What’s the Role of Informal Learning in Modern Learning Strategy?


Hilarious examples can be found all over the Internet and in everyday life of kids mimicking adults. They overhear us at our best and worst moments and turn around and repeat what they’ve heard, often to hysterical effect.

Learning through observation is the very first type of learning we experience as children. It helps babies start to become more self-sufficient. Young kids learn how to solve puzzles or beat the next level in a video game by watching their siblings or friends.

As we grow into our teens and adulthood, a greater percentage of our learning is structured, but that doesn’t stop experiential - or informal - learning from occurring. It’s a learning modality as old as the human race itself. Older, even, as we could surely studylearning behavior of non-human species and the role it’s played in biological evolution.

We’re most interested in informal learning in the learning & development space. It’s been a hot topic in recent years as we put our collective heads together and try to better understand the informal learning our training audiences experience and how it impacts our work.

What Is (And What is Not) Informal Learning


In order to understand how informal learning fits within the greater scope of organizational training, we need to have a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, informal learning. And, well, it depends on who you ask.

For our purposes, we define informal learning as learning that happens without intent or structure. It occurs naturally, on- or off-the-job. It happens through observing others, participating in water-cooler conversations, overhearing a discussion happening down the hall or in the next check-out line over, visiting your daily Internet news sites...by simply going about your day, you learn things. Those things might be applicable to how you do your job. You didn’t plan to learn anything, but you did.


Non-formal and self-directed learning are two other terms commonly thrown around and mixed into discussions about informal learning, and we need to be sure to differentiate. Non-formal learning differs from informal learning in that it’s intentional and at least somewhat structured or orchestrated, though clearly less so than formal learning. Self-directed learning is intentional on the part of the learner, and not necessarily structured or orchestrated by a third party, such as a training department.

Now that we’re clear on informal learning’s definition, let’s talk about why it’s great. Informal learning comes with a lot of upside. The lack of intent or structure leaves the individual somewhat unaware that knowledge transfer has taken place. It doesn’t feel like work and occurs entirely on the individual’s terms. It’s not something they’re forced to do, and this can make the individual very receptive to new information.

A Framework for a Holistic Approach to Learning

Created in 1994 by the Center for Creative Leadership, it’s hardly a new idea. But as technology has made rapid changes to the learning and development space, analysts from the Brandon Hall Group and others have emphasized the 70:20:10 framework as part of ongoing discussions about learning strategy.

The model offers a guideline for developing a successful, blended learning strategy, which should include approximately 10% formal learning, 20% social or collaborative learning, and 70% informal learning. Those who have historically directed all L&D resources toward a formal learning strategy should consider a blended approach, using modern technology to its fullest potential.

Starting down this path leads many to wonder how informal learning can be accounted for, tracked, or leveraged in the execution of a learning strategy. Does the learning function only have access or control over formal learning, i.e. only 10% of the audience’s total learning experience?

What Should L&D Do With Informal Learning, If Anything?

It’s important to try to understand what happens during that 70%. What is your audience learning on their own? Understanding this will help you improve your formal learning offerings and tailor them better to meet the audience’s needs.

If informal learning is largely considered unintentional and experiential, is there a way we can support it or somehow be involved? There is, and it’s all about creating a culture of learning.

Jane Hart, Modern Workplace Learning Advisor, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, suggests several ways we support informal learning:

  • “Help managers understand the importance of everyday learning and the part they play in it.
  • Help individuals extract learning from their daily work.
  • Help individuals carry out a planned daily learning workout.
  • Help individuals share what they learn with one another.
  • Help managers measure the effectiveness of everyday learning.”

You’ll note that her advice isn’t so much about L&D participating in the informal learning itself. It’s about helping participants and others impacted make the most of everyday experiential learning; to be aware of new opportunities, recognize it when it occurs, and embrace it.

The opportunity exists to empower the formal and informal to enhance one another, which will only lead to a happier, more knowledgeable audience.

If you want to read more about informal learning, EdutopiaBrandon Hall Group, and Learning Solutions Magazine have published great resources.

Will Holland