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Informal Learning Gets Results

Despite increasing time and money for formal training, a recent study concludes that 70 percent of learning takes place outside of the classroom.

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development
It could be as simple as installing white boards prominently and keeping them stocked with markers for quick shift change notes, or as complicated as explaining subtle company culture characteristics. Both are examples of informal learning, which happens naturally in the workplace, for good or ill. People learn when to speak up and when not to. They make jokes about mission statements or live by the principles. They feel good about coming to work, and feel successfully challenged when they get there. Or they feel frustrated and complain or quit.

"A lot of our institutions are organized in ways that stand between people and learning," says Ellen O'Brien Saunders, director of Washington State's Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. The board was a partner in a two-year, $1.6 million study of more than 1,000 employees at seven companies in seven states.

U.S. businesses, according to the Department of Labor, spend up to $50 billion annually on formal training programs, with another $70 billion on indirect wage and salary costs when workers are at such sessions and not on the job. This new study suggests that training could produce far better results if its designers recognized what, how and why people already are learning at the workplace, in meetings, on breaks and in customer interactions.

Such informal learning is spontaneous, immediate and task-specific. Eventually, harnessing it could save billions of dollars for government and industry.

"The study has profound implications on corporate culture, worker satisfaction, productivity and improving the rate of innovation," reports Monika Aring, director of the Center for Workforce Development, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, which conducted the extensive study.

Their findings could have significant effects on everything from private sector competitiveness to how welfare-to-work programs are structured.

Informal learning yields best results.
Despite increasing allocations of time and money to formal training over the past decade, researchers discovered that up to 70 percent of learning actually takes place informally. Informal learning is defined as "any learning that occurs in which the learning process isn't determined or designed by the organization," Aring stresses. Formal training includes both an expressed organization goal and a defined process. Informal learning can occur whether or not there's an expressed goal, and, when it works best, serves individual as well as corporate objectives. For example, informal learning might best occur when a mentor shows a new employee how to use a machine through an actual demonstration-rather than through a classroom presentation.

To reach these conclusions, the daily work life of many was scrutinized closely. Teams of researchers from different academic disciplines descended on the designated companies, sometimes trying to inconspicuously shadow employees, other times organizing focus groups (among other techniques) to get people to explain how they do their jobs, how they learn and how they convey information to others. The pilot study was done at Motorola in Illinois, widely regarded as an excellent "Teaching Firm," another concept developed by EDC upon which the new study builds.

"The [teams] wanted to be able to walk into a factory anytime," recalls Jim Frasier, learning research and evaluation manager of Motorola University in Schaumberg. "When they got here, they stood around in different places and watched what was happening. They sat down in cafeterias. We didn't lead them. That was part of the novelty. They were ethnographic researchers. They asked questions, they observed and actually worked on the lines and saw how workers helped other workers."

From the massive database, Aring and her colleagues developed diagrams, which they call taxonomies, to illustrate the detailed research and analysis. (See the sidebar "What Employees Learn Informally" on page 34.)

"That's the power of this report," says Frasier. "That big matrix is a real gold mine. That matrix is what everybody keeps talking about."

After their techniques were refined at Motorola, researchers recruited six state governments that in turn selected one company each to study in-depth. The U.S. Department of Labor, the six states and the Pew Charitable Trusts funded the study at these sites: Boeing Commercial Airplane Group in Seattle; Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution, LLC in Raleigh, North Carolina; Reflexite North America in New Britain, Connecticut; Data Instruments in Acton, Massachusetts; Merry Mechanization, Inc. in Englewood, Florida; and Ford Electronics in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

"The company is going through a major transformation," says Barry Blystone, director of training and development for Siemens in North Carolina. "It's critical that its workforce keep learning and be flexible." Most of what he's using is coming out of the taxonomies, he adds. "The biggest value overall is reinforcing the culture change that's going on. We're moving beyond empowerment to the point at which you're truly trying to put decision-making capability into the hands of the people who really do the work; it's up to them to manage their own careers within the structures the company has designed. It's not only telling people they can do it but showing them how."

Creating a learning environment takes planning.
All the managers we interviewed agreed that managers must establish an environment conducive to informal learning from the physical space to the emotional climate. "It doesn't just happen," Blystone says. His biggest human resources challenge is building competency models and training programs that work in this fast-moving environment. Employees must be encouraged to actively foster learning themselves.

