training. Should formal or informal learning be adopted? With the rise of social media and the prevalence of mobile devices, it seems that informal learning is slowly gaining traction and meeting our needs at the point of need. Does this means that formal training should be phased out? The truth is that both formal and informal learning should complement each other to support learning and maximise learning effectiveness.
Firstly, what is formal training? Formal training follows a set syllabus and is purposeful in the sense that all learning is the goal of the activities that the learners engages in. Learning outcomes are determined by assessments and tests. It is systematic and structured learning. Examples of formal learning include face to face classroom lectures, e-learning courses, workshops, seminars and webinars. Formal learning is also intentional as some of the courses and training could lead to degrees and certifications. Formal learning is used when there is a need to have control over the learning experience of learners, as learners follow a planned and rigid curriculum. There are matters in the workplace that needs to be learnt in a proper and standard format, for instance compliance training. Or when you step into a plane, you would expect the pilot to have gone through a substantial amount of training rather than picking up pieces of information from everywhere.
In addition, as formal training is structured, it allows learners to track and measure their progress. In this way, it allows learners and training organisations to understand whether they are meeting training goals.
With the evolving business landscape, companies are adopting the use of technology in online learning components to deliver a customized and engaging experience for learners. But the problem with online learning is that it is anything but personal and there is very little interaction between learner and content. In recent years, the rise of artificial intelligence has led to the appearance of virtual teachers and chatbots in the digital learning space. For instance, chatbots have been incorporated into language learning platforms and learners can interact with these virtual teachers just like how they would with a physical trainer. The strength of this approach is that learners can progress at their own pace and convenience. Learning is personalised and companies save costs on engaging human trainers.
On the other hand, informal learning is about learning without the realisation that you are going through a learning process. It is about acquiring skills, attitudes, knowledge through daily interactions at work, play and media influences, in general. Some examples of informal learning include mentoring, coaching and on-the-job learning. In the past, most of these functions include having actual face time with a colleague. Nowadays, companies are slowly integrating the use of virtual mentors and coaches vis-à-vis chatbots to aid employees in their work. In the fast-evolving business environment where time is a scarcity and instant gratification is the norm, virtual mentors have an advantage over humans. For instance, if an employee wishes to understand a certain aspect of the business operations, he may need to approach a more experienced or older employee based on his availability. He could potentially disrupt the other employee’s normal work routine as time is taken away to guide the newcomer. With a virtual mentor, he could enter his query and obtain an instantaneous reply without much interruption to anyone else’s workday.
Furthermore, informal learning provides a lot of flexibility and convenience especially in the way content is produced and consumed. By removing the formality of full-scale content development, companies are able to create content quickly and customise learning to their learners at their point of need. Creating informal learning is less costly and time efficient given the mobile technologies we possess today. Employees are also less likely to resist learning new things as learning becomes a natural inclination. Take for instance, some companies have digitalised their new hires on-boarding processes. In the past, new hires have to go through a few days’ worth of on-boarding by attending physical meetings with the various stakeholders and tours of the office building. Not only is this time-consuming for both parties, it can be tough for any information to be retained by the new hires. New employees are now able to use digital technologies such as virtual reality goggles to take a virtual tour of their new work premises, go through company polices via videos, games, real-time tasks which makes the process engaging and interactive for them. It gets them excited about developing new skills and motivated to work in a new environment.
The bottom line is that the importance of informal learning is gradually increasing in a highly global and interconnected world where technology has empowered individuals to learn without the barriers of distance or space. Developing informal learning experiences for employees at work is necessary to help them cope with rapid technological and economic changes. There is a need to push individuals to continue to learn to increase productivity and upgrade their employability skills.
In conclusion, formal learning will always have its place and is an integral part of the performance support network in any organisation. Informal learning will not completely replace formal learning but acts as an additional layer of support to improving performance. As lifelong learners, we need to build and up our skills in all aspects of performance. The fact is that formal and informal learning are intricately linked and a fine balance between the two will benefit learners in the long run.
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