Time For A New Look At Learning

Or What I Learned from Reading “Informal Learning at Work”

When economic or business circumstances cause companies to tighten their belts, the first item on the chopping block is often training and development. I’ve heard many L&D professionals bemoan this situation, but Paul Matthews has good news. With a shift in your views about what learning is, you can still build a powerful learning organization and demonstrate the value to executives at the same time.

Paul Matthews focuses on what works.

A native of New Zealand, Paul Matthews has always applied the practical, no-nonsense approach he learned growing up on a farm to his work in the corporate world. He’s been the director for a major IT company, founder of People Alchemy, and leadership consultant to blue chip clients. Through his experience, he’s recognized the power of informal learning and has helped his clients take advantage of it.

His book, Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times, sums up his experience and advice in this area. In Matthews’ words, “Much of the learning we do on a daily basis is not something we think of or label as learning. Informal learning happens when people chat about their experiences or ask someone a question. It happens when they look up information using Google or go to a specialized website. It happens when they pick up an old manual or handbook to check something.”

Use informal learning to build a learning organization.

Companies that embrace all types of learning create what Matthews describes as an “agile learning organization.”

Agile learning organizations:

  • Align learning goals and activities with business goals.
  • Combine traditional classes with mentoring, coaching, and follow-up activities.
  • Maintain a knowledge sharing framework to provide employees with key information when and where they need it.

He describes how NASA used informal knowledge sharing to transfer key experience from one mission to the next even as personnel shifted on and off the projects.

So what is informal learning?

Matthews defines it as “any learning or collaboration that takes place outside of a class, seminar or workshop, beyond the scope of a self-study course, and away from any environment recognized as part of formal learning.”

Basically, employees are filling in their knowledge gaps themselves any way they can. He cites Forrester research that found 47% of business technology users in North America and Europe use one or more websites not sanctioned by IT to do their jobs.

Companies who recognize that employees are seeking support as they do their jobs can make a big difference in performance by providing such support. Matthews points to Avis Budget Group which trains new hires through a structured, mentored experience in which they do everything from cleaning a car to managing a fueling station.

But he points out that informal learning comes in dozens of flavors and successful companies combine multiple channels depending on needs.

What are the different flavors of informal learning?

Your team probably already uses some of the strategies on this list, and the list itself isn’t exhaustive. As long as people are gathering, sharing, or discussing information, or practicing new skills and behaviors, they’re learning.

A few kinds informal learning:

  • Google searches
  • Lunch gatherings
  • Professional meetings
  • Giving something new a try (or trial and error)
  • Apprenticeships
  • Networking
  • Online help
  • Wikis
  • Communities of practice
  • Social networks
  • Knowledge sharing networks
  • Documentation
  • Job shadowing
  • Informal coaching
  • Help desk
  • Supervisor guidance
  • Cross-training
  • Cross-functional transfers
  • Peer coaching
  • Formal coaching
  • Asking for help
  • Flash mentoring (short duration with specific focus)
  • Teaming new employees with experienced ones
  • Case studies
  • Action learning groups that solve business problems collaboratively
  • Informal feedback
  • Incidental meetings between departments
  • Private social networks (e.g. in professional organizations)

Matthews quotes a CIA officer who’s helped build new knowledge sharing capabilities in the agency, “This is a kind of grassroots adoption. One of the things that we encourage with all of these tools is for people to find value in the tools themselves rather than it being forced upon them from up on high.”



Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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  1. In this last while myself and a few of my team have been entrenched in developing courses and workshops to develop data people and data-driven organizations. We made a big push to focus on the business and culture psychology behind data, talent, and data skills. No matter what we were developing, “learning” in the organization always came up as a crucial factor.