The challenges of informal learning

Written by Richard Griffin on 4 July 2013

Sometimes you read something that just stops you in your tracks. This happened to me recently in Green Park, which is just next to Buckingham Palace, London. I had a bit of time to kill before a meeting (not at the Palace I hasten to add), it was a nice day so I found a bench and read a chapter in Sage' s Handbook of Workplace Learning (this makes me sound a lot more worthy than I actually am!) The chapter, by Per-Erik Ellstrom, had the rather snappy title of 'Informal Learning at Work: Conditions, Processes and Logics'. What stopped me in my tracks was when Ellstrom reported on the proportion of knowledge that it is estimated workers acquire informally. What do you think?

Research in 2008 estimated that as much as 90 per cent of what employees know comes from informal learning. Whether this actual figure holds across the board is a moot point but what it suggests is that learning that is not planned or designed matters and matters a lot.

Informal learning is, of course, the big revolution in our understanding of workplace learning. Much current research is taken up with seeking to understand : what it is, how it works and what it's effects are.

On the first point Ellstrom handily and I think accurately highlights its main features:

• It is a by-product of other processes such as email exchanges, observation, performing tasks or conversations with fellow workers over coffee.

• It is a process. Formal learning can be understood as an event during which the worker acquires knowledge, attitudes or skills. The learning flows one way. With informal learning, learning flows to and from the worker.

• Informal learning by its very nature is not planned or designed.

• While formal learning is located in the education system, particularly accredited programmes like apprenticeships, informal learning is  located within work.

Informal learning raises some real challenges for organisations and those concerned with L&D. Practices, norms and routines, for example that employees learn may not actually be appropriate. I am sure that I am not the only one who has had jobs where colleagues have told me- "this is how we do things here". As Lave and Wenger in their book Situated Learning pointed out we all essentially apprentices and learn from those around us how to perform the tasks we have, how to dress and even ways of speaking.

I do not want to give the impression that informal learning is a bad thing. It can be incredibly powerful. It will reflect the overall culture of the organisation, including its approach to formal learning. Organisations that encourage employee participation will have more positive learning cultures and as a result more successful formal learning.

Organisations need to think about whether there are opportunities for staff to feedback and reflect, whether they have access to learning resources, the nature of job design and the extent that it requires employees to respond to new situations.

Probably more than anything it is the nature of jobs that shape the potential for informal learning to impact on performance. A job requiring routine and repetitive tasks will require what Ellstrom calls 'Skills based learning' - basically tacitly learn by doing. Think about parking your car outside your home. After a while you just do it. Informal learning will not play a big part in shaping how employees perform Skills based jobs. At the other end are Ellstrom's 'Knowledge' based jobs these require workers to react through analysis to novel situations. Here informal plays an important role. The unpredictable nature of work makes it hard to formally train workers.

Unfortunately the meeting I then went too was slightly less inspiring being largely taken up with discussing the last meeting we had. Not a great opportunity for informal learning!

About the author
Richard Griffin is director of the Institute of Vocational Learning and Workplace Research at Buckinghamshire New University. He can be contacted at:

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