Informal learning is “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs,” according to Jay Cross, an expert on this type of learning. Informal learning happens when we ask our colleagues for assistance, observe what they do, and share ideas or resources with each other. It also accounts for a large proportion of our knowledge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that 70 percent of what employees know about their jobs is learned informally on the job.

Unofficial, unscheduled, and impromptu are the key words in Cross’s description of informal learning. No one ever uses those words to describe formal training! Trying to turn informal learning into formal learning diminishes the unique benefits of each of these learning methods. Yes, you want to find a way to encourage the sharing of information among employees and the transfer of knowledge. And of course, you want to track that somehow. But if you go too far, you’ll find that you’ve simply created another avenue for formal learning.

This is not to say that you should immediately cancel all your scheduled formal learning and set your employees loose to learn informally on their own. Organizations would miss out on many opportunities for learning deployment and performance support without the careful planning and instructional design that goes into formal learning. In addition, formal learning offers structure, compliance, and the ability to easily assess your learners’ progress.

However, we need to supplement formal learning with informal learning to encourage as much knowledge acquisition as possible. By encouraging informal learning, you are also supporting tacit knowledge transfer, motivated learners, and on-the-job satisfaction.

Tacit knowledge transfer

Tacit knowledge is the most difficult type of knowledge to share, especially from a departing veteran employee to a younger, new employee. Tacit knowledge comprises the information, knowledge, insights, and experiences an employee has gained over the years and holds in his or her head. For a sales representative, this might be an insight into a particular client’s personality that no one else knows. Informal learning tools can capture some of this knowledge and make it available to aid the entire organization.

Self-directed learning

Employees take responsibility for their own learning when they do it informally, such as by seeking out a mentor in their department or looking up additional resources for a project. This shows their commitment and ability to manage their own needs. This personal touch is also why informal learning is so effective. The learners are responsible for directing their own learning; they can focus on what they’re interested in and what they know needs improvement. It also increases job satisfaction as learners see themselves improving and gaining new skills.

You can’t force these results to happen, but you can create both an environment that’s conducive to informal learning and a central place to capture the knowledge that employees share informally.

Central knowledge hub

There are several different ways to create a central knowledge hub, including wikis, blogs, or collaborative workspaces that you create through your organization’s learning management system. Designers and developers are finding that some of the new LMSs (such as Lectora Express) make it easy to encourage social learning and content sharing, and also make it simple to track the popularity and effectiveness of informal learning. The ability to track what’s shared through informal methods is key—we certainly don’t want bad habits to be shared and passed down among employees! After all, if employees learn 70 percent of what they know about their jobs informally while at work, we need to make sure they’re learning the right things!

We are all lifelong learners, and we’re seeking and delivering knowledge in our social networks every day. As learning and development professionals, we need to encourage both informal and formal learning and provide a place to store all types of knowledge for access by the entire organization. Today’s eLearning tools are offering us more and more opportunities to do so. It’s up to us to take advantage of them.