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The Social Side of Informal Learning

We often group informal learning and social learning into the same category but, in reality, they are two distinct types of learning. Informal learning generally describes learning that occurs outside of structured or prescribed settings. While social learning can be informal, it specifically refers to working with others to make sense of concepts and directly producing knowledge from these interactions. Informal and social learning are frequently confused because they are often intertwined -which can produce some wonderful results..

Forward-thinking organizations frequently unite the two types of learning. They do this in order to help their employees learn within the workplace and effectively respond to an ever-changing workplace environment. Before I provide tips for encouraging informal, social learning, let’s look at a model that incorporates these learning styles and explore why this approach works.

The 70/20/10 Model for Learning and Development was developed in the 1980s and is a general guide for L&D professionals who want to create efficient and impactful learning and development strategies. According to this model, employees should gain:

  • 70% of knowledge through their work on-the-job
  • 20% of knowledge from interactions with others
  • 10% of knowledge from structured or formal learning

As you can see, formal learning is just a small minority of all the learning taking place in this model, with on-the-job learning and learning through interaction with others making up 90% of total employee learning. You can achieve this large percentage by actively encouraging informal, social learning activities alongside more structured programs.

Informal social learning has a lot of advantages and can take place at the same time as when  formal training is being designed and developed. For example, an instructional designer might begin building a formal training program in January to solve a problem that was identified in the previous November.  The training might roll out in March if all goes well. In this same scenario, another employee who initially identified the problem could teach three of her peers how to navigate the issue before the instructional designer is ready to introduce the structured training program.

In many cases, social learning can provide an immediate fix while formal learning is being developed. In the process of informal, social learning, employees can work to identify and create a stop-gap measure to manage issues and then inform the formal training.  .

How Can You Encourage Social Learning?

Encourage leaders to create a shared vision. 

When employees have a shared vision, they feel more connected to one another and will be more willing to collaborate. This is evident in crisis situations. When Apollo 13 had a system malfunction, the team at NASA did not have a formal process for bringing the team home. Instead, they had a shared vision and worked informally to fulfill it.   Solid leadership identifies, communicates, and creates the visions that are needed to engage teams.

Encourage relationships.

Individuals get so focused on the day-to-day challenges that they can forget about the person in the next office who is a human being with feelings, motivations, and a life outside the workplace. In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he advocates for a vulnerability-based trust –the type of trust that allows individuals to share their opinions and input with a group without fear of judgment. Lencioni cites trust as a necessary foundation for building and maintaining effective relationships. Providing opportunities for employees to meet with one another during the workday at company parties, semi-structured mentoring programs, job rotations, and interdepartmental projects are straightforward ways that encourage relationship formation. These opportunities to meet with one another help individuals put the human factor back into the workplace.   

Encourage knowledge sharing.

Effective training does not need to be a top-down process and encouraging individuals to teach what they know can have great results. sNew employees and experienced employees alike are experts in something –regardless of it’s in Microsoft Word, customer service, or process. After all, they were all hired because they bring knowledge, skills and abilities to the table. Ask for experts (and budding experts) to share their knowledge with the team. Consider providing tools, resources and coaching to help these experts collaborate.

Learning and development strategies require thoughtful planning and true business alignment. Innovative organizations know this and are combining social and informal learning to reach the 90% of the 70-20-10 model. By encouraging relationship development and collaboration, you can achieve the 90% too.

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