Siemens, for example, is used to dealing with young entry-level people, but is finding that software developers constitute an ever-larger percentage of its workforce. These employees often work quite independently and do not always see the relevance of teams. Nonetheless, re-searchers found teams were actually one of the richest sources of informal learning. Software developers, however, are prime examples of people who need to be able to interact with customers so new products find a ready market.

At Siemens, like many other companies, most of the learning used to take place in an unsystematic way, grabbing a veteran to show a newcomer the ropes. Then the pendulum swung to formal training sessions, with uniform standards, but managers found it impractical and unproductive to have people off the line for long periods. Now, Blystone is trying to merge the best ideas and practices of formal and informal learning.

The researchers found that some "obvious" steps managers had been taking to reduce "wasted" time, such as discouraging people from congregating in the cafeteria, are actually counterproductive. Now, some managers have placed tools in these areas to take advantage of the work-related brainstorming going on there amidst talk of sports, families and personal problems.

Several companies have recently installed high round tables, like those found in latte bars, so people can perch on stools or can stand during impromptu meetings.

Share failures and success.
Researchers also discovered that at some sites meetings aren't dreaded, but produce the kind of epiphanies and morale boosts that lead to happier, more productive workers. A culture that encourages employees not only to learn from their own mistakes, but to talk about them openly also is helpful. Engineering groups at Siemens now are encouraged to share failures as well as successes.

At The Boeing Commercial Airplane Group based in Seattle, John Panattoni states the first step in implementing findings of the report will be bringing in 30 teacher interns for six weeks. Each will be responsible for working on a project to redesign tech-prep curriculum to focus on ways to be receptive to informal learning opportunities. Formal training will continue in safety areas. Aring says that's an example of where formal training is best.

Identifying and teaching cultural aspects is more difficult, Panattoni says. Even in the commercial airplane group, there are differences in subgroups, both geographically and by function. "Cultural knowledge clearly is something that's communicated mostly informally," he says. "We try to understand what they need to prosper and grow. But there are so many different nuances."

However difficult it may be, harnessing informal learning is an important part of the commercial airplane group's 10-year strategy. At Boeing, researchers found that teaming, personal documentation (such as e-mails and other notes), supervisor-employee relationships and shift changes were all fairly rich areas of informal learning.

But trainers must keep in mind that individuals learn in different ways. Most education and training programs focus on just one dimension: the practical. Nothing wrong with that, say Aring and her colleagues, but that approach ignores three other critical dimensions: intrapersonal skills, such as stress management and critical thinking; interpersonal skills, such as offering and accepting constructive feedback; and cultural awareness. HR directors are especially valuable in this process because a key finding is that culture has everything to do with the quality of the informal learning. In companies with the strongest connection between the expressed and experienced culture, informal learning provides the best results. The worst connections are in companies where the expressed culture is far different from what the employees report they experience. Company leaders may say they applaud risk-taking. But at a meeting, an employee takes a risk and gets a discouraging response. "That worker and all those who are watching him or her found out, 'Hey, wait a minute. We better not do these things, '" Aring says.

That 'ahah' moment is crucial.
Preliminary findings showed "small but statistically significant positive relationships between informal learning and production performance." With the research phase over, Aring and colleagues are testing an assessment tool. The value of the study, according to experts interviewed, is in attracting and energizing a workforce that's ready and motivated to learn.

"When I learned about this research, I was excited because first of all, intuitively, it made sense that people are sentient creatures, we're learning all the time, for good or ill," says Saunders, whose goal is to spread the word. "My dream is that in a year's time the phrases informal learning and the teaching firm would begin to approximate the basic workplace skills."

There's still an important place for formal learning, she says, but it needs reinforcing back in the workplace where the most startling productivity gains could be made.

To successfully use the study results, Saunders says CEOs need to experience that 'ahah!' moment and unite operations, organizational development, HR and training. Managers and HR trainers will have to figure out where, why and how informal learning is taking place in their own companies, and then, adds Frasier, ask the crucial questions: "Do we need to help this any more or leave this alone? If we leave it alone, how do we know that it's at the right intensity?"

"There's no cookie-cutter applications," Saunders concludes.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 30-34.

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