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Herding Cats or Managing Informal Learning


Sun Jun 04 2006


Kineo, a consultancy in the UK, published an interesting report earlier this year entitled 13 Ways of Managing Informal Learning. This white paper authored by Mark Harrison posits some very interesting principles in an effort to drive more attention to managing informal learning in the workplace.

The strengths of this report come in a solid list of how new technologies can be used to better manage informal learning and in an extensive set of profiles outlining how to approach different types of employees (senior managers, new starters, experienced staff) to motivate them to participate in the creation and capture of informal learning.


Harrison also provides some very good ideas on assessing the current state of informal learning. I haven't heard much talk about coming to understand how exactly informal learning plays out in the enterprise currently. One of the strongest aspects of this report is that Harrison makes a strong point that informal learning has many facets and must be approached with a multi-faceted strategy.

He centers much of his arguement as to why learning professionals should focus on informal learning on data from a Atos KPMG Consulting study that he represents in a table like so:

Informal Learning


Formal Learning


Experience on the Job






Training programs


Mentoring & Coaching


Special Assignments


Manuals & Instructions








My first thought was "that's it?" In essence, 2 types of informal learning? And where is the non-business gossip or the discussion about the best ski resort for a weekend getaway? Certaining new information is learned in these conversations, but it's likely to have little benefit that can be tracked to the bottom line or the strategic plan of the company. My puzzlement expanded when Harrison in defining what informal learning is through a negation of what formal learning is states: "It does not include: .... - Coaching ......" But the table lists "Mentoring & Coaching" as one of the forms of Informal. Which is it?

His other major argument in favor of pursuing informal learning is '80% is alot of stuff and informal learning is quick and cheap.'

Herding Cats or Managing Informal Learning-12cc478b6ea8125caec3c1305d2ee426800c82b5e04970385a3102652c8861c6

I've been wondering for some time now, how much of that 80% do we really want to data mine and save for posterity. I'm quite sure we don't need the drafts of this blog posting if we were to start building a content repository. The distribution between informal learning and formal learning is more likely to be 40% Informal, 20% Formal and 40% Trash.


The assumption that dealing with informal learning will be "quick" is more wishing that it were so than it is a rational conclusion from what we know about design of learning interventions. Any instructional designer can tell you that instructional designs which are are less transparent, more realistic, more "doing vs. learning" take far longer to create than simple, non-contextualized lessons. Informal interventions will often border on covert at times. Instructional designers will be pushing new boundaries to create experiences in which the learner is influenced without perceiving they are being influenced.

Finally, I'm concerned that we are painting ourselves into a corner in regards to the "cheap" label that has been attached to informal learning initiatives. This perception of informal learning being cheaper is based on the now well flogged data in the chart above. 20% of the average learning budget is going to enhancing informal learning which makes up 80% of all workplace learning. But the main reason for informal only taking up 20% of the normal budget is that we haven't been paying attention to it. It is true that Informal Learning will happen whether we tend to it or not and it will happen most of the time for free. But our focus is to try to nudge that learning so that it aligns with the needs of the enterprise to meet it's strategic goals.

technorati tags: informal learning, formal learning

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