Is Informal Learning the New Path to Up-skilling?

informal learning

How many times have you heard your employees say – “I love to learn but I hate to be trained.” Training is something that’s imposed on you; learning is something you choose. Employees of today thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what’s asked of them. And that’s exactly what informal learning does – ‘informal learning’ is learning without borders. People acquire the skills they use at work informally — talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. It’s a natural way to learn and grow.

Infact, in today’s age, formal training and workshops account for only 10% to 20% of what people need to learn at work. Consider the following –

  1. The generation coming into the work force has no patience for spoon-feeding, single-track instruction, or working alone.
  1. As the global economy shifts from factory work to service work, workers need the human, judgmental expertise and emotional intelligence that one doesn’t learn in class.

And yet, most corporations over-invest in formal training while leaving the more natural, simple ways we learn to chance.

But is informal learning a profit strategy – will it actually lead to any marked performance improvement? The answer is a resounding yes. Executives don’t want learning; they want execution. They want performance. And that’s what informal learning fosters. Informal does not mean unintentional. It is not to be left to chance. Consider the chart below which gives some ideas on planned/ intentional informal learning.

Organizations need to create more opportunities for informal learning by removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation, and growing networks. Once planned in such a manner, returns in the form of enhanced productivity, reduced stress, generation of fresh ideas and innovation, improved responsiveness to self-development would be forthcoming.

How do we design our training programs?

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What is the best form of instructional design for any learning session? Obviously, one that is close to the learning stages of any learner. A basic study of the human brain suggest that typically, any learner moves through the following 4 stages of learning

  1. Information – The information stage occurs when you personally observe something in your environment or when someone else informs you in word or print or visually about some fact or idea.
  2. Action – The next stage happens when you physically take action based on information you have acquired for yourself or from others.
  3. Feedback – the third stage takes place when your sensory systems are bombarded by complex environmental feedback from your actions in the world.
  4. Incubation – These first three stages allow information to be efficiently placed into working memory, where it is stored on a temporary basis. But before information can be firmly implanted into your long-term memory banks, you must pass through the last stage, which is called the incubation stage. This last period consists of physically relaxed, mentally unfocused downtime, where information moves from working memory into long-term memory.

Passing through a complete cycle of the four stages of learning provides your brain with correct levels of different neurotransmitters at the correct times so that efficient learning and memory formation can take place. To learn any new related skill, the learner may not need to go through all the four stages again. This is because of the powerful associative nature of the brain. Once a strong concept network is formed, it can be easily linked with other concept networks.

We endeavour in our training programs to mirror this pattern of learning. Typically, each learning session consists of the following four stages

  1. Mind Jog – The first stage where the learner is introduced to the subject/ skill being discussed – either through a story or a video or a small activity.
  2. Activity/ Game – An engaging game (either a ‘think’ game or a ‘do’ game) where the learner is expected to create something/ make decisions using the knowledge or the skills he already possesses
  3. Discussion – Post the game getting over, participants are engaged in a structured discussion where they reflect on their own behaviours and also receive feedback from others about their behaviours. The facilitator also introduces concepts or new information about the skill being developed so that participants can upgrade their knowledge base.
  4. Linking to Life – At this stage, participants reflect, discuss in pairs or triads and link back the new skill/ knowledge to their work life. They create an action plan about how they will use the newly acquired skill in their workplace to improve productivity and performance.

Further, we use the skills acquired in one session to introduce participants to a new set of related skills in the next session. For instance, if the first session is on planning and organizing, the following session typically is on creating contingency plans.

At Catalyst, we invest a lot of time and effort in building superlative content for all learner types to ensure that the learning process is engaging and the learnings are sticky and close to life.