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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Formalizing and Investing in Informal Learning

I just saw a post by David Wilson -Real metrics on Informal Learning that asks about a subject that we would all like to know.
Is investing in informal learning effective? Do you get return?
This is a fascinating subject for me, because it leads us straight into The Paradox of Informal Learning (Form of Informal?) - which is basically that once you put form and structure to informal learning and try to support it in an organization, it becomes more formal. I've got a lot more on this issue in:
I actually do think there are ways we can provide form and structure to intentional informal learning approaches. And I believe that we can measure intermediate factors as well as measuring impact on outcomes (see also Intermediate Factors and Elves, Measuring Results and Informal Learning).

However, I think the question right now might not even need to be around ROI, but rather it could be sufficient to ask if we should shift the mix. That was the discussion in: Numbers and Informal Learning as well as on The Learning Circuits Blog: The Numbers Behind Informal & Formal ..., and The Learning Circuits Blog: Investing in Informal Learning.

It may also be good to look back at Informal Learning: A Sound Investment and Formalizing Informal Learning.

While none of this answers David's question - my guess is that there's nothing that's really going to answer it in a satisfactory way. On the other hand, I believe there are lots of suggestions out there that investment in informal learning makes sense.


Anonymous said...

Informal Learning - isn't that what we are all doing when looking at these blogs? Informal Learning is becoming more of a culture of Learning than the standard Instructor Led Training and/or eLearning.

I am a Director of Technical Training and Field Services for a company that develops software applications used in 911 Call Centers - the pressures are great to get new employees up to speed quickly and many times it takes "informal training" to do this - thus the investment is there. We employ many different types of informal learning depending on the audience; many times it’s your SME with the expertise guiding new hires and sometimes long time employees through subject areas, which might include some hands-on training or just a white board talk (chalk talk). Depending on the SME’s ability to deliver the information in a logical manner usually is the key in its success.

I did find the posting very interesting - this is my first time responding and found this posting to be the most interesting me so far.

Tony Karrer said...

Good comment. And, yes, by reading blogs, likely you are learning informally. As are the descriptions you give of having SMEs guide new hires, or chalk talks.

What's interesting though is that as you put more form/structure/control to that kind of learning, e.g., come up with what the SME should cover, how they might do it, over what time period and make it mandatory - suddenly it's not really informal (the paradox).

Further, out of your budget and in your training design, how do you allocate time to formal and informal? Do you feel comfortable leaving certain aspects of their training to informal?

There's a discomfort in assuming that people will arrive at a particular level of performance with less control.

jay said...

Tony, I have plowed this ground for a long time and have concluded that it's more productive to talk about business results than to quibble about whether ROI is the appropriate means to measure them.

I have just posted a scan of Chapter 3 of Informal Learning that does precisely that. It's at

The ongoing blather about whether informal learning is 80% or 60% or 40% is not a big deal to me. Obviously, the ratio depends on the context. The fact is that informal learning is a lot more important than we've thought, and learning professionals that overlook it do their employers a disservice.

One cadre of nitpickers is trying to throw out the baby with the bath water, quoting me as saying I made up the cost allocation figures. I would describe it as informed judgment rather than make-believe, but again the point is not 3-place accuracy, it's that most organizations spend precious little budget or mind-share on informal learning compared to formal, to the detriment of the bottom line.

I don't have much patience for the people who say they haven't read my book but they know it's wrong. Geez!

As for the argument that some guy I never heard of made up the 80/20 proportion out of whole cloth and therefore it's wrong..., the critic should get a life. I'll post some sources at in a few days.

There's work to be done in measuring the impact of informal learning, but this semantic claptrap and faux-statistics get in the way of carrying it out.

How much should we invest in informal learning? Where? I'd like to be able to say more than "more." It's currently tough to take it much further than that.