Formal learning (structured and designed classroom or e-learning programs) has been taking a beating these days.  The informal learning movement, powered by constructivist concepts of learning and web 2.0 applications is well underway.   Carl Sauliner almost got his virtual head lopped off in the blogosphere for suggesting that predictions of the death of classroom training may be premature (Long Live Instructor Led Training).

I believe that informal learning in the workplace is critical and has been long overlooked by the learning function.  However, we’re creating an artificial competition between formal and informal learning and should be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Learning in organizations is a continuum from informal natural learning through loosely structured learning experiences to formally structured and designed training.  Traditional training functions focused on the design, delivery and management of structured learning programs.   Organizational Development, Performance Technology, many quality systems and Senge styled Organizational Learning practitioners have all merged learning and work through semi-structured, facilitated learning experiences.    Knowledge Management and more recently social media (web 2.0) provide environments that support informal knowledge creation and sharing environments.  This continuum of informal through formal learning continuum might look something like this (adapted from Stern and Sommerlad 1999)

The Organizational Learning Continuum

Leveraging the full range of this learning continuum is important for every organization.  Here are some general suggestions on how to do that.

Use formal training to prepare employees for jobs and tasks

Well designed, formal learning (traditional or on-line) develops new skills fast.  Leaving routine, job specific skill development to informal, buddy system methods is wasteful.  Skills will always need to be refined once on the job (informal learning will play a big role here) but organizations need rapid development to a performance standard for quick productivity.  Well designed structured learning is the best way to accomplish this.  The time/performance chart illustrates this time tested principle:

The time performance chart
The time performance chart

Informal learning encourages learning from mistakes and experimentation and is great for experienced employees.  But it’s also true that we learn our mistakes.  This is the risk of leaving initial training to chance and buddy systems.

When jobs change, new methods or technology are introduced, formal training methods can again be the best method to get up to standard quickly.

Use non-formal (semi-structured) learning to build organizational capability

When employees become productive, they need continuing opportunities to learn and develop in ways that grow organizational capability and resilience. Here learning must be intimately integrated with work–almost a byproduct.  When employees say they learn the most from “experience” this is what they mean.  Learning by doing.

Skilled facilitation through team development, real time problem solving and process improvement efforts move learning in the direction needed to build individual and organizational capability.  Organizational Development, Human Performance Technology,  Senge inspired Organizational Learning have all produced sophisticated methods for results focused learning in job settings.  After initial training, as job expertise develops through experience, less formal learning interventions are more effective for shaping culture, building capacity, and improving performance.  I discussed some methods in my last post.

Create processes and tools that build learning into jobs and cause informal learning

Experienced employees also learn plenty (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) simply from interacting with people, ideas and objects in their work environment using the natural learning cycle I described here.  We can create work systems that can cause this type of informal learning through well designed and visible work processes, feedback, and performance systems. Web 2.0, social networking tools and communities of practice give employees, especially knowledge workers, tools to create, share and use organizational knowledge.

Clark Quinn in his recent article Social Networking: Bridging Formal and Informal Learning, includes this useful chart describing the value of formal vs. informal learning for new and experienced employees.

Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert
Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert

The Learning function in combination with other functions tasked with improving performance need to work together to use the full range of the learning continuum.  How the learning continuum is used and where emphasis is placed depends on job type, organizational function, industry sector, performance issues etc. but the ultimate solution should be a combination of informal, non-formal and formal learning methods to best suit the needs of the organization.

Ultimately we need to use the continuum to create programs and services to:

  • Build requisite knowledge and skills
  • Create pervasive learning opportunities beyond initial skills
  • Encourage collaboration and team learning
  • Establish systems to generate, capture and share learning
  • Build organizational capability and adaptive capacity
About the author

15 Responses
  1. Hi Tom. Thanks for the informative blog, this perspective provides a good, well written, introduction to this evolving trend. Though I understand why you have presented “the learning continuum” table in such a manner, my personal experience reminds me that reality is always more messy and complex than anything we describe on “paper”.

    I myself have recently completed an International Masters of Management ( A large part of the “Formal education from the Academic Institution” resulted from their deliberate design that facilitated “Natural Learning. Experiences and encounters with people, ideas, technology and objects that result in learning as an incidental by-product. Experimentation.” Not so much in between the two ends of the continuum, but a merger of the different elements… all IMHO off course!
    Thanks, Phil.

  2. Tom Gram

    Thanks for the comment. I notice Henry Mintzberg (from McGill) is one of the co-founders of your program. I heard him interviewed on CBC just this weekend taking aim at traditional MBA programs and emphasizing the importance of building learning through experience into management education. Sounds likes his approaches are working!

    And, yes, meaningful learning is always messier than the tidy ways we try to describe and categorize it as I did in the chart, especially inside organizations. So much of the “training” taking place in organizations falls into the formal side of that continuum–and it’s important work– but so much untapped opportunity is in the non-formal and informal parts of the continuum.


  3. I found engaging people in the education process helps with retention. You say formal and informal training – I had professional, formal music education however, I didn’t blossom in my music education until I had a desire to work, through interaction, with the material.

    Offering project assignments and reviewing results along with interactive content, I believe, is the future. People get bored with stagnate education – forever learning but application falls short.

  4. Tom Gram

    Yes, interaction is critical both with “the material” or content and with people to help give it meaning, context and to learn from their experience.


  5. […] If you’re a traditional instructional designer it may be a structured e-learning or classroom program. If you have a more constructivist bent you may be working on an immersive “learning environment”.  If you prefer humanist OD approaches maybe an action learning program is how you roll. These are all awesome interventions in the right circumstances and each has their place in the learning continuum. […]

Leave a Reply

About the Blog

This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

Subscribe to our mailing list

You’ll receive an email update when a new post is added to the blog. You can opt out at any time. We will protect the privacy of your personal information.

Recent Posts

The Learning Design Sprint
August 16, 2018
Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)
August 9, 2018
Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 2)
August 6, 2018
Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 1)
August 5, 2018
Learning, Technology and the Future of Work
June 10, 2018

Popular Posts from the Archive

Here are some popular posts from Tom’s former blog, Performance X Design. Some older posts contain inactive links and unedited formatting while they wait impatiently for him to update them.