Q: Like many other firms, our budget for sending employees to outside classes or training has been cut back. How can we minimize the impact of this?

A: We are here to dismantle the myth that sending employees “out” to a formal training class or seminar is the only or “best” way for them to learn new knowledge and skills. While these venues can be beneficial, some of the most powerful learning happens informally, inside the organization, often unintentionally and generally at a low cost!

Informal learning takes place outside a dedicated learning environment and may not be recognized as learning. Have you ever heard the old saying, “The most important learning occurs in the lunch room – not the classroom”?
Good examples of informal learning include:

  • on-the-job training or cross training
  • interaction with co-workers
  • mentoring by peers or managers
  • team meeting discussions
  • “brown bag” lunches on particular work topics
  • employees documenting a process collaboratively
  • contact with outside customers or vendors

Click here for an extensive list of informal learning examples (pdf).

Many companies tend to focus on formal learning programs and, in the process, can miss out on valuable opportunities. Past studies indicate that informal learning accounts for over 75 percent of the learning taking place in organizations today. Often, the most valuable learning takes place by random chance. For example, important lessons are learned when a mistake or crisis occurs. How leaders and managers respond is very important. Do they get angry and point fingers? Or do they work to figure out what happened and use it as a “teachable moment” to improve their processes or build staff capacity?

Bill Vogel, CEO of DeCardy Die Casting in Chicago, provides an excellent example of the latter. When an error occurs on his shop floor, management issues a “letter of discussion” to the employee(s). These are not meant to be punitive, but instructive. Mistakes are reviewed with the individuals who, in turn, go over the error with their peers in a training session. These sessions lead to productive discussions as employees take the time to analyze why the error occurred and how to avoid another error in the future. This process has led to many innovative practices and new uses of equipment. Because employees’ trust and openness are essential to such group sessions, management worked intentionally to build this kind of trust over time.

While learning is occurring all the time at work, remember that sometimes it can be counterproductive, resulting in employees learning bad habits or the wrong way of doing things. Years ago, the late Peter Henschel, former executive director of the Institute for Research on Learning, posed an important question: If three-quarters of learning in corporations is informal, can we afford to leave it to chance? For this reason, more managers are intentionally structuring and guiding informal learning opportunities.

How can we, as owners, managers and supervisors, increase the learning opportunities at work for staff, co-workers, peers, our boss and for ourselves? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Provide time for informal learning, review and reflection on the job.
  • Create useful, peer-rated FAQs (frequently asked questions) and knowledge bases that are easily accessible and displayed.
  • Provide places for workers to congregate and learn together.
  • Supplement self-directed learning with mentors and experts.
  • Build networks, blogs and knowledge bases to facilitate discovery.
  • Use smart technology to make it easier to collaborate and acquire new knowledge (intranets, help desks, etc).
  • Encourage cross-functional gatherings.

Most importantly, model the kind of behavior that facilitates learning: Listen attentively to employees and resist the temptation to always provide the answers. Asking important and clarifying questions and facilitating problem-solving discussions can go a long way toward building the capacity and confidence within many employees.