Drive Our Own Learning?! (Claire Schooley) - Guest Blog

What Do You Mean Learners Can Drive Their Own Learning?!

I don’t particularly like the term “informal learning” because people often think of Facebook conversations that don’t have much depth and brush it aside as fluff. But, as of yet, I haven’t found an all-encompassing word to substitute.

Sometimes informal learning refers to users who know what they need to learn and use a strong search engine to find just the right learning piece that will help them get their job done. Other times, informal learning is more social with an interaction among two or more people. As I talk with our clients and write and research on this topic, I have found a variety of informal approaches as well as a blend of approaches. During Forrester’s playbook research (a body of research around specific areas – in my case, Human Capital Management), the following approaches are ones that work.

Some informal approaches are sticky:

  • Informal learning supporting formal learning. Support often entails a forum or discussion group around a formal course. The instructor or learners start class-content-related discussions, and other class members participate. Learners may share experiences or ask questions related to content and get feedback.
  • Internal enterprise social networks enabling information sharing and more. An internal network allows employees to share information, ask questions and get answers, and experience short learning videos as three-minute learning nuggets.
  • Communities of practice bringing together affinity groups. Employees who are doing similar jobs or working on the same project form communities of practice (CoP). They share material, pose questions, and get answers from members. They often have a problem-solving online location where they work on issues. These CoPs usually nominate leaders responsible for keeping the site fresh and active. Leaders change every few months.
  • Expertise location tying together employees from multiple locations. By searching employee profiles, an employee can identify other colleagues who may have the right expertise to answer a question. Users can search answers stored in a database before reaching out to another employee. Expertise location requires employees to keep their online profiles current.
  • Strong search capability finding just-in-time information. Robust search allows employees to access information they need to solve a problem quickly from a variety of sources: within a lesson, in the course catalog, a document on the company intranet, internal chat streams, or references on the Internet.
  • User-generated content receiving wide acceptance. Employees capture content from an event or a training session. With simple voice over and the addition of a title and content description, the author can post the learning piece to the learning management system (LMS) or a collaboration site. Professional production is not essential today; employees want the information, and they are very comfortable with less-than-professional quality. To check for accuracy, most organizations have a video review procedure in place.
  • Instant messaging (IM) providing a fast way to connect. This just-in-time approach allows employees to get information from colleagues almost immediately. The culture must encourage employees to keep signed in to IM and to use it only to communicate short bits of information.
  • Online mentoring and coaching bringing top value. Face-to-face mentoring and coaching do not scale, making it difficult to connect disparate groups. Technology-based mentoring enables organizations to match mentors and mentees via online profiles and track and evaluate online meetings.

Certain Factors Drive Informal Learning Growth, While Others Limit It

Today's work world is a fast-paced environment with technology at the hub of most activities. Employees are tech savvy and want to learn information at the moment of need to carry out their work. This is especially true for the Millennial-age workers who have not known a world without 24x7 connectivity. A more informal company culture with an emphasis on sharing information is becoming the norm today. Barriers do exist for informal learning, and organizations must consider these as well (see the following figure).

So Informal Learning Is Not For You Just Yet, But What Steps Can You Take?

As business becomes more efficient and lean while continuing to drive growth, the corporate learning environment must not only reflect these changes but also proactively embrace and encourage them. Some best practices include:

  • Change the packaging of formal learning content. Employees need easy access to formal learning such as required compliance or regulatory training, and the content needs to be broken into shorter chunks to make it easier to consume, especially on the go using mobile devices. Off-the-shelf vendors are cutting their content into manageable bites. To create learning content in house, use rapid eLearning content authoring tools, which are template-based and easy for subject-matter experts (SMEs) to master.
  • Foster multifaceted learning approaches. The face-to-face classroom is no longer the norm; it does not fit today's business environment. However, there are times when face-to-face interaction is important, for example, when learning and practicing negotiation or mediation skills. HR, learning professionals, and SMEs in lines of business are increasing their use of engaging and interactive self-paced learning material, online discussion groups, user-produced video, learning communities that provide information and support, and online knowledge centers with PDFs, videos, and graphical information accessed through keyword searches.
  • Explore online individual and group mentoring. A growing number of senior employees are willing to embrace mentoring and apprenticeship programs to communicate tacit knowledge to successors. Some organizations are using online mentoring to streamline learning with technology at the core — a very comfortable approach for Millennials. Both mentors and mentees report getting value from these experiences.
  • Implement technology to accommodate the changing learning landscapeSmartphones and tablets allow short learning experiences, quick assessments, administrative learning tasks, and quick review of essential points before a meeting. Online courses that have wraparound discussion groups and group wikis offer ways to collect ideas from groups to solve particular challenges. Providing context-sensitive help for complex applications enables workers to access information when they need it from within the application. Simulations, serious gaming, and virtual worlds provide engaging learning experiences.

To address these changes, the learning organization must involve the lines of business in identifying informal learning opportunities, and encourage openness and collaboration. Informal learning also means developing appropriate communities, capturing and reusing information as learning nuggets, and using employees and SMEs as content developers with the goal of making learning an integral part of employees' work life.

As I write this, I’m reminded of the short video of a Mom giving a book to a baby and the baby trying to use his little fingers to move to the next page – the same way his iPad works. Think of it . . . that’s our future generation. Are we ready for them?


Claire Schooley is a principal analyst at Forrester Research and leading expert on talent management and learning. She leads Forrester’s work on change management from the people perspective and focuses on the strategy and technology associated with talent management, including formal and informal learning.

Claire is considered as one of the most experienced and insightful analysts in the global talent and learning arena.