Finding the Value in Informal Learning
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Digital technology has drastically changed the way we learn and consume content. As humans, we gravitate toward quick and easy solutions. As a result, informal options—social and on-demand learning—account for the bulk of workers’ development. A recent study by Degreed found that nearly 50 percent of people search the Internet and 43 percent browse specific online resources when they need to learn something new for work. Only 28 percent search their employers’ learning systems, and only 21 percent rely on their learning and development (L&D) or HR departments for workplace learning opportunities.

The most advanced L&D teams are embracing how their workforces really learn by taking advantage of these informal opportunities. According to the 2015 Bersin by Deloitte Corporate Learning Factbook, the best L&D organizations deliver: 

  • up to 20 percent fewer hours through formal training (instructor led, virtual instructor led, e-learning) 
  • up to 30 percent more training through experiential learning 
  • up to 13 percent more training through coaching and collaboration 
  • significantly more on-demand resources, such as articles, videos, and books.

The shift from mandating learning to providing continuous opportunities chosen by the learner has left many L&D managers and providers with some concerns. Many L&D leaders are asking, “When they’re not sitting in front of me, how do I know they are spending time on the right things?”
Jason Hathaway, the director of content and learning solutions at CrossKnowledge, addressed this concern in a recent webinar hosted by “We have to start trusting the learner. They know what they need and when they need it, and they’re going to find it,” he said.

Trusting learners to find content that will work in their time of need is great insight, but measuring the true value of informal learning can be tricky. A useful approach would be to optimize for utility and outcomes by asking, “Is the learning people are doing helping them become better at their jobs?”

How can you get an accurate measurement of how informal learning is working when results are not instantaneous and much of the learning is happening outside of your company's LMS?


Let's say that a salesperson spends lots of time watching product videos and reading about selling techniques. Thanks to certain tools, you are able to capture data on how she is using those learning resources, but you don’t know if she is applying those ideas. So you look at behavior and results. Is she making more appointments? Is she closing deals faster? Is she closing bigger deals? Are her customers more satisfied? This is data you might be able to find in Customer Relationship Management (CRM)and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems—maybe even in talent management systems. But the best way to monitor improved results is by observation. Success can be measured when managers and peers see salespeople pitch and defend the product better. It’s a different way to think about return on investment, but these are the key performance indicators that really matter.

Outcomes aren't always purely financial. Many organizations talk about creating a learning culture. At one Fortune 500 bank—with tens of thousands of employees, millions of dollars in budgets, and hundreds of systems and tools for their workforce to find learning resources—employees regularly reported that there weren’t enough opportunities for learning and growth. Learning management had focused on quantity, rather than quality and they weren’t looking at the utility of their learning investments.

After streamlining the learning process, management knew they had empowered their workforce and were on their way to creating their desired learning culture when the data showed that more employees were using learning resources more frequently.

Some additional longer-term metrics to consider at your organization include upticks in employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

If you’re still concerned about how informal learning will benefit your learners, focus on the experiences you’re facilitating. “You can’t control what people do, but you can control the environment you provide them. Give learners easy access to the best resources, including other peers,” suggested Todd Tauber, vice president of product marketing at Degreed.

Most workplace learning infrastructures aren’t effective for today’s workers, partly because the current systems are built primarily for structured, formal training. The key to empowering your learners and increasing engagement is recognizing, facilitating, and measuring what’s happening in between those formal learning settings, whether it’s reading an article, having a conversation with a mentor or peer, attending an event, or taking a course.

About the Author
Sarah has been actively involved in the learning space for nine years, leading marketing and communications efforts in both corporate and start-up capacities. She currently leads the enterprise communications and content development efforts on Degreed’s product marketing team. Prior to Degreed, Sarah served as the senior customer marketing manager at Xyleme, where she worked closely with Fortune 500 clients to market their learning success and grow their comprehensive author and delivery solutions.
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