Formal vs Informal Learning (And How an LMS Can Help!)
The goal of corporate learning is for employees to gain the skills they need to excel in the quickest, most efficient and cost-effective way possible. So, is formal or informal learning a better path to these goals? Perhaps efficient learning requires both. Each strategy has its advantages (and corresponding disadvantages) but ignoring either one will cost you. Let’s take a closer look.
What is Informal Learning?
Formal learning is relatively easy to recognize. It's a planned, intentional learning experience developed by someone other than the learner. Informal learning is not only harder to recognize but has been defined in a number of different ways. In this article, I will use the simple definition of 'learning that isn't formal.'
There is a tendency to conflate informal learning with social (learning with and from other people) and experiential (learning from doing or practicing) learning. Informal learning can be social and is often experiential, but formal learning can have these characteristics too. Furthermore, informal learning may be neither social nor experiential, such as when a person looks up information in a resource document or online.
Formal vs Informal Learning
I'll outline some of the advantages of each type of learning in a moment, but first I want to lay to rest the question of which is better. I've seen claims for the superiority of both. In response to those arguments, I would ask which employee you'd rather hire for a critical role:
- A person fresh out of school, with shiny new (and never yet used) qualifications?
- Someone with five years of experience, but missing a few key qualifications?
- Someone fully qualified, with a few years of experience under their belt?
We instinctively know the answer to "Which is better?" is that both play a necessary role. What we're less likely to acknowledge is that they're also inseparable.
Consider a formal training session for onboarding new employees. HR policies are explained, and newcomers are taken on a tour of the facilities. Formally, they've learned the dress code and fire exit routes. Informally, they'll have picked up a lot more:
- Were the trainer and the people they encountered following the dress code? More generally, do HR policies at this company exist on paper only, or are they followed consistently?
- Which policies were covered? The choice of topics can reveal a great deal about corporate attitudes and whether employees are trusted and valued.
As well as receiving informal learning, recent studies have shown that formal learners can spread their learning to their colleagues informally. The relationship also works the other way, with informal learning triggering formal learning. A person who has discovered something interesting informally can then be motivated to find a class or online course in the topic.
Formal and informal learning are inextricably intertwined. The goal of effective organizations is not to choose between them, but to enable and support both as they work in tandem. Nonetheless, both types of learning have their own roles and areas of strength.
Formal Learning Advantages
Formal, assessed learning often results in a degree, diploma, certification or some other official documentation. While a certificate doesn't help an employee do their job, it has value to both the employee and employer. Even without certification, most learners would rather update their LinkedIn profile with "I completed a course on effective leadership" than "I spent many hours reading about leadership strategies." Formal learning is also much easier for the organization to track and measure.
My father, a recreational woodworker, has been teaching himself how to make dovetail joints. I recently asked him how it was going. "Well," he frowned thoughtfully, "I'm making progress. I've learned seven ways not to do it."
Formal learning is a streamlined experience, allowing the learner to skip over the many ways something doesn't work to focus on the one that does.
After dealing with seven ways something doesn't work, the self-taught may settle for a way that barely works. With formal learning, an organization has control of what is taught and can ensure accurate, quality information is propagated, and bad habits discouraged.
Equal Opportunities for Learning
All participants have the opportunity to learn at a formal learning event. This isn't always the case with informal learning, where those who are already further up the hierarchy have more opportunities for further learning and advancement. Additionally, informal learning has been found to perpetuate stereotypes.
Informal Learning Advantages
Occurs at Time of Need
Informal learning has its own efficiencies. When an employee needs to know something right now, it's much faster to look up the answer or ask a coworker or accessible expert than to arrange to take a course.
The immediacy of informal learning has another benefit. According to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, learners forget half of what they learn very quickly if they don't have the opportunity to practice it. Formal training often teaches skills days, weeks or months before they're needed. Informal learning occurs at the point of need, just when a learner is about to practice the learning.
Done well, a formal learning program involves:
Each step has a cost. Informal learning occurs whether or not the organization contributes a penny. While it can work better with organizational involvement, it usually remains less costly than formal learning.
Occurs With or Without Organizational Support
"Learning by doing is often an automatic byproduct of productive work." As for coworkers conferring on questions and mutual issues, you'd be hard pressed to stop it even if you wanted to.
The reality that informal learning occurs on its own is one of the best arguments for getting involved. As it's going to happen anyway, most organizations would prefer to have some input into how and what employees are learning.
The Role of the LMS in Formal and Informal Learning
The role of an LMS in formal learning is self-evident:
- Delivers online learning
- Manages registration and attendance for classroom sessions
- Tracks, records and delivers assessments
- Provides reports on multiple aspects of learning
The LMS's role in informal learning is less apparent, but it speaks to the core of organizational involvement. Saul Carliner has found that employees require three resources to support informal learning:
- Effective skills for searching the internet
- Access to high-quality content
- Coaches to help them review and evaluate their informal learning
Many people, including today's digital natives, would benefit from training on internet search skills with a focus on advanced search features and the evaluation of search results. What better example of the interwoven nature of learning than a formal learning event on how to improve one's access to informal learning?
The next question is where to search. Along with subscriptions to technical databases and research journals, most organizations should provide custom materials on company policies, procedures and other items. The right LMS is an invaluable tool for housing and organizing custom material. With quality content, the LMS can become employees' resource of choice.
An LMS can also be a center for building connections to expert coaches, hosting:
- Lists of experienced personnel in various fields who are willing to assist employees
- Forums or other messaging systems where learners can talk things over and explore new ideas with people with advanced skillsets
Organizations that want to encourage and influence both sides of learning can center their strategy on their LMS, making it the key resource for both formal and informal learning. To find out more about using your LMS to track informal learning, see How to Track Informal Learning in Your LMS.
In this article, I have explored the strengths and interrelationship of formal and informal learning. An LMS provides the ideal framework for integrating both types of learning in an organization seeking to build a best-in-class learning development strategy. How does your organization respond to informal learning? Is it random and haphazard, or recognized and guided?
Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.