How much of what we learn is through informal and incidental learning? When asked to reflect on where we learned (and continue to learn) what we need to do our work, we collectively come to an even split between our formal qualifications, our peers, and experience. As interaction with peers is gained in the workplace, roughly two-thirds of our capabilities can be attributed to learning in work.
We share the conviction that experience is the best teacher. However, we seldom have the opportunity to reflect on this experience of how we solve problems or develop new knowledge and ideas. How do we acquire and apply skills and knowledge? How do we move along the continuum from inexperience to confidence? How can we transfer experience? Does it “just happen”, or are there ways for the organization to support, foster, and accelerate learning outside of formal contexts (or happening incidentally inside them)?
Most of what we learn happens during work, in the daily actions of making contextual judgements. Such learning is more iterative than linear. Informal learning is a process that is assumed (without requiring proof), tacit (understood or implied without being stated), and implicit (not plainly expressed).
The experience we develop through informal learning shapes our sense of intuition, guiding our problem-solving in daily work. Our narratives reveal that most of the learning that matters is an informal process embedded into work. The most significant skills we possess are acquired through trial, error, and experimentation. Informal learning has the capacity to allow us to learn much more than we intended or expected at the outset. This makes such learning very difficult to evaluate, but far more valuable to those who engage in it – and potentially to the organization that can leverage it to drive knowledge performance.
The lack of mindfulness about informal and incidental forms of learning is a byproduct of the fact that such learning does not require overtly thinking about it. Undoubtedly, though, there are tangible benefits to reflecting upon individual or group learning practices. As George Siemens argued in Knowing Knowledge, informal learning is too important to leave to chance (2006:131). This is why we need the organization to scaffold the processes and approaches that foster learning in the informal domain.
Reflection aids in informal learning, but carries the risk of embedding errors in the learning process when such reflection is private or too subjective. We must be connected to others to make sense of what we learn. When the institutional environment is highly political, this diminishes the incentive to learn more than the minimum needed in order to satisfy the demands of our senior management. Informal learning requires us to be mindful (to care) about what we do.
Photo: Smoke (Paul Bence/flickr.com)