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

16 February 2010

Formalizing informal learning?

Clark @ 7:03 AM

The Entreprise Collaborative has a new question, asking whether we can formalize informal learning.  I have to say, I don’t get the question.  That is, I understand what they’re asking, and like the response they give, but I really think it’s the wrong question.

To me, it’s not about formalizing informal learning so much as explicitly supporting it versus ignoring it.  Like the proverbial ‘stuff’, informal learning happens.  Period.  To me, it is more a matter of providing infrastructure to support informal learning, and facilitating informal learning as well.

When I talk about providing infrastructure, I’m talking about putting in place tools that can be used for informal learning.  That means ways to share media (whether text, audio, or video), to comment, to edit and improve, to collaborate, etc.  Part of that supporting is looking at new tools, and seeing if they provide new ways to work.  Wikis are a major advance on top of emailing documents around in many ways, and similarly microblogs have provided new capabilities.

Then there is the facilitation of that informal learning.  I see two roles. One is optimizing the tool use, and the other is facilitating the associated skills.  For the former, tools can be used poorly or well. For example, it’s no good having portals if they’re multiple, organized around institutional silos instead of tasks, roles, or interests.  There’s a role for integrating tools into a coherent user experience.

The second role is to develop individual ability to use the tools for learning, both independently and socially.  To repeat a regular refrain, don’t assume the ability of learners to be effective self- and social-learners.  There are specific meta-cognitive skills that should be made explicit, promoted, and supported.

This, to me, is how you optimize an organization’s ability to learn: by making the environment conducive to informal learning.  In the process of facilitating, you may find opportunities to add value by taking some information and formalizing it, e.g. building a job aid around some information generated by users, or providing some guidelines about capturing videos, but I don’t think of that as wrapping structure around informal learning so much as transferring information.  Are you formalizing informal learning?  I don’t really care what you want to call it, to be honest. What I care about is empowering organizations to change in productive ways.  And that’s an important goal no matter what you want to call it.


  1. Here here, very well said! – to highlight…
    “it is more a matter of providing infrastructure to support informal learning, and facilitating informal learning as well.”…”by making the environment conducive to informal learning” < We can't force people to learn, we can only create the environment in which learning can best occur.
    "optimizing the tool use" < Difficult today as the choice increases daily. Choosing the right base is the starting point ie. Google, MS or Apple.
    "facilitating the associated skills" < To generalise, people are much more comfortable with IT now. We've become used to software, what is important is that when you move from one application to the next there is a degree of familiarity – Google IMO are the best at this.
    "empowering organizations to change" < This is the starting point and it has to come from the very top – if it doesn't it will not work in the long run – in-fact, better save your money and think of a new strategy.
    Thanks for posting :-)

    Comment by Paul Simbeck-Hampson — 16 February 2010 @ 8:38 AM

  2. Speaking of informal/formal learning, I’m curious about something.

    Many organizations/companies have multiple intranets, wiki sites, and so forth, often making it difficult for employees to know where to go when they want an answer or more information. Let’s say you are the Director of a company’s Education/Training department and you want to move more toward information learning. While your department creates online and classroom courses on how to use the company’s main products, you see the need for more advanced-level training. As the Director, you want to harness the knowledge within and have the experts bring their conversations to a wiki site. You want to provide a platform for this knowledge to be shared, discussed, and build upon. Your vision is that once the wiki site is up for awhile, your instructional designers can take some of the knowledge that’s posted and create a job aid, reference document, and so forth that could be distributed more formally.

    Do you move forward with yet another wiki site and not worry about all of the other internal wiki sites, intranet, and so forth?

    Any thoughts?

    Comment by Charlotte — 16 February 2010 @ 9:01 PM

  3. I agree, Clark. To me the road to success is paved with two things.

    First, establishing the environment that makes it possible. This means removing potential barriers and establishing real world and techno-supported spots for elective congregation, sharing, and grab-and-go to take place. Committing to the maintenance of that environment is all we should be attempting to manage. Think of it like a playground, if you start telling children how to play, managing their every move, and controlling their experience they will simply stop coming to play. But if the playground falls apart, becomes an unsafe space, or is encroached upon by something that prevents play (work) then they will stop playing.

    Second, we have to give people permission and convince them that they have it.

    We shouldn’t manage informal learning. But we do have to enable it and encourage it in order for it to happen.

    Comment by Steve — 17 February 2010 @ 5:12 AM

  4. Thanks for the thoughts. Paul’s elaborations make sense, though I’m somewhat suspicious that the increase in IT skills is as broad as he suggests. I really like Steve’s metaphor of the playground, I may borrow that! With attribution of course.

    Charlotte asks a very real question. Such that I had to blog a response; see my next post! In short, proliferation of user-focused sites makes sense, not producer-focused sites. Reorg the latter into a role/task based approach, and allow user communities to create their own.

    Comment by Clark — 17 February 2010 @ 8:34 AM

  5. No attribution needed. Glad someone likes my input:) Seems like a fun way to look at it.

    Comment by Steve — 17 February 2010 @ 3:50 PM

  6. @Charlotte – Thanks for that question, it led to an interesting new post :-) @Clark.
    @Steve – I love the playground concept too… (need a surname for citation)
    @Clark – The increase in IT skills is widening. I see it being driven forward especially by the social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Ning (to name but a few). Skills learned on a home PC are also transferable into the work place. Web2.0 design helps bridge knowledge gaps to some extent which in-turn helps speed to proficiency. I often think one of the big issues in organisations is allowing employees access to the Internet – the firewall & security issues are big barrier’s to corporate learning. Do you have any advice how these security issue’s can be tackled?

