Approaching Formal and Informal Learning Differently: Realities of Managing

by Dana Skiff on October 27, 2009

Because there are significant differentiating factors between the nature of formal and informal learning, they have several significant but practical implications for the implementation and support of formal and informal learning.

The first has to do with managing and controlling learning. This extends to design and development efforts as well as the delivery of training. By its nature (i.e., the creation of training programs and the work effort of people involved), formal learning is amendable to being managed and controlled. Training sessions are scheduled at selected times, dates and locations, have a defined beginning and ending, participants are registered and monitored and training materials are created. If the learning involves elearning, modules are created and posted online for 24/7 access. All these things can be managed and controlled.

Informal learning, on the other hand, is not amenable to such management and control. Being idiosyncratic to each learner and spontaneous in nature, informal learning is situationally specific and cannot be predicted. As a result, informal learning cannot be managed or controlled.

This leads to the second implication. Because formal learning can be controlled and managed, it can be mandated, i.e., learners can be directed to attend or complete specific courses/programs at designated times or completed by what date. Informal learning, on the other hand, cannot be mandated. An employee has no idea of when a job specific problem/issue will arise, the nature of the problem/issue, or the resources needed to resolve the problem/issue. Such indeterminates preclude informal learning from being mandated.

A third implication for practice has to do with budgeting. Formal learning involves a variety of distinctive work efforts (i.e., planning, development, administration, coordination, etc.) involving resources (i.e., instructional designers and developers, instructors, training materials, equipment, etc.) Such efforts and resources require money and must be budgeted for.

Not so for informal learning. How do you budget for learning when you don’t know who will be learning, what they will learn or when?

A fourth implication for practice concerns evaluation. Formal learning has all the ingredients (e.g., resources, activities, anticipated and actual outcomes, etc.) needed for creating metrics and conducting evaluations. Again, informal learning does not. How do you evaluate learning when you don’t know who will be learning, what they will learn or when?

All this differentiating between formal and informal learning has nothing to do with the value or merits of either approach. Both are valuable and worthwhile in their own right. Both have a critical role to play in corporate learning. They complement one another. The purpose of attempting to differentiate the two approaches is to more clearly articulate the differences so that the nature and qualities of both can be more readily understood and appreciated. To the extent they are better understood, they can be more effectively utilized and nurtured.

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