It’s a well-worn adage that an organization's human resources are its most prized assets. That’s why companies invest heavily in their employees’ development.
There are many studies that show that formal training can bolster employee retention in an organization. But the benefits of informal learning aren’t as widely known.
This article discusses what informal learning is and how it differs from formal training. In addition, it reveals four examples of informal training in the workplace you should explore in your organization.
Let’s get started!
What is informal training?
Informal training (also referred to as informal or asynchronous learning) is an unstructured and unofficial method of knowledge-sharing in the office.
It can entail knowledge transfer between senior employees and their juniors. It can also entail a new hire learning from an experienced employee.
Informal learning opportunities commonly occur in workplaces that promote collaborative learning and build learning cultures. It doesn’t involve lesson plans, learning outcomes, or other guardrails commonly employed in formal trainings. Instead, informal training in the workplace is a more freeform type of learning.
Also, under informal training, an employee can choose the speed at which they learn and how they learn. That’s why informal training is also self-directed learning.
Difference between informal and formal training
Informal and formal training couldn’t be more different. Some of the factors that distinguish the two approaches to workplace learning include:
- Structure: Formal training programs (compliance training, etc.) involve structured learning. The learning objectives are defined from the outset and the employees have little choice but to work towards those objectives. The reverse is the case with informal training.
- Trainers: Both learning methods may involve a senior colleague imparting knowledge to their juniors. However, only formal trainings involve bringing in outside trainers with set lesson plans to teach employees.
- Testing: Formal employee development programs involve tests that ensure knowledge retention. Informal training does not.
- Pace: Informal learning is self-paced while formal training isn’t. The latter type of training is time-sensitive and involves a schedule and deadline.
- Autonomy: Employees have greater autonomy when learning informally than when they’re being formally trained. This can provide benefits. We’ll discuss these benefits in the section below.
- Knowledge sources: Formal training usually involves a sole instructor imparting knowledge to a company’s employees. That’s not the case when an employee learns informally.
A common method adopted by many companies is to use both training types combined.
3 Benefits of informal training in the workplace
Now that you know the difference between formal and informal job training, let’s discuss some of the benefits informal learning experiences provide. Three of the most prominent ones that come to mind include:
- Less pressure: Informal learning activity doesn’t put as much pressure on the learner. The employee doesn’t have to worry about their knowledge being tested. They don’t have time constraints (deadlines) to contend with either. These are things they’d normally have to deal with during formal learning programs.
- Greater autonomy for learners: As already mentioned, during an informal learning process, the employee has full control of how quickly and thoroughly they learn on the job. They can set their own learning goals, training methods, and knowledge sources. Also, having greater autonomy over what (and how) they learn helps an employee stay focused. The amount of control an informal training method affords them means they engage more with the knowledge source. Some employees may view the process as integral to their personal growth. In the end, they invest more time and energy in their skill development.
- Varied sources of learning: In an environment that fosters informal learning, an employee can learn from multiple sources, including their fellow colleagues. This helps ensure they get a comprehensive view of what they need to do to succeed in their role. In the end, this hastens their growth.
Of course, informal training provides many more benefits than the ones listed above. For example, informal learning happens during an employee's day-to-day at the office. That means it won't disrupt their schedule at home.
The informal knowledge-sharing between senior and junior employees can also foster pleasant workplace relationships, healthy competition, and a more solid learning culture. This, ultimately, benefits the organization.
4 Examples of informal training
So, how can you facilitate informal learning behaviors in your workplace? In the section below, we reveal informal learning examples worth incorporating into your company culture.
Mentoring (and mentorship programs) is an excellent informal learning strategy worth implementing in your organization.
In mentor/mentee pairings, experienced employees can teach their younger counterparts the ins and outs of the job. The mentor imparts the knowledge and experience they've acquired over the years and the mentee receives this knowledge.
The mentor can either give this information verbally or in written form (or both).
To impart the necessary information verbally, all the mentor has to do is observe the mentee while working and give comments. They can then set up a meeting with them afterward for a recap.
Mentors can use online learning platforms to disseminate the information they want in written form. To ensure the lessons are reinforced, they can also send the mentees emails summarizing what they learned on the day. They can just search for email addresses for this, or ask HR for a list.
The mentorship training method is excellent for multiple reasons.
For one, it helps forge stronger bonds between your employees. The younger inexperienced employee gains a parental-like figure they can turn to when they need help. Meanwhile, the mentor takes a youngling under their wing whose energy they can tap into from time to time. The resulting symbiotic relationship results in the mentor and mentee getting along.
