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Topics: Informal learning

Informal learning:
Everyday hero of work

“Formal learning is like riding a bus. Informal learning is more like cycling.” What exactly does that mean? What makes informal learning a secret but everyday hero in the workplace? Nick Petch, Head of Learning Experience and Design Strategy at imc explained this in a recent webinar. We summarised the key facts and recommendations.

lms hot topics, informal learning

Last week, I finally got back to the office. For me that means: No more sitting at home all day! Above all though, it means I can meet colleagues without having to make special arrangements. A brief chat over a coffee or quickly popping in next door to ask how things are going with client XYZ, rather than having to pick up the phone or writing a message – such a relief!
While some still keep a critical eye on these exchanges and consider them a waste of time, it is far more than just vain chit-chat. It is part of informal learning.


In contrast to formal learning which involves learning pre-defined content at a specific time, informal learning relates to the learner receiving information exactly in the moment or at the point of need.


Most of the time, this knowledge acquisition happens without us giving it a second thought or realising that we are learning. In actual fact, we all use informal learning all the time: We google for information, write Teams messages, consult Wikipedia – and check with the colleague next door.

Quite often, we remember the knowledge acquired this way better than the things we learned by heart at some point. That is because we process and use the information straight away.

Nick Petch, imc

Nick Petch, Head of Learning Experience and Design Strategy bei imc

Informal learning has piqued the interest of Nick Petch, Head of Learning Experience and Design Strategy at imc, for years. His take: "Formal learning is like riding a bus. While I decide whether to take the bus and where to get on, it is the bus driver who dictates where I can go and how fast I will get there.

Informal learning is more like cycling: It is entirely my decision where I go, which route I take, how fast I go, and whether I complete the journey non-stop or allow myself a break in between.”

Yet, the necessary awareness that such informal exchange can be crucial is lacking in many companies. Their focus is often limited to formal development opportunities. Studies show that this is not conducive. For example, the US American Education Development Center (EDC) found that around 70% of competency gains obtained in an organisational context come through informal learning. That only leaves 30% as a result of traditional personnel development.


Achieving a balanced mix of formal and informal learning is therefore key. Nick Petch explains: “The two elements need to build on one another. Formal learning remains crucial. It helps people to learn how to learn. Learning is a skill that further enables you to choose when and how you adopt informal learning. If you keep on training your employees to sharpen these skills, your company becomes more agile and able to respond to changes or challenging times in a flexible manner.”

More specifically, this means that companies must train their employees to obtain knowledge as quickly as possible, and to map at least the basic concepts in a system. This documentation achieves two things: It boosts appreciation for the acquired knowledge, and it makes this knowledge available for other employees.


To avoid unnecessary log-ins, it helps to use systems the users log into regularly, such as the company’s learning management system (LMS). If the informally acquired knowledge is at least outlined here, shown in the relevant employee’s profile and a link is set e.g. from an internal wiki, colleagues can see who might be able to help them.


Yet, this is where we run the risk of going around in circles. How can an informal instrument be translated into formal structures?


First of all, the principle and appreciation of informal learning must be anchored firmly in the corporate culture. A sharing-is-caring culture must be created. In other words: Knowledge should not be hoarded centrally in individual departments or persons, but must me available in a decentralised manner. Such decentralisation can also buffer the loss of individual employees. Companies that realise this successfully have an enormous advantage over their competitors.


While access to explicit knowledge including documents, wikis and blogs is important, so is straightforward access to colleagues and specialists who can be approached “on demand” as and when the need arises. Companies can leverage structures like Communities of Practice, Working out Loud-Circle, expert profiles or dedicated Teams channels to drive networking.

Uwe Hofschröer is involved in strategy consultancy at imc and confirms: “Companies are becoming more aware of the topic. Questions on how to create structures that promote such knowledge transfer within an organisation are on the increase.”


On-the-job training is certainly an option. This describes direct learning in the workplace supported by colleagues or tools like the imc Process Guide, an electronic performance support system (EPSS).

Uwe Hofschröer

Uwe Hofschröer, Head of Learning Strategy Consultant bei imc

The crucial thing for companies to understand is that you cannot merely push a training course that teaches informal learning. Rather, meta competences like reflectivity and problem solving must be trained.

In order to achieve that, companies must start by creating the right environment to promote informal learning. Our experts have compiled the key factors for meaningful realisation of informal learning in the workplace:

  1. Making informal learning visible in the system
    Provide room for the topic. Motivate your employees to get actively involved in blogs or wikis and share their knowledge. Utilise knowledge-sharing opportunities, such as regular feedback rounds after projects are concluded where lessons learned are shared and documented.


  1. Coaching & mentoring
    Conversations are one of the richest sources of informal learning. Creating opportunities for regular exchange is key. Coaching and mentoring can also be implemented across departments. Identify your early adaptors, i.e. the team members who get excited about new developments and strive to be the first to apply them. Get these colleagues on board to actively promote knowledge transfer.


  1. Creating an open learning culture
    This final piece of advice sounds a lot easier than it really is. It is, however, crucial. Effective informal learning is only possible if the company has established an open learning culture and the concept of knowledge transfer is firmly anchored in the mindset of every employee on all levels.
    Sharing is caring! Individual employees guarding their knowledge like a treasure they refuse to share with others must be an absolute no-go. This takes trust and autonomous collaboration. Flat hierarchies help to achieve this, while also supporting the creation of Communities of Practice. Providing the physical space for employees to meet, talk and make arrangements without additional hurdles also helps to create an open learning culture.

Once such a learning culture is realised in the workplace, the odd chat by the coffee machine should no longer raise any eyebrows, either. That’s exactly where I’m heading right now.

More information

The webinar  in full length with Nick Petch about informal learning, can be found here.

If you would like to learn more about digital learning strategies or about imc Process Guide, please visit the corresponding pages.


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