Informal Learning – the engine in the basement

Informal Learning
There is a big engine running in the basement of your organisation. You probably aren’t even aware that it is there. No one has been down there for years, if ever. There is rubbish amongst the puddles of oil and water on the floor and it’s like any other dark abandoned basement.

And yet that engine running in your basement is critical to the success of your organisation. If it stopped at midnight tonight, your organisation would be on its knees in a month, and probably out of business not long afterwards. It is lucky that the engine is so incredibly reliable that it keeps running, even if it does not run so smoothly now.

It is the informal learning engine that every organisation has. There is a huge amount of informal learning going on within every organisation all the time. Informal learning is made up of the learning that comes about through the experiences and social interactions of your employees. It is this day-to-day learning in the workflow that enables us to serve customers well and to improve things as we go along.

Its importance is vastly underrated because we are so good at learning things that we don’t even notice that we are doing it. Most of what we learn on a day-to-day basis as we do our jobs, we learn unconsciously. We don’t necessarily set out to learn, but we do, because that is our nature as a species.

Take a moment right now and reflect on what you have learned in the last couple of hours. The amount we learn on an ongoing basis is quite staggering, and in the work context, much of that learning is the input that drives continuous improvement.

We do a task, and we notice whether we get what we want, or whether there is a gap between what we wanted to achieve and what actually happened. Whether that gap simply manifests as an unconscious unease, or whether we are consciously aware of it, the next time we do that task, we will change what we do to minimise or close the gap.

This is the root of that old saying, practice makes perfect.

The more we practice a task, and the more we reflect on the task and the results we get, the more we learn, and the quicker we can close the gap between what we get and what we want. Typically, what we want is a moving target, and so the gap widens unless we keep learning fast enough. In order to survive, we need to learn faster than the widening gap. We need tom learn faster than the rate of change around us.

Given that informal learning is so critical to the survival of an organisation, how can we help that poor informal learning engine stoically chugging away in the basement?

Think about that from your own perspective. When you are trying to get a job done, what helps you learn about the job in a way that means you can get better at it? Most people would say things like access to the right information and the right kind of just-in-time support, either from colleagues or from resources. And of course they would also want to have the right tools and processes at their fingertips to do the job rather than having to learn to bodge it with the wrong tools. These are the things that need to be made available in order to get that informal learning engine running more smoothly. This is how you improve the quality of fuel for the engine, and how you get the basement clean and shiny.

It is well worth spending some time making people aware of how important informal learning is to the organisation, and to the continuous improvement which is essential to its survival. And then spend some time thinking about how you can support the informal learning engine by making learning in the workflow easier.

You cannot rely on formal training for all your learning needs. Indeed you never have, but you probably didn’t realise just how critical informal learning is.

Author: Paul Matthews