Sunday, February 18

The Numbers Behind Informal & Formal Learning

I recently posted an article on this blog, Investing in Informal Learning. Seeing more in it that what I originally posted, I used it as part of a larger posting on trdev, State of the Learning Industry. Tony Karrer urged me to post it to Learning Circuits as trdev is semi-public in that you have to join the group to view any of the postings (it is free however). For those of you who are not members of trdev, I urge you to join as it is one of the more dynamic and critical T&D discussion groups on the web. However, simply cross-posting the same material holds no real interest to me, so I delved into the subject and thought about it some more. . .

I'm sure most readers of this blog have seen charts similar to this posted throughout the web:

Which of course makes informal learning look like a better investment than formal learning. However, in Training in America, the cost of formal and informal that they give ($30 billion for formal learning and $180 billion for informal learning) means that the true investment for learning should look more like this:

The second chart suggests that "formalizing" the informal learning would now be the better investment in order to make it more efficient. However, in the trdev discussion, Tony suggested that the second chart is not counting the payroll expenditures (soft costs) of the students in the formal learning classes. Thus the formal learning expenditures should be higher. We could argue back and forth about what costs should be included in each one, but we would only be second guessing what the authors actually counted under each form of learning.

Then it dawned on me what the numbers really mean; we are using the government's term of informal and formal learning -- if the money invested in learning falls under a training department's budget, it is counted as formal learning; if it falls only under payroll, then it is being counted as informal learning.

We are using monetary terms to define informal and formal learning. However, I think that most of us would define it more or less as Stephen Downes views it -- if it is managed by the learner it is informal, if it is managed by someone else it is formal.

The government defines OJT and apprenticeship programs as "informal" simply because they normally fall directly under payroll's budget, rather than training's. Yet for the most part, learners are not walking into the workplace and deciding what and how they will learn their job. Rather they are being directed or managed by supervisors and coworkers. The OJT programs are often under the guidance of the training department.

Thus the numbers thrown at us that 80% of the learning in the workplace is informal and 20% is formal is totally misleading, unless of course you want to define formal and informal learning in dollar terms. So what is the real percentage? I doubt if anyone really knows. Besides, I think it would totally depend on the type of workplace itself.


Meir Navon said...

Hi Donald,
I tried to reach the report with no success.
Could you please post the entire part that deals with the investment in formal and informal learning?
After being in the training arena for almost 20 years (most of them in managerial posts in big companies), I find these numbers totally ludicrous. My experience is similar to what you call "charts similar to this posted throughout the web".

Clark Aldrich said...

Informal must include internet access, telephones, cafeteria conversations, instant messenger, email, time spent waiting for elevator, asking friend as ball game, watching certain television shows, some chapters of some books, etc. etc. etc.

Bill said...

Jay Cross admits he just pulled these numbers out of the air. As I demonstrated in a week-long critique of informal learning, there is no basis for any statistics concerning informal learning.

Donald Clark said...

Gail, I'm by far NO expert on this, but this is what I can best determine from what I read and observe. I'm sure there are other readers out there who can correct and add to it. The feds collect the data mostly by surveying companies. The companies' "formal" training budgets are probably the most accurate because they actually track "training" expenditures. However, from what I have seen of most training estimates, they normally do not include the learners' payroll. However, companies normally track this so that managers can determine where their expenses are going to, but I don't believe it is actually included on most training surveys.

Training, such as OJT and apprenticeships, are normally not tracked as close by most companies, however, training departments usually have an idea what is happening because they advise, observe, and sanction a lot of them. These "estimates" are reported to the Feds and they list them as "informal training." Yet, they are really "formal" in nature because the learners are being "directed" during their OJT training. And from what I can determine, the book's figure only includes the learner's estimated payroll costs of the learners' training. And probably the biggest reason it is so huge is that programs such as OJT take a lot longer because they are normally more practical in nature than what one receives in a classroom, thus they will probably always have the biggest expenditure.

The charts depicting that 80% of learning is informal are normally using one of two methods:

1. They take the Feds 70% "informal" learning estimate, which is actually "formal" in the truest sense, and then tack on their own estimates true informal learning incidents. Which means that the learning taking place is actually closer to about 80% formal and 20% informal.


2. They are using extremely small sample sizes of (normally one or two companies) that report the employee's estimates of how they received their job training. Now I have not looked at all of these, but the few I have are always surveys of organizations that are more creative in nature, such as advertising. And of course you would expect their on-the-job learning to be more informal. However, most of them are college and university graduates, which of course mean they received their initial knowledge and skills "formally." Thus, the limited sample sizes are not representative of industries such as the manufacturing and service.

I'm not at home, so I can't give you the book chapter (I believe it was 2), but I will get that to you.

Donald Clark said...

I think that part of the problem that the way conclusions are arrived in the 80/20 figures are the use of words. Training/trainers/train use to be words that we would use without second thought. Now they are almost four-letter words in some circles. We would use formal training for instructor led classroom training. Informal training was used for other training methods, such as OJT. Yet both are managed not by the learners, but rather an instructor in the first instance and normally an experienced coworker or supervisor in the second.

Now we use formal learning in the place of training, because we don't want to use the T-word; and then assume that all instances of informal training will automatically transfer over to the same meaning as informal learning is now used.

