Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

24 May 2012

Reconciling Formal and Informal

Clark @ 6:10 am

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about informal learning, which ends up sounding like formal learning, and this can be confusing.  So I’ve been trying to reconcile these two viewpoints, and this is how I’m seeing it.

There are really two viewpoints: that of the learning and development (L&D) professional, and that of the performer. Each of these sees the world differently, and we need to separate these out.

performer versus L&D views of formal and informalLet’s get formal learning out of the way first.  Performers know when they’re on deck for a course.   They’re even willing to take courses when they know there’s a significant skill shift they need, or when they’re novices in a new area.  If you’ve addressed the emotional side – motivation and anxiety – they can be eager participants.  And L&D knows formal learning (all too well), they know how to design and develop courses (or think they do; there’s a lot of bad stuff being produced under the rubric ‘course’ that’s a waste of time and money, but that’s another topic).

Now, let’s move on to informal learning, as this is where, to me, we have a conflict.

The performer is focused on the tasks they need to perform. When they’re practitioners in the area, they’re much more likely to want the resources ‘to hand’: job aids, information, wizards, etc.  This also includes search engines, portals, and more.  Further, they’re likely to want people when that’s relevant: coaching, mentoring, answers that aren’t yet codified, finding new ideas and solutions.  The latter, resources and people, are to them informal learning. They’re answers, not courses.

Now, from the perspective of the L&D group, job aids are formal learning. They’re designed, developed, and delivered.  They’ve got the ‘secret sauce’ provided by folks who understand how we perceive information, work, learn, and more. So here we have a mismatch.  Now, not all L&D groups take ownership of this area, but they could and should.  (While I think portals should be too, it’s less likely that the L&D group has a role here, and that too should change.)

Then we move to the social side: communication, collaboration, and more.  Here, L&D and the performer are largely in agreement, this is informal learning. However, there’s really another mismatch.  L&D tends to think there’s little they can do here, and that’s a mistake. They can do several things: they can make courses about how to use social media better (not everyone knows how to communicate and collaborate well), share best practices, work social media into formal learning to make it easier to facilitate the segue into the workplace. They can also provide performance support for the social media, and be facilitating it’s use. They can unearth good practices in the organization and share them, foster discussion, etc; seed, feed, weed, and breed. (And, yes, L&D interventions there will be formal in the sense that they’re applying rigor, but they’re facilitating emergent  behaviors that they don’t own.)

This latter, the use of social media in the organization for work should happen, as that’s where the continual innovation happens.  As I say: optimal execution is only the cost of entry; continual innovation is the necessary competitive differentiator.  Formal learning helps execution, and so does performance support, but innovation comes from social interaction.  And L&D groups shouldn’t leave innovation to chance. They have a role to play.

social formal is not informal learningThere’s one more confounding factor.  Adding social into formal learning is worthwhile, but  folks might get confused that doing so is also informal learning, and it’s not.  Having requirements for personal reflections via a blog, discussions via forums, and collaborative assignments via wikis, and more, to facilitate learning are all good things, but certainly from the view of the performer it is not informal.

So, when you hear someone talking about informal learning and it sounds like formal learning, realize that they may be missing this final piece, the perspective of the performer. L&D can and should take on informal learning as well, but it’s not helpful if they think that just doing performance support and adding social into formal learning is all that needs to be considered as informal learning.

That’s the way I’m seeing the confusion emerge.  Does it make sense to you?


  1. This makes a lot of sense, Clark, thanks for the distinctions.

    In my ongoing experience, there seems to be lots of confusion inside and outside L&D about formal, informal, non-formal, social, networked, collaborative, cooperative, experiential and even e-learning that is keeping the waters muddy. The tacking-on of social to formal, I agree, is not enough and still places far too much emphasis for my liking on someone else telling me what I should know, in what order/breadth/depth, long before my time of need.

    Keep up the great work, we need your insights!

    Comment by brainysmurf — 24 May 2012 @ 7:34 am

  2. As an L&D professional, I’ve often wondered, why do we need the distinction between formal/informal at all? Isn’t it all knowledge that’s transferred, so why do we fret about it?

    Comment by Paula Fewkes — 24 May 2012 @ 9:37 am

  3. [...] Here’s an interesting article. [...]

    Pingback by Reconciling formal and informal **By Clark Quinn | The Learning Longtail — 24 May 2012 @ 9:46 am

  4. Clear as a bell…echoing through the forest… Thank you Clark

    Comment by victoria — 25 May 2012 @ 6:46 am

  5. Nicely put together and very helpful. It also helps me explain why (I think) we need to distinguish formal from informal. It’s not truly the spectrum we’d like where one blends into the other. There’s value in understanding the boundaries, even if they differ based on perspective.

