March 2013
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TD Magazine

Informal Learning Is Vital to Workforce Development

Friday, March 8, 2013

Specifically, cross-generational mentoring is a key strategy.

With four generations, an influx of new employees, and more experienced professionals working longer hours, a greater variety of skills, talent, and experiences are represented in today's workforce than ever before. And as the makeup of the workforce evolves, so should companies' approaches to training and development.

While formal learning will continue to be central to professional development, the diversity of the future workforce elevates the need to further embrace informal learning. Recent research emphasizes the social aspect of learning—individuals drive learning, of course, but they also share knowledge with one another to help the organization learn. To capitalize on the range of ideas exchanged within today's diverse workforce, the fostering of informal learning is vital.

The key is for organizations to strike a proper balance between formal and informal learning. With traditional learning—classroom-led or formalized content—usually comprising approximately 20 percent of a given workforce's education, it is imperative that organizations identify real-time, hands-on informal learning experiences for the other 80 percent.

There are numerous opportunities for informal learning activities, as represented in AchieveGlobal's i-2-i continuum that ranks these activities from intentional to incidental based on their structure and purpose.

One activity on the continuum, mentoring, is perhaps the oldest form of informal learning and meets a range of task, career, and psychosocial needs. Mentoring may incorporate some structured learning, but at its heart is a voluntary, natural, and caring relationship that endures over time. Mentoring can be especially valuable if it involves people of different ages and backgrounds.

Cross-generational mentoring and coaching provide mutual benefits throughout the workforce. Each generation has strengths to share and skills gaps to fill. This type of mentoring promotes the transfer of knowledge between newer and more seasoned professionals, and drives greater collaboration and creativity. Such structured informal learning also keeps perceived generational differences and stereotypes from derailing organization success.

Mentorships add value when applied to concepts and skills acquired during formal training. Traditional reinforcement pushes people into post-training activities they otherwise would not perform—such as a facilitated group discussion about training content. Informal learning, by contrast, pulls people toward continued learning and application by integrating formal training into daily tasks.


As organizations invest in the workforce of the future, they must embrace the role of both formal and informal learning. Those that support cross-generational mentorships and coaching are better positioned to develop the talent necessary for success in the global marketplace.

Image source: AchieveGlobal

About the Author

Sharon Daniels is CEO of AchieveGlobal.

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