Dave Lee said...


I appreciate your continued efforts to bring some reality to the numbers thrown out there regarding informal vs. formal learning. I do believe informal learning is something we can plan for and influence. But with bogus numbers, we will ultimately undermine our own numbers.

Clark, yes, informal learning as a concept includes everything you are mentioning, but "informal learning in the workplace" wouldn't generally include ball games and tv shows. I would include cafeteria conversations (which have successfully been influenced by table top information placards.) "investment in informal learning" is limited by the dollars the company does invest. Thus e-mail and internet access costs should be apportioned appropriately to informal learning. Yes, if a ballgame is a departmental outing, then the expense of the tickets, etc. should be apportioned, at least, partially to informal learning. Most of these items I doubt very highly are included in most estimates of informal learning.

Don, I do think alot of companies do capture time away from job in their budgeting for formal training. I've seen it at least 10-12 times. Sometimes it's charged back to training through interdepartmental accounting charges. Other times, it's tracked as a notation within the line business budgets.

Finally, Donald, you hit on a key issue to this discuss in your last comment. It's really not about setting accounting principles for training, but rather building a solid case for our efforts that happens to included dollar amounts. We have to be rigorous in our arguments, especially the financial ones. CFO's love to rip anyone's financial arguments to shreads. Most consider it one of their most important tasks in keeping corporate budgets reined in.

Keep up the good fight!

Anonymous said...

Dave Lee says in passing, " of their most important tasks in keeping corporate budgets reined in..."

And I think in almost any organization, that's a crucial task. You always have more places you could spend money than you have money to spend. (True for me as an individual, I know!) GE's net profit is greater than Microsoft's gross revenue, but that doesn't mean GE has unlimited resources.

In fact, being tight with the budget in good times makes a lot of (counterintuitive) sense: if you can't make a solid case for an investment / experiment / expense when things are going well, how can you make it when things aren't?

As for the made-up 80% figure, think how advocates of new ways of learning would pile onto "traditional" training organizations who said their figures were made up.

jay said...

Quibbling about whether the learning figure is precisely 80% is a waste of time. Learning trigonometry is almost entirely formal. Learning to ride a bike is almost entirely informal. The 80% in several independent studies, some governmental but others in private industry. It's an average, and it varies with the situation.

The important point here is that informal learning is much more important than most of us had realized, be it 50% or 90%.

The only number I "made up" (I would say it was a judgment call) is the cost of informal learning. Since it flies under the radar, no one's summing up the cost. There's no account in the budget for it.

The important point on investment in informal learning is that no one has her eye on the ball. There is a massive upside in supporting what's already going: by making it better.

Who in your organization is accountable for doing a better job of it? Who's responsible for insuring that the new building has plenty of conversation nooks? Who's
helping workers hone their ability to learn how to learn?

Those who assume that there is no basis for the evidence surrounding informal learning because the 80% statistic is iffy are akin to people who would say that it's wrong to say the value of pi is 3.14 because it's really 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433. This doesn't make 3.14 a bogus number or an inaccuracy. Most of us don't need more than two decimal places of accuracy. Nor does our 80% need to be right on the money to be useful in improving return on learning investment.

Since every learning experience I can think of is a mix of formal and informal, wouldn't it be a better use of our time to speculate on the best mix for particular situations?


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Harold Jarche said...

Since Jay won't quote from his own book, I will. In Appendix B, pp. 243-244, of "Informal Learning" several sources are cited, including:

Marcia Conner (2005), "In 1996, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people learn 70 percent of what they know about their jobs informally."

Many organizations report that 85 to 90 percent of a person's job knowledge is learned on the job and only 10 to 15 percent is learned in formal training events (Raybould, 2000).

Approximately 70 percent of Canadians say that their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own rather than employment-related courses (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

Of course these are not conclusive data, but you can see a pattern here. My own experience in interviewing people attending informal learning workshops is that participants (mostly middle to senior managers) learn about 90% of their job-related skills & knowledge informally.

Donald Clark said...

The original chart has even changed more! See the new evidence at Knowledge Jump

Unknown said...

Hello Donald,

I'm afraid I have to strongly disagree with the assertion that informal learning doesn't not make up the vast majority of organizational learning opportunities.

I'm not sure where the study gathered its data, but in my experience at companies such as Lucent, Cisco and in the federal government (USAF, Army and Department of homeland Security) I have only ever witnessed a small % of training offered through official channels.

In my own case, for years the only training I ever ran across was when I was asked personally to build or deliver a course.

As an IT developer / analyst I do what everyone in this industry has done for ten years now - I learn by searching the web, checking newsgroups looking for code and 'how to' posts. I'm seldom if ever interested in high level overviews of theory or principles -I'm looking real contextual knowledge.

The reason E-learning has failed to live up to its potential is largely due the arbitrary exclusion of informal content and the inability to integrate with knowledge-based systems and course delivery. We can still correct all of that though...


Paul Jones said...

In your third paragraph you link to something on the ERIC called 'Training in America' as asource for two figures... $30 billion for formal learning and $180 billion for informal learning.

As I write this on june 6, 2008 (having just come across this posting) the link doesn't work.

Can I trouble you to point me to the source of those figures?

Warm regards,
Paul Jones