Learning at the water cooler


Is chatting by the water cooler or engaging in an online conversation wasting time on the company clock? Not necessarily, says Concordia’s Saul Carliner, director of the Education Doctoral Program and associate professor in the Department of Education.

Both can be valuable learning experiences — what education experts call informal learning.

In his recently published book Informal Learning Basics (ASTD Press, 2012), Carliner helps training and development professionals understand what constitutes informal learning and how to support it in the workplace.

Informal learning occurs through a variety of daily activities — often unconsciously.

“Something really cool comes out in a meeting that was called for another purpose, such as discussing the status of a project, and results in working through a difficult problem — the really insightful thing you pick up in the meeting is informal learning,” says Carliner.

Informal learning also stems from conversations with mentors, trial-and-error on the job, independent research, as well as consulting the Internet and social media.

“Formal and informal learning are interrelated processes that work together to build job performance,” says Carliner. “Most of the focus on training in the workplace is on formal training programs, while the majority of learning that actually occurs in the workplace occurs informally in the context of the job.”

A 2009 Conference Board of Canada study put the proportion of informal learning at 56 per cent; other researchers estimate it’s closer to 70 or 80 percent.

Partly as a result of such findings, but mainly for economic reasons, many organizations are consciously reducing their investments in training, Carliner’s research has found.

“Employers increasingly rely on informal learning to prepare their workers, whether they realize it or not,” says Carliner.

He was very concerned about the limited awareness that many training and human resources professionals have. He was equally concerned with the levels and types of support needed to successfully integrate informal learning into the workplace — that was his motivation to write the book.

“A lot of informal learning happens through mentoring, for example, which works best when each party gets a little advance coaching about the nature of the mentoring relationship.”

While the Internet has helped expand the use of informal learning, free information is often of lesser quality than what’s available through subscription-only databases and private, online libraries — and working with higher quality information often leads to better decisions.

“Most working professionals don’t have access to paid content. If you want to promote informal learning, give your employees something to learn from. There are some good, reasonably priced databases out there, but they’re not free,” says Carliner. “Similarly, workers need training in how to conduct meaningful, effective searches so they don’t waste a lot of time on the Internet looking for information.”

Social media can be a powerful informal learning tool, enabling workers to connect easily with experts in any subject area. “People often tweet links to insightful articles and now, you can ask a question on Facebook to everyone you know and get answers you hadn’t thought of — fast,” says Carliner.

Many organizations — fearing how their workers might behave or what they might say in public — try to limit or prevent contact on social media. “Organizations need to craft social media policies that let workers interact with experts outside the organization without compromising its privacy or brand.”

When a manager gives direct feedback to the worker, that’s also informal learning. “Through training and support of managers as coaches, organizations can strengthen the informal learning processes of their staffs on the front lines,” notes Carliner. “Some companies do a great job of preparing their managers for that role, but many don’t.”

Carliner believes employers should acknowledge the skills and know-how acquired through informal learning, to reward workers with expanded job responsibilities and merit-based pay raises and promotions as well as to recognize relevant experience when screening job applicants.

“With effective integration into the job and the proper support, informal learning can help organizations reduce the amount of time a worker needs to become competent on the job and boost job performance and employee engagement — that sense of affiliation with the organization reduces the likelihood of turnover,” says Carliner.

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