For many of us who started their career in the 90s and before, on-the-job learning was key to one’s growth and success, irrespective of the degree one had. This is why many large FMCG companies chose to send their management trainees to the nook and corner of the country to not just familiarize themselves with the end consumers at the grassroots level but learn en route. And, no academic qualification can substitute this rich experience.
Though large FMCG companies still follow the same-old practice, companies in sun rise sectors often tread a different path. I am not undermining the benefits of a structured learning or a training process, but I do believe that informal learning which includes learning on the job, learning from peers, seniors and even juniors, has its own allure and the possibilities are humongous.
In the past decade or so, the whole idea of learning has undergone a drastic transformation; people refuse to adhere to conventional learning methods, they want to learn just what they need, and when they need it. This is why learning has progressed from tradition classroom environments to boarder, non-linear settings.
Today, it is common place for companies to have training's at various levels as integral part of their agenda, to enhance the knowledge and skill set of its employees. Commendable effort. However, in a structured environment, there is a possibility of one or two sessions in a month, keeping in line with the training calendar; however that may not suffice to keep pace with the learning curve, especially at a time when the business dynamics are changing by the day.
Every day there is something new to learn or explore be it technology, a new tool, a new business practice or a new media that’ comes up. And to keep oneself updated with the day-to-day changes, one has to learn every day and that is achievable only through informal learning, sans the constraints of a conventional training setting.
In a professional environment, it’s only makes sense to have an open learning process which is not bound by classrooms or confined spaces. When people learn informally or learn through their own experiences, it stays with them for a much longer period. Besides, who wants a classroom kind of an environment after calling it quits post academics.
Besides, as matured individuals, most of this learning actually happens through trial and error, reading, Internet and interacting with people, etc. This is because we as individuals are wired to learn things incessantly and learning cannot be restricted to just the smart board.
One big change that can be seen in many companies is that even formal training and learning sessions are getting the informal approach to make it more vibrant, interactive and open ended.
With GEN-Ys and Millennials populating the workforce, this kind of set-up has become a subject of utmost importance for all companies.
If in early days, doing business was like sailing in smooth waters, in current times, it is like Grade 5 white water rafting. What I mean is that the business environment is so dynamic that it is in a constant state of flux. You can plan for five years ahead; yet, you will find yourself navigating a new challenge every single month.
Moreover, with the technological advancement at its acme, it is challenging to keep up with the knowledge base expansion of the workforce. Also, getting everyone trained in all the new information that is flooding the world is tough to match up.
This makes it pertinent for organizations to continuously evolve their learning strategies to bridge this knowledge gap.
One way of doing this is by structuring relevant training's to ensure that there is a learning component in every job. This will lead to alert, updated and technologically savvy workforce, which can in turn create differentiation in the market. Apart from learning through classroom or Web-based Training, there can be cross learning between peers. For example, in any software project team there would be people with varying subsets of skills, which they can impart to the project team members. Informal learning through stretch assignments and project memberships too strengthen the informal inputs. When it is done it can double as a retention strategy as well, particularly when used for Top Talents.
Another thing which is critical to any training intervention is focus on accurate and correct mapping of the learner.
Know your goal
To begin with, do we actually know what is the core purpose of learning or why do we learn? Well, we learn because we want to excel at work, be productive in teams that we are part of and most importantly, for growth and success. However, are organizations able to foster real learning in its people? If you ask me, organizations want learning that enables business results such as smooth execution, surge in returns and profitability, improved customer satisfaction, etc. This makes it an imperative to re-look at investing in learning and development of employees for long term results.
Some believe that informal learning is more effective and convenient, as it is personal, just-in-time and completely customized. However, before we decide on the effectiveness of the training modes, it is pertinent for L&D leaders, to draft their training agenda that boasts of not just formal classroom/online training for his/her people but a good blend of both.
For instance, we all have seen and observed the inflight demo of using the oxygen mask or the jacket. But how many of us can actually follow the same and implement it even in normal conditions, forget about the emergency situation. Similarly, if the training sessions are impractical and irrelevant, the entire effort is futile.
Albeit, it is also vital that leaders are able to align employees to the vision, goals and the overall business goals with their training agenda. Hence, at the planning stage, it is also their responsibility to not only plan ahead and predict the gaps in the existing employee learning, but also to fill those gaps as they uncover them.
What’s in for me?
Be it an informal learning process or a formal one, one key aspect is WIIFM (what’s in it for me). This is what draws people to learn. This is also an adult learning principle. One is always keen to know what and how he/she can progress from this learning. I strongly feel that learning is by choice and not just by design.
If organizations fail to keep the learner in the loop while planning their training agenda, it is most likely that they will fail to achieve their real objectives. The new age learner’s needs and requirements have evolved too. He is not just focused on learning that will help in finding a job; rather he expects that the learning will enhance his employability factors as well.
Creating the blend
Having said that, I also believe that the way out in the future is two to tango. Organisations should have a mixed policy where both formal and informal training sessions have equal importance. After all, each one has its own sets of challenges as well as heaps of advantages.
It would be wrong to expect miracles out of informal learning alone. It has its own shortcomings. Attention span of participants is often ephemeral. It’s been observed that after the initial burst of enthusiasm, internal social networking groups and communities of practices face the risk of running out of steam.
To make informal training interventions work, several motivation factors are required to be built in till a time people learn to internalize them. The core advantage that comes with informal learning is that it is customized, just-in-time and learner driven, which can further act as a double-edged sword. While certain employees may need a strong push in the form of a challenge at work in order to initiate informal learning, some may naturally have the aptitude to learn at one’s convenience.
Also, most of the informal learning happens in a non-regulated environment and is more driven on what the learner needs to know.
This is where knowing your learner needs comes to the foray.
Also, if formal learning is tough to measure, informal learning is even tougher. Its effectiveness hinges on largely the learning orientation of the participant and can vary considerably from one person to another.
I believe that it is important to learn how to blend both informal learning with that of formal learning to achieve the perfect training outcome. Most of the informal learning methods offer potential to facilitate learning that translates into actual performance of the employee. Whereas in formal learning, the learners are told what they need to learn and how they will learn it before information is presented for them to remember.
Finding the right mix
Successful integration of informal learning with conventional learning depends on two factors: learning culture of the organization and the learning orientation of the employees.
It is significant to understand that formal and informal learning are two ends of a spectrum. It is not about 'either- or', but 'both'. Also, having a positive and resilient learning culture will act as glue to tie both forms of learning into one strong approach.
If implemented well, a blended formal and informal learning approach will result in talent pool armed with robust self-directed learning capabilities. These employees will stress on pro-active learning; actively connecting with one other and sharing of knowledge. These factors can further emerge as key indicators for an organization's strong business performance.
For any training session, we have to realise that unlike robots, we are dealing with adults. Hence, it critical to continuously gaze at your learners to understand the practicality of the intervention and if they feel truly engaged by it. This is why we need to actively accept the mutually reinforcing relationship that exists between formal and informal types of learning, and understand the implication of their balance in any learning scenario.