An increasing number of corporations and organizations are turning away from classroom seminars and engaging their employees in informal learning opportunities.
Informal learning is a term used to describe learning that takes place outside of a dedicated learning environment like a school or workshop setting. It is learning that springs forth naturally from the activities and interests of individuals and groups.
In a troubled neighborhood when adolescents band together to work within a theatre troupe, the participants all learn many great skills through the process of informal learning. They learn from each other on how to act, how to direct, how to handle lighting and sound, how to promote plays, and how to work as an effective team.
In a developing country, informal learning takes place when a group of farmers in a small village get together to discuss ways they can add value to their farms and become more sustainable.
In a normal workplace, when colleagues gather in coffee break rooms or in favorite meeting spots to discuss the situations they encountered through the day, and one advises another on how something could be done better or more easily, informal learning is taking place.
The fascinating thing about informal learning is that participants of such programs are often completely unaware that they are in a learning environment and involved in a learning activity. To them, it just looks like life unfolding and random conversations.
But they leave the exchange with more skills and insight than when they started, and often with a heightened sense of confidence. They are more engaged with their task at hand or challenge they have encountered, and are renewed by the informal learning experience.
Informal learners often experience a feeling of empowerment within their group when they are actively learning from each other. They feel more able to tackle bigger issues than the first ones they brought to the table.
There is a growing school of thought which suggests informal learning can rejuvenate an organization. It seems to have the ability to engage a wider range of participants than formal learning and yields desirable results.
In the book “Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge,” scholars Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William M.Synder concluded for informal learning efforts to be effective, they needed certain circumstances to occur.
For example, the informal learning effort must evolve naturally and invite people of all different levels of knowledge to participate. In companies and organizations, it needs to open a conversation from both the inside and outside perspective.
It also needs to blend together periods of familiarity with periods of excitement to be a unique learning rhythm.
One great facilitator of informal learning is our modern technology which allows children and adults to easily access to digital devices that deliver knowledge to them. This is really significant when you consider it in terms of realizing that while young people aged 8-18 spend more than 7 hours a day in school learning formally, they spend another 7 hours using digital devices and learning informally.
As many companies expand their workplaces around the globe, the importance of informal learning is intensified, considering that 85.4% of the people in the world live in places where millions of their children do not have access to a formal classroom to learn.
16 years ago, the Council for Europe was saying publicly that formal education will not enable our society to meet all its learning challenges and began to recommend partnerships that blended informal and formal learning.
Informal learning also tends to be life-long, and is the process by which most adults adapt to increasing amounts of technology in their lives. It is also often the way entrepreneurs learn how to grow their business and how experienced and older workers pass on their knowledge to newer and younger workers.
Informal learning has always been with us to some extent, but it has never been more important to our businesses than now.