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.


3. Application of Learning

The third differentiating factor between formal and informal learning is the application of what is learned. There are two aspects of application that need to be considered: the immediacy of application and the transfer of learning to the job.

In terms of immediacy, formal learning prepares learners for success in handling or dealing with future situations after the learner has completed a training course or program. As a result, the application of learning is deferred to some point in the future.

Unlike formal learning, however, informal learning looks to immediately resolve problems/situations the learner is currently dealing with. Informal learning is concerned with the immediate application of learning. The difference, then, between formal and informal learning is that formal learning is anticipatory in nature while informal learning has immediacy of application.

In terms of transfer of learning, formal learning presents the risks or concerns that informal learning does not, namely that learning may not be transferred to the job or may not be transferred appropriately. This concern is due to several causes. First, the need to learn may have disappeared or gone away if, for example, an employee has changed jobs or the job itself has changed. Second, the work climate of the employee may be such that transfer is inhibited, if not thwarted. For example, the employee’s manager and/or peers may not appreciate and support the new skills/knowledge or special programs, resources, etc. may not be available to apply the new skills.

Informal learning on the other hand is all about transfer. The whole purpose of learning informally is to immediately resolve a problem or correct a situation. That cannot be achieved without learning being applied.

When all is said and done, then, formal learning results in deferred application of learning with little or no guarantee that the learning will be transferred to the job. This is not true of informal learning.

Implication for Practice

The implication of application for practice appears straightforward. Formal learning cannot effectively meet immediate learning needs and should be approached as such. Where possible, formal learning materials should be broken down into quick references and made accessible for utilization in informal learning situations. Informal learning should be nurtured to the greatest extent possible.


Differentiating Factors Between Formal/Informal Learning: Factor #2 – Time

October 20, 2009

2. Time
The second differentiating factor between formal and informal learning is time. Time has two aspects that deserve consideration: scheduling and duration.
Some formal learning formats (e.g., courses, workshops and seminars) involve distinct components (i.e., training site, instructor, participants, training materials, etc.) that must be coordinated and brought together in time and place for training to [...]

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Differentiating Factors Between Formal/Informal Learning: Factor #1 – Structure.

October 16, 2009

The differentiating factors of formal/informal learning to be discussed in the next several blogs include the following:
1. Structure
2. Time
3. Prerequisites
4. Delivery method
5. Relevance to the job
6. Purpose
7. Intentionality
1. Structure
The first differentiating factor is structure. Formal learning is characterized by structure whereas informal learning is not. By structure is meant a process by which the learner goes about learning. More likely than not, this [...]

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Needed: A Closer Look At Informal Learning

October 15, 2009

In the past several years there has been increasing interest in informal learning. This interest has tended to surround the question of how informal learning can better complement formal learning in terms of just-in-time learning as well as reducing training costs. Unfortunately, questions have been discussed and ideas proposed with unstated assumptions about what informal [...]

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Why Do Client Always Want to Short Change Learning?

August 18, 2009

Rarely, if ever, does a request for a training course or the design and development of a course ever come without an unreasonable time constraint by the client. Two days of training are allotted for a three day course or a half-day course is requested to be delivered in 2 hours. It never seems to [...]

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Is Specific Industry Experience Necessary for a Vendor?

August 18, 2009

When speaking with a potential client, many invariably pose the question, “Do you have experience in (their) industry?” For some clients, the answer doesn’t matter they’re just curious. For others, however, it’s of utmost importance and is a qualifying criteria.
The answer the question is both “yes” and “no” depending on the client’s needs and type [...]

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Organizational Culture and Informal Learning

August 18, 2009

A recent study, “Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning,” by ASTD and the Institute for Corporate Productivity ( suggests that organizational culture is a driver of informal learning (pg. 13). I would like to take exception to this finding. While crucial to informal learning, I suggest that organizational is not a driver but rather a [...]

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Development of a Dir. of Training Without a Training Background

August 17, 2009

In an earlier post, I suggested that the first Dir. of Training of a start-up training department/program might well have extensive knowledge of the company in lieu of a background and/or experience in training. In suggesting this, I am not in any way denigrating competence in matters of training and learning. Rather, I’m suggesting this [...]

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Blended Learning: A Self-Serving Notion

August 17, 2009

The whole notion of blended learning as a new approach to learning is a sham perpetrated by the purveyors of elearning. Effective learning occurs through multi-sensory perception via multi-instructional modes. We learn through all our senses via a variety of learning experiences in a variety of contexts. We always have and always will.
The purveyors of [...]

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