Also, mentorships promote idea and knowledge-sharing and prevent knowledge hoarding. The exit of an experienced employee won’t mean the loss of their knowledge and expertise. Instead, that knowledge will reside in the younger newer employee they mentored. According to McCarthy Mentoring, 89% of these mentees may go on to mentor others, perpetuating knowledge transfer.
Finally, mentoring hastens an inexperienced employee’s development. They can pick up the technical and soft skills required to do their job quicker when given direction informally.
2. Job shadowing
Job shadowing is similar to mentorship: an employee also learns from their more experienced colleague. The difference between the two on-the-job learning methods, however, is that shadowing typically involves a new employee watching one who has stayed for long in the company.
Usually, an organization will arrange for an employee to shadow another when the said employee is fresh out of an educational institution. Shadowing is also common during internship programs where the intern has no skills and is still learning.
Job shadowing provides a couple of benefits to the employee doing the shadowing.
For starters, they get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of how their senior colleague performs their work duties. This helps them acquire skills and knowledge much quicker than if they were left to their own.
Also, shadowing promotes curiosity and reflection in brand-new employees. For example, an employee that shadows their senior during a work meeting can reflect on what they observed. They can then ask their older colleague questions after the fact.
3. Team-building activities
Team-building activities are an excellent way to encourage informal learning behaviors in employees. You can organize them every once in a while to strengthen the bonds between co-workers and company departments.
In addition, you don't have to hold these activities in a physical location. If you’re leading remote teams, you also have the option of setting up online communities. This way, you can host remote team-building activities.
Some examples of these team-building exercises include
- Virtual break rooms: Virtual break rooms are excellent for remote teams that don't work in the same physical location. You can set these up using software like Zoom. Your employees can pop into them during their break to chat with their co-workers online.These break rooms can facilitate informal training in the workplace by providing a virtual space where remote employees can gather. An employee can log in to seek help for a work-related problem from their colleagues. Employees can also put their heads together to solve team issues, and so on.
- Cook-offs: Cook-offs are great for bringing large teams together over delicious food or barbecue. This team-building activity can get co-workers from different departments talking. The leisurely ambiance encourages informal discussions of work-related issues.
- Company retreats: Like cook-offs, company retreats can help to get employees from different departments talking. The informal conversations that ensue during the period of rest and relaxation may prove insightful when everyone returns to the office.
As the above examples reveal, team building activities aren’t only good for informal learning. They provide additional benefits like reducing employee stress. That’s why a company usually highlights these as part of its recruitment marketing plan. Candidates are looking for work-life balance. When they see a company holding team-building activities, they conclude that company believes in what they believe in, too. The result? They apply for the job.
Also, the Harvard Business Review reveals that team-building activities can improve communication between team members by over 50%. The benefits will serve your organization’s interests, with the knowledge spillovers resulting in a knowledgeable and skilled workforce.
4. Explainer video training
Video provides the cheapest and least resource-intensive means of encouraging informal learning. They aren’t difficult to make and offer many advantages.
Explainer videos provide for a knowledge resource your inexperienced employees can use over and over again. With this type of training, the trainee relies on film prepared by management. For the best results, the video should be animated. This way, trainees are more likely to finish watching the material. Animation adds that fun element to the video, after all.
Video training also deters a new employee’s reticence to ask questions. Some trainees may feel they may be seen as a nuisance if they keep on asking questions. When training informally with video, they don’t face this issue. They can rewind or skip to parts of the video any time they have questions that the video answers.
Finally, video tutorials are the purest representation of the autonomy benefit informal learning provides.
For example, an employee can learn how to use a content generator at their own pace when using a step-by-step video tutorial. They can choose which software functions to learn first, learn about features as and when their job requires it, and so on.
Introducing an informal learning culture into your workplace can only provide benefits. Your employees will feel minimal pressure and greater autonomy. The result is higher engagement during the knowledge acquisition process.
So, consider incorporating mentorships, job shadowing, team-building activities, or explainer video training into your training culture. In the long run, your employees will acquire the knowledge they need to perform their roles effectively. They’ll feel satisfaction in the workplace, too, because they see the company invests in their growth.
All these, ultimately, ensure your organization’s success.
Owen Baker is a content marketer for Voila Norbert, an online email verification tool. He has spent most of the last decade working online for a range of marketing companies.