    Comment by Paul Simbeck-Hampson — 18 February 2010 @ 8:03 AM

  7. Paul, this came up last night where I spoke. Face it, most employees (at least knowledge workers), if they’re blocked through the firewall, will whip out their smartphone and get on the internet that way. And most cell-phones have browsers too these days (Bob Sanregret claims that there hasn’t been a cellphone sold in the past two years that doesn’t have one!).

    I think there are ways to provide access outside the firewall (as some orgs do it) that don’t compromise the intranet. You do want to still have an intranet, I think, but blocking access to the internet seems to me to be a bit like giving someone an assembly task and then tying their hands. Particularly what Tony Karrer calls ‘concept workers’, and I think that’s more and more folks, or should be. You want to enable smart work, not stifle it!

    Comment by Clark — 18 February 2010 @ 9:28 AM

  8. “blocking access to the internet seems to me to be a bit like giving someone an assembly task and then tying their hands.” < Nice.
    "You want to enable smart work, not stifle it!" < That's it… some still don't want smart people, they people to react to commands :-(
    Thanks for the timely advice – preparing for a new client meeting today, wish me luck :-)

    Comment by Paul Simbeck-Hampson — 19 February 2010 @ 4:52 AM

  9. Maybe it’s Friday afternoon and I have been as productive as I am able to be this week already, but I am sorry I am just confused by this whole concept.

    The term ‘informal’ was coined by a few of us, written about by Jay Cross and held the thought that if you learned by informally by ‘falling over’ something you found or asked another for and what you found or received helped you in some way and you both remembered it or acted upon it, then it was learning, informal learning. (sorry long sentence, Word would be underlining it in green)

    I went down the route of developing an EPSS tool to assist in the delivery of informal snippets that had been left for the user to fall over intentionally http://www.trainer1.com/Rapid_Application_Support.html but to try to formalise it? Surely this then just becomes formal learning again. Something planned for you to do at a particular time and in a particular way. And you have been led by the hand to it…

    Clark, to consider creating an infrastructure to support the user is great and I fully stand behind this idea as we should be attempting to make any learning easy to fall over, but to design it to a point where we are actually trying to direct the user to use the systems in the way we wish, not their own way, they will not use it in the the same way as if they had found it and worked it out for themselves. We all use blogs, twitter and facebook differently, but all get what we need from them.

    There are a couple of issues I have. First we don’t give the staff enough credit for what they are able to work out and get on with by themselves. Always trying to lead them by the hand and do it ‘our way. Secondly I think we are relying too much on systems for systems sake…

    Last thought http://lasher.co.uk I blogged yesterday an interesting idea of work life balance, informal learning is for me on the life side and not the work side. Maybe I have all wrong today? I will get off the soapbox!


    Comment by Neil Lasher — 19 February 2010 @ 6:51 AM

  10. @Paul – surname is Flowers:)

    @Neil – I’m with you – most (perhaps all) of my informal learning *occurs* on the life side. But there is a cycle where I drive the growth and the interests on both sides of work and home as well as the span in between. I have trouble completely compartmentalizing and segregating life / work, informal / formal. And I don’t think we should try so hard to do so, particularly if our job is fueled by our passion. There may be *pure* informal and this very well could be something that cannot be facilitated. But I DO believe that there is something in between pure informal and pure formal and THIS space very well CAN, and in most cases SHOULD, be supported (NOT CONTROLLED.)

    Comment by Steve — 21 February 2010 @ 5:48 AM

  11. Expanding on the incomplete comment in response to Neil’s insightful response –

    There seem to be other advantage to mediating and supporting a space in between the more pure forms of self-directed learning and the more formal forms of facilitated / programmed information and learning support. Let’s say I spend a lot of time digging, exploring, and internalizing new perspectives and skills. Without a mediated space (and precedent) to share and diffuse this acquisition in my distributed professional network it will stay with me.

    To me the mediated informal space is for propagation. Simply supporting the space and encouraging participation is potentially motivation for folks to continue learning on their own, and in their own way. There is also plenty of value to the origin / source that is able to share in their professional environment.

    Comment by Steve — 21 February 2010 @ 5:58 AM

  12. @Steve – Thanks, will update my posts :-)

    Comment by Paul Simbeck-Hampson — 21 February 2010 @ 2:56 PM

  13. Neil, I don’t get your complaint. I’m suggesting that the role is to:

    a) provide tools

    b) support effective tool use (evangelizing, nurturing, observing)

    c) support self- and other-learning skills

    I think there *is* a role for someone to look at what’s produced and potentially redesign for clarity, and also see where a course could help, but that’s a role for transfer from informal to performance support or formal. As I said, I like the notion of Steve’s playground: we put up a mix of different things, and our only responsibility is to have them play fair and safely, not to dictate what they play on and when.

    From the Cynefin framework, I think it’s a case of Probe-Sense-Respond, looking for emergent patterns.

    And as for work/life, I’ll quote Harold Jarche: work is learning, and learning is work. Life? As part of your trusting folks, I reckon they’ll be doing informal learning at work, and you just want to make sure they’ve got good tools.

    Comment by Clark — 22 February 2010 @ 7:11 AM

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