Learning Formally or Informally? Why Not Both!

Learning Formally or Informally…? Why not Both!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011 12:32
Written by Frédéric Domon

“The real genius of organizations is the informal, impromptu, often inspired ways that real people solve real problems in ways that formal processes can’t anticipate. When you’re competing on knowledge, the name of the game is improvisation, not rote standardization.”
— John Seeley Brown

Throughout the last decade there have been numerous debates (see from the dates in the bibliography) and discussions on the future of learning.

The development of social technology has changed the way we think about the world and is also shaking up the way we approach learning. I am still dumbstruck to learn, however, that rarely have businesses really integrated all of these recent changes into their operations. How would you react if your R&D invested 80% of its budget into developing products or services that only reached a tiny part of the market?

Would you sign off on a marketing strategy that only went after 10% of your target market?

I don’t think I need to wait for an answer to these sorts of questions. And yet, it doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that there is a sector vital to the future of your company that applies these ratios.

The 70/20/10 model

After years of research, study and validation, Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo at Princeton’s Center for Creative Leadership have developed a very sound learning model; the 70/20/10 model.

What does it say? That skill development and learning happens:

  • 70% “on the job”, meaning activity and experience;
  • 20% through contact and interaction with others;
  • 10% through formal training; be it classes, workshops or e-learning.

This will no doubt remind teachers somewhat of the well-known theme: Listen/Read/Do.

The Princeton team also showed that 90% of our knowledge is the result of informal learning.

Charles Jennings, who helped popularize the model, often asks his audience to think about their learning experiences and where they took place. He uses the simple example of a riding a bike. How did you learn? By reading a manual and taking an e-learning course, by practicing on an internet simulator? No. Like me, you learned through experience, by trying and failing and trying again.

Classic training that is separated from work leads to a marked forgetting curve. A large part of formal learning is heavy on content but light on interaction. Generally, we learn to know but not really to do. So in a changing environment, addressing interactions is crucial because it prepares us to face complex emerging problems. So rather than structuring the learning around the content, it needs to be structured around the creation of learning experiences.

Most of our knowledge comes from informal learning; a situation of permanent learning that requires being open to new situations and deep interaction with others. In a world where the employee’s actual knowledge only solves 10% of their problems in the workplace (R. Kelley, Carnegie Mellon University, 2006), it’s more efficient to develop learning environments that prioritize action and connection rather than content.

The Paradox of Investment

The Princeton model invites Training Departments to turn more towards informal learning; although there is