Incorporating Informal Learning in Virtual Talent Development

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Work and learning have become increasingly hybridized, or involving a combination of physical and virtual environments. Consequently, building individual and group-level expertise involves virtual talent development. Learners increasingly replace formal training with access to technology, such as intranets, Internet, and virtual worlds, to explore and use content in multiple forms, including videos, PowerPoints, blogs, graphics, chat, knowledge systems, social media, and more. This challenges talent development professionals to find new ways of combining formal and informal learning to help, rather than hinder, the learning process.  

Four Modes of Informal Learning 

Formal learning is intentionally designed to meet pre-determined learning objectives (think: curricula), and there will always be a need for the formal. Informal learning occurs in day-to-day work, and most often takes place outside the training room. Here, the planned is replaced by the spontaneous, and the structured is replaced by the creative.   

Expanding Daniel Schugurensky’s three types of informal learning to four types, I offer the following model to help talent developers consider informal learning. These types, although distinct, interact together for learning to occur.

Conscious Non-Conscious
Intentional: The learner is aware of a learning gap that needs to be filled and directs mind to solving. Self-Directed Learning Example: An employee “Googles” instructions for how to do a new task, analyzes resources needed for learning. Integrative Learning (with two sub-processes):
Phase Shifting – words, images, and ideas rise to conscious for analysis during problem solving. Sublimation – creative insight skips to consciousness without knowledge of analytic steps. Example: A classic “a-ha” moment resulting from combining new information with existing knowledge.
Unintentional: The learner is less aware of learning gap Incidental Example: Employee picks up new information through a hallway conversation. Tacit Learning Example: New employees absorb company culture from what they see and sense around them on their first day.

Technology and Integrative Learning 

When we think of informal learning, three modes spring to mind: self-directed, incidental, and tacit. Talent developers use technology to encourage these three modes. For instance, a company discussion board encourages sharing of work-relevant topics, creates space where employees self-direct by asking questions, pick up incidental learning based on what others post, and gain tacit learning through social interaction. 

The fourth mode—integrative learning—is increasingly important for talent developers to recognize. It often involves information gained through the senses (think: sensory-rich technologies and images) and intuition, which searches for patterns and makes meaning over time. Two sub-processes are largely non-conscious. One involves the classic “a-ha” moment when a learner gains sudden insight (sublimation) without understanding how a solution was found. The second (phase shifting) occurs when the conscious mind becomes aware of minor steps and can redirect processing. Both may occur when the conscious mind is occupied by something else and are empowered by intentionality–or a recognized, often urgent learning problem. 

Virtual environments incorporate images and sensory data extensively—offering opportunities for integrative learning. Conversely, they can crowd out other forms of learning. Rich imagery conveys much more than the spoken word, and therefore, it takes time to process. Recognizing not all best solutions are found on-demand, talent developers can foster creativity by allowing time for reflection and for the brain to focus on something else when learners are stumped. Of course, learner motivation remains key. 

Virtual Talent Development

By designing space where informal learning and technology intersect, we can create new opportunities for learning that do not replace formal learning, but move well beyond what formal learning could achieve on its own. This is the crux of developing expertise. 

Informal learning strategies that enhance integrative learning include: 

  • Conducting a Socio-Cultural Analysis: Technology can convey cultural values and social cues, and even absence of information may cue behavioral norms that affect learning.

  • Defining Problems and Collaboratively Re-Problematize: Stimulate intentionality to solve problems outside of formal events.

  • Incorporating Social Media: Applications can foster informal networking, knowledge sharing, and collaboration.

  • Reviewing Level of Centralization/Decentralization: Centralized control of technology, such as the ability to post to corporate pages, helps keep an online environment safe and trustworthy, but it can also hinder communication needed for informal learning. Balance access, freedom to contribute, monitoring, and control with this in mind.

  • Creating Simulation and Branching Scenarios: Virtual simulation exercises with ill-defined problems and branching scenarios allow learners to explore competing ideas. Even retirement savings calculators are rudimentary simulators. Encourage learners to discuss how scenarios differ from actual experience.

  • Experimenting with Scavenger Hunts: Learners can explore corporate systems or solve problems through searching, retrieving, and making meaning of the navigational experience.

  • Employing Name It/Draw It: Value ill-formed ideas and tacit patterns by capturing them in drawings, images, or labels. Don’t expect all ideas to be logical at first; making these ideas more explicit can allow conscious re-direction and add sensory resources (such as testing ideas in real life).

  • Adapting Tried and True Techniques: As an example, a SWOT analysis can be done in chat threads or with some minor web programming. Learners on different shifts and locations can contribute equally to the developing SWOT content.

  • Putting the Technology Down: Simply taking a walk or bouncing a ball can free space for integrative learning. 

Regardless of learning mode, it is critical that employees feel they can safely share insights. If you are looking for a first step, you can start by asking those around you, “What did you learn today that was unexpected, and how did you learn it?” 


For more details, access the following articles. For the two articles from Advances in Developing Human Resources, Sage is offering free access for a limited time. 

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. 

About the Author

Elisabeth E. Bennett, PhD, is an assistant teaching professor with Northeastern University’s doctor of education program, where she teaches organizational leadership, adult learning, communication, and research courses. Her scholarship has focused on organizational culture and virtual human resource development, and increasingly informal learning. She spent five years in scholarly practice as director of education and research development at the Western Campus of Tufts University School of Medicine. A longtime member of AHRD, she served on the board of directors, and is presently on the editorial board of three journals.

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