Thursday, January 11

Investing in Informal Learning

According to Training in America by Garnevale, Gainer, and Villet (1990), two out of three workers say that everything they need to know was learned on the job, rather than through the classrooms. Thus the workplace is the most frequently traveled avenue to education and training for most employed persons. The authors further go on to state that estimates of employer investments in workplace training hover around $210 billion annually. Of that, about $30 billion is spent on formal training, while the rest, $180 billion is spent on informal, or on-the-job training.

The estimates that I have seen for informal vs. formal learning in a work environment normally runs about 70 to 80 percent for informal learning. Thus I estimate that on the average, workers learn 75% of their job informally and 25% formally. This means informal/on-the-job learning gets 86% of all learning investments, which leaves 14% for formal learning programs. Note that the authors indicate that formal learning is designed, developed, and delivered training; while informal/on-the-job training may be structured, such as apprenticeship programs, or unstructured, such as coaching or showing another the best way to perform a task.

I see two interesting aspects of this. This is the first time I have a seen training investment cost that tried to show the estimates for both formal and informal learning, however, the authors might have had more resources than others as this study was underwritten by the U.S. Department of Labour and conducted by ASTD. Of course it did include on-the-job training in informal learning, but on the other hand, is this where it should be included?

Secondly, as Jay and others bring the auspice of informal learning to the attention of trainers, it seems to me that trainers will try to formalize even more informal learning. As this shift grows from formalizing the informal, will we see the percentage of investment in formal learning programs grow and the investment of informal learning shrink?


Ben Watson said...

What you are seeing is the (re)acknowledgement that learning is a continuous experience which ebbs and flows over time, resulting in broad categories of formal and informal learning episodes. I think that a lot of formal learning is outcome-driven (with often the outcome being decided by someone other than the learner) with a focus on providing connections to content whereas informal learning is more learner-driven with a focus on a self-serve environment that provides tools and connections to people.

What I see happening is, to use Jay Cross' analogy, the creation of learning gardens where some things you have to see while other things are optional but overall a team of gardeners nuture and grow the environment (and the gardener considers the learner as part of their responsbility to grown and nurture). Paths are provided but you are encouraged to wander.

At Thomson NETg (soon to be part of SkillSoft) we are in the early stages of creating our gardens with formal learning events like scheduled online classes, informal learning events like self-paced courses supported by 24x7 mentoring and increasing the use of learner-created interactions through blogs, podcasts, wikis and discussion groups.

The result is a garden with company-recommended paths but with the ability to wander and a large selection of plants, flowers, trees and bushes to visit. In the background, guides are available 24x7, scheduled tours happen daily and gardeners are working in the background.

Formal and informal learning are artificial distinctions that the industry has made - in real life they are all shades of the same color. What is happening now is that we are realizing that we need to be equally responsible for the environment as we are for creating what is put on display.


Ben Watson
VP, Collaboration
Thomson NETg

Anonymous said...

Great post. Although I agree with Ben that the division of informal and formal learning is a fictional creation of our profession. There's a full spectrum of different means to learn information and facilitate more effective and efficient ways of learning.

For some time now I've had the gut feeling (I shared it in my eelearning post can we get a bit more precise? that the split of a corporation's efforts to educate and train their employees has been overstated on the formal training side of the equation. Your calculation puts the generally agreed upon spending balance on it's ear.

the thing that really bothers me about this "news" that you've brought us, Don, isn't news. This book was published 17 years ago. which means the research is likely to be somewhere between 18-20 years old. My question is how is it that rigorous research is overlooked for 20 years in favor of data that even it's biggest advocates admit that it's approximations of estimations.
no wonder our credibility as business people was called into question during the 90's.

breakdown said...

As an ex senior manager of a large retail units in the UK I have seen mangers come and go. What I learned was that the more formal training someone had, the less likely they would be succesful at their job.
Most of the tasks we would perform were based on common sense and historical data and the ability to manage people. Its stange how qualifications got in the way and words took over reality. In my case I found the better managers who realised the focusing on what realy matters was what really mattered.Books did not gove you real experience.
However on saying this, I would not want to visit my doctor for him to say, he learned it all hinself, some roles clearly need a large part of informal training.
But there is something that even doctors cannot learn in a book and that is the relationship with the patient. How to make them feel at ease and deal with dificult conversations, giving bad news and good.
Its a balancing act, with a different centre point for different professions.
Distance Learning

Anonymous said...

I think the comparative utility of formal versus informal learning depends on what is being learned as well. Teaching for some skills may be better suited to an apprentice-style environment; other skills or knowledge may be better suited to self-directed or classroom styles.

I would also question the reliability of just asking workers about the source of "everything they need to know" I am sure most people use their K-12 and university education much more than they are conscious of, every time they write a memo, crunch numbers or complete a research questionnaire. Personal reflection is also an important part of recycling and reapplying past learning, and that synthesizes in such a way that I doubt we can truly sort out which thing we learned from where.

As far as the training experts wanting to formalize the informal, well, they're working for some kind of quantitative outcome: number of people "trained" to perform X over a specific time period with a success rate of Y. That's not all the trainers' fault, I'd say the people who buy training should undestand the issue some more themselves.