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5 Ways to Stimulate Informal Learning

Learning in the workplace can take many forms. From institutionally sponsored training to formal courses, all have their place; however, it’s increasingly recognized that informal learning is among the richest and most effective sources of education – especially as more millennials enter the workplace.


Unfortunately, as an HRD professional, this creates challenges. Informal learning can feel intangible. How can you create systems to support a process that is, by its very definition, informal?


Distilled from the study “Contextual Factors Influencing Informal Learning in a Workplace Setting”, authored by Andrea D. Ellinger, Professor of Human Resource Development for The University of Texas at Tyler, and informed by our experience, we’ve developed 5 ways you can stimulate informal learning within your organization.


1. Develop an internal culture that is committed to learning


Informal learning can happen in many settings; however, most commonly, it’s a simple exchange between co-workers. A willingness and openness to share and educate – both from manager-to-employee, as well as peer-to-peer.

This means before you can expect managers and employees to share and teach openly; your organization must first foster their ability to do so by developing a culture that’s committed to learning.

Are opinions and contributions respected within your organization? Are ideas and suggestions considered (even bad ones)? Do employees feel comfortable speaking up and helping out?

If folks within your organization don’t feel comfortable both seeking and providing advice and education, they simply won’t.

To begin molding your internal culture, speak with executives and managers about the importance of creating an open culture that supports learning.

Begin at the beginning – hire employees that embody your new culture.

Educate managers and executives by building a business case that demonstrates the importance of informal learning and explains how your organization can better foster a culture of learning.

As people within your organization feel they have permission to teach and share, they will begin to do so.


2. Inspire a Culture of Mentorship 


Among the most potent forms of informal learning is mentorship. This need not be through “formal” mentoring, but can instead be a casual mentor-mentee relationships from manager-to-employee or senior-to-junior.

You can encourage these relationships to form by fostering a culture of mentorship within your organization.

Reach out to your managers and educate them on effective mentoring techniques. Encourage managers to bring their junior staff to meetings that may be above their level of responsibility – not necessarily to contribute – so they can absorb the information being discussed.

Become skilled in helping employees assess, evaluate and reflect on the outcomes of their informal learning.

What did they take away from that meeting? How can they apply their new knowledge to their current job function?

Fostering development on both ends of the mentor-mentee relationships can help translate informal knowledge into practical job-skills.


3. Remove Barriers to Expertise and Enable “Webs of Relationships” to Form

Figure 1: Map of How Organizational Contextual Factors Influence the Process of Informal Learning
‍Figure 1: Map of How Organizational Contextual Factors Influence the Process of Informal Learning


The desire to share what we know seems to be an intrinsic human desire. We all (or many of us anyway) love to share our knowledge and help others. In addition, being known as an “expert” is great for our careers.

Unfortunately, the organizational “silos” of our modern working world often create barriers to expertise – geographic, time zone, title and otherwise.

Remove barriers to expertise by enabling “webs of relationships” (groups of peers and superiors who support each other with advice and education) to form by creating venues that support informal learning. Modern social networking software can be a great facilitator of these “webs of relationships”; however, there are more traditional methods as well.

Consider fostering education exchanges. Create internal campaigns that help employees understand they can reach out to their peers in other departments to seek help.

The more folks understand that learning can come in many forms, they more they will seek it out.


4. Create Physical Resources that Support “On-Demand” and Social Learning


While traditional sources of learning are valuable (such as resource libraries), think bigger. Technology today enables a variety of creative solutions.

For example, Forbes reports that Cheesecake Factory created a YouTube-like learning portal which “lets any employee upload a video of themselves doing their job well. Employees can share ‘how to make a hamburger’ or ‘how to best clean the floor’ and share it in any way they wish.”

The program has been a great success. Within only a few weeks, people were using their cell phone to create instructional videos and share hilarious stories. The system went viral within a few weeks.

Intellum’s client, McDonalds Corporation, is using Tribe Social (our new social networking platform) to connect its real estate group with “like-kind” managers across the country.

These folks are separated by time zones and geography, yet within their group, they share commonalities.

For example, while all of McDonald’s real estate managers deal with real estate, the nuances of opening a McDonald’s in rural Nebraska is quite different from New York City.

With Tribe, folks in charge of rural territories can share best-practices and ask questions of their fellow managers who are also responsible for rural territories. Likewise for urban managers. They can now communicate and educate across all boundaries, with little effort.

Managers frequently share and teach, and the result will be a large leap in the competency of the group.


5. Link Formal and Informal Learning


While informal learning is critical, formal learning programs still have their place. Find a way to link the two in a way that’s meaningful.

This can come in the form of physical spaces such as training rooms where employees can converse and share after a training exercise, through cultural platforms such as peer-based workshops or after-learning events, or digital platforms such as forums and internal social networks.

Take a Small Step to Get Started

Stimulating informal learning within your organization can begin with a small step forward.

What small step can you take today to begin creating, or improving, your culture of informal learning? What other tips would you add?

Share in the comments section below!


Note: If you’re interested in reviewing the study, “Contextual Factors Influencing Informal Learning in a Workplace Setting”, authored by Andrea D. Ellinger, Professor of Human Resource Development for The University of Texas at Tyler, on which this study was based, simply click here.