    Comment by Tom Spiglanin — 25 May 2012 @ 9:47 am

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    Pingback by Learnlets » Reconciling Formal and Informal « Tom's All About Workplace Learning — 25 May 2012 @ 11:02 am

  7. Very thought provoking, Clark. I have a slightly different point of view.

    To me, job aids are an example of informal learning, assuming the performer is empowered to use them when and if they wish. However, if someone somewhere instructs the performer to read the job aid (and probably do some other activity afterwards), it becomes an example of formal learning.

    In other words, I think formal/informal learning is a very elastic concept that pivots around the power of the learner.

    In this vein, I agreee that requiring personal reflection via a blog is indeed formal learning – because the activity is imposed on the learner.

    What are your thoughts in this regard?

    Comment by Ryan Tracey — 25 May 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  8. Paula, I the reason we need to make the distinction is because some folks seem to want to constrain their focus to the formal, when as I suggest, they can (and in my not so humble opinion should) take responsibility for informal as well.

    Ryan, I think job aids depend on the perspective. I think an L&D person designs them, so they’re considered formal. I think a performer does just as you say and uses them when they need to, which they think of as informal. And I’m comfortable with this. Though I think there are instances when performers design their own job aids, individually or collectively (informal), and times when they’re required to use a guide (formal). Thanks for pointing out that distinction.

    Comment by Clark — 26 May 2012 @ 7:37 am

  9. I think this vision is a little bit caricatural : There is a kind of formal learning in social network via two processes : the transindividuation (G. Simondon) and the metacognition. The reconciliation is probably already a reality in learning network :-) http://www.entreprisecollaborative.com/index.php/fr/articles/163-apprendre-en-reseau-entre-formel-et-informel

    Comment by florence meichel — 28 May 2012 @ 1:54 am

  10. Florence, I’m unable to read the post you refer to in the original french, but in the Google-translated version, I believe you are characterizing formal as formal representations of knowledge versus tacit understanding, and I’m instead talking about whether the learning is imposed by others (instructors, designers) or whether it’s emergent from the individual and/or the group. The latter is what I’m terming informal here, and the former is what I’m terming formal. And, yes, it can get more convoluted under closer inspection, but I’m working here with a first-level cut to clarify what’s been confounded in existing discussions in the market. Thanks for your contribution.

    Comment by Clark — 28 May 2012 @ 9:02 am

  11. Clark, This is a very useful set of distinctions. As a former director of performance improvement (training, job aids, documentation) I was able to get responsibility for parts of the corporate sharepoint site. This was valuable in helping support informal learning by the workteams I served. I was able to give them greater independence in supporting their team members.

    I do wonder about further clarifying the distinction of “social” Courses can be a solo or social experience as can informal learning. I don’t have a good suggestion for this just the question. I particularly like how you have given the job aid the color treatement implying sometimes formal sometimes informal. Perhaps there is a clue there? Maybe a two by two.
    Something like:

    Comment by chris saeger — 28 May 2012 @ 11:48 am

  12. Coming from an academic insitution, the distinction between formal and informal learning has been around a long time and has always been pretty straightforward.
    In this environment, formal learning is ‘credentialled’, that is to say the learner earned a recognized credit from an institution which is legally empowered to grant the credit.
    Informal learning is that which the learner has either earned on their own, i.e. from self-initiated research such as consulting books or the Internet, or has acquired by taking non-credit courses.
    From this perspective, job aids and corporate knowledge management systems would not be considered formal learning unless the learner earns a recognized credit for their learning.
    To sum up, in academia, it isn’t the degree of intentional curriculum or learning ‘design’ that determines whether learning is formal or not, (we hope it’s all well-designed!!!)it’s whether or not the learning is credited and recognized. This requires a formal administrative process, hence the term ‘formal’ learning.

    Comment by Susan Learney — 28 May 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  13. See my interview with Jane Bozarth and Harold Jarche about the change in mindset and skills that L&D professionals need to make. https://cstd.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/clj/clj_fall2011-final.pdf

    Comment by Lee Weisser — 28 May 2012 @ 1:28 pm

  14. [...] Who? Clark Quinn points out that formality is in the eye of the beholder. Think of a Job Aid drawn up by the [...]

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  15. Hi Clark,

    In relation to social learning I’d simply note that social learning is sometimes,

    1) embedded in formal courses (learner-generated content, polling, discussion forums, or social bookmarking resources that provide learners with a social ecosystem of others currently experiencing the same course)

    2)wrapped around courses (learners are provided ongoing support from a social ecosystem involving others who currently, or previously, experienced the same course, or content covered in the course)

    3) and sometimes it stand alone (can include customers in brand communities, business partners, other employees, or outside experts in communites of practice focused on innovating through collaboration)

    Comment by Larry Irons — 29 May 2012 @ 7:30 am

  16. Yes, as I’ve written it on twitter, formal learning has something to do with forms and formalization which means making sense via representations isn’it ?

    Comment by florence meichel — 30 May 2012 @ 12:33 am

  17. Hi Clark – I think you are absolutely right to raise this as an issue. There does seem to be a good deal of confusion regarding the distinction between formal and informal learning. Without wanting to deepen this confusion, I would like to introduce a little more complexity with a view to building your picture a little further:

    1) The formal box isn’t entirely red: turns out what people value most about formal (f2f) courses is the ‘networking’ i.e. informal/social learning – or just the simple pleasure of the shared experience. The corollary to this is that if, during the course of a formal course or team meeting you show a video of peers – the kind of ensuing learning may be more informal than formal.

    I’ve been struggling with the distinction for a while; not sure of the precise answer but it has something to do with tone and whether or not the content is teacherly/top-down and inflicted (push) or collegiate/peer-to-peer and sought (pull).

    2) Performance support can be – and usually is – social in nature. You make the point yourself when you say “The latter, resources and people, are to them informal learning”. You can’t easily separate performance support and social. What tends to happen in practice is the training department produce ‘job aids’ which are formal and top-down in tone which may well be ignored in preference to the resources developed by or delivered by peers. So the emphasis for learning professionals needs to shift from being the guardians of knowledge to the honeybees of best practice – as I think you yourself suggest.

    3) Social media is a bit of a distraction: I have watched with a growing sense of unease regarding the alignment of informal with social media. Informal learning accounted for about 85% of learning in organisations around ten years ago – so clearly is not a function of social media. It does have a large social component to it, though so the prospects for social media are encouraging – however there are many more ways to do informal than social media and this is the point I would like to make.

    To give a simple example – if you gather a series of compelling ‘critical incident’ stories from a peer group, then give these to managers to show and discuss at team meetings, then this is more informal than formal learning (depending in part on the tone the line manager takes).

    In summary, I think it’s a fair assumption that formal learning is the exception rather than the rule and largely confined to the visible artifacts that are chalk&talk classroom and powerpoint-style e-learning. The core question, which I think you raise here, is how learning professionals can migrate from these peculiar contexts into a more natural world of learning.

    Comment by Nick Shackleton-Jones — 31 May 2012 @ 5:57 am

  18. Chris, interesting point about solo or social for formal, performance support, and informal learning. There does need to be a way to separate out, as the second diagram suggests, social for formal and social for informal. Also that when one personally searches for information outside the office, that’s not formal from the point of view of L&D either, but it’s not necessarily social (tho’ arguably you’re looking to other folks’ information).

    Susan, thanks for the academic perspective. Tho’ I do think formal education should start looking at performance support and stop assuming everything’s got to be in the head. There’s a longer story, but my short version is that I’m all for open-book tests.

    Larry, good point about teasing out the different ways social can be worked into a course. Does this mean there’s a semi-formal? I’d put your 1) as formal, and the other 2 as informal.

    Nick, thanks for weighing in with valuable nuances. I think, in regards to your number 1, that there are totally asynchronous formal courses that have no social. If social isn’t designed into the course (the left version of my second diagram), I’m simplifying it as informal (rightly or wrongly). I think you’re right that when you create your own performance support, it’s a different case (from the learner’s point of view it’s informal, but in this case it’s also informal from the L&D department perspective). If it’s community developed, to me it’s out in the social space, but you’re right it’s really both performance support *and* social (and, from the L&D perspective, still informal since it’s out of their mitts).

    And you’re definitely right that social media isn’t the same as informal learning. Nor is social learning the same as informal learning, but much of what happens. I think the difference between 10 years ago and now is that we can decouple social learning from proximity and tap into distant resources *via* social media. And yes, there are more ways to do informal than social (e.g. searches). Which begs the question raised above by Chris: what’s social and what’s performance support in the space that’s not what L&D does?

    Your example of feeding the informal up for processing in a formal way is intriguing, and something we’d like to see more of. Harold Jarche has a nice model of flipped management where it’s about looking at ways to support emergent processes. I think we can and should begin to ‘formally’ start finding ways to blend formal and informal until it all becomes ways to facilitate performance. But first we have to help clarify what’s being said so we can do as you suggest and migrate from these peculiar contexts.

    Thanks for the great contributions!

    Comment by Clark — 31 May 2012 @ 9:57 am

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