How Internal and External Learning Networks Support Performance Improvement

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

If you read the Science of Learning blog, you are probably a professional seeking informal learning opportunities to increase your on-the-job competencies and productivity. Maybe you are reading this as you are waiting to meet colleagues for a discussion over coffee. Maybe you will repost it on other social media platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter. Professionals and talent managers alike are increasingly using these methods of informal learning to keep up with ever-changing knowledge, skills, and working environments.  

The following research explores how the intersection of informal learning experiences with formal educational experiences, both within and outside our organizations, is critical to improving performance. 

In a 2015 Human Resource Development Quarterly article, researchers Sara Melo and Matthias Beck review a study that explored how formal and informal learning were used in the development and implementation of quality-improvement initiatives at a large public teaching hospital in Portugal. This hospital was chosen due to its national reputation for successful patient safety initiatives and because it includes virtually all major clinical specialties. Using learning network theory, the authors sought to learn how internal and external learning networks contributed to the hospital staff’s learning, improved patient safety, and quality of care. Their research questions were:

  • What are the principal characteristics of internal and external learning networks in the case-study context, and how have these networks supported formal and informal learning for hospital staff?
  • How have these learning networks contributed to the enhancement of the hospital staff’s learning in relation to patient safety and the quality of care?

Learning activities were categorized into four types:

  • internal formal networks 
  • internal informal networks 
  • external formal networks 
  • external informal networks.

The Critical Dynamic Intersections

These four types of networks had many intersections. The internal formal learning activities involved frequent, short, mandatory training that supervisors attended. Topics were identified through information received through external networks, and internal needs identified through internal communications. Supervisors then cascaded the new knowledge and skills through both formal and informal training for their units. In this way they could adapt the training for their specific unit, supervise, and encourage the transfer of new knowledge and skills. By having the supervisors directly serve as educators, interviewees reported that informal learning increased when staff were able to ask just-in-time questions, and supervisors were able to provide immediate feedback.


In addition, when patterns of frequently occurring problems were identified, such as patient falls, informal interdisciplinary study groups were formed to use action research to inform quality improvement efforts. These, in turn, were shared both internally and externally through employee training and conference proceedings. In addition, the hospital took advantage of the fact that there is a lot of mobility among healthcare institutions to learn from new employees and their external networks.

Because virtually all participants agreed that the hospital viewed formal internal learning as a crucial element of its quality and patient safety improvement drive, communication was, indeed, valued and encouraged. The authors concluded, “Whereas formal learning mainly had the role of informing about quality and patient safety issues, that is, primarily setting the context; informal learning was key to achieving significant quality and patient safety improvements.”

Recommendations for Practice 

Talent development professionals should plan strategically for the intersection of networks to increase the impact of training and development efforts on performance improvement: 

  • When developing a learning plan, encourage employees to search out national or regional external institutions, such as conferences, journals, online communities of practice, and accreditation agencies, renowned for their knowledge.
  • Encourage employees with experience from other institutions to share their different perspectives, knowledge, and skills.
  • Learning and recommendations from other organizations should be contextualized to your own organization or department prior to implementation.
  • Strategically design and actively support communication structures that encourage the development of existing internal and external informal networks. Make it easy for employees to get feedback and learn from one another.
  • Use a cascading approach to organization development by using supervisors, who are more regularly available to employees, as links between formal training and informal mentoring to improve transfer of new knowledge and skills.
  • Provide resources and dedicated time for interdisciplinary study groups to investigate reoccurring problems. Study groups should be encouraged to make use of both internal and external networks to gather data, interpret findings from multiple perspectives, and communicate recommendations both internally and to external communities of practice.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community.

For more details on this study, access the original Human Resource Development Quarterly article by Sara Melo and Matthias Beck. Jossey-Bass/Wiley is offering free access to the article from Jun 9 – July 15, 2016.

Citation: Melo, S. & Beck, M (2015). “Intra and Interorganizational Learning Networks and the Implementation of Quality Improvement Initiatives: The Case of a Portuguese Teaching Hospital,” Human Resource Development Quarterly, 26 (2). Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

About the Author
Carol B. Packard is an organizational psychologist with a PhD in human resource development and a MSEd psychology, specializing in performance management, program evaluation, organizational and team development. Currently, Carol serves as a senior advisor for Endeavor Management/Gelb Consultants, as well as principal consultant with Human Assets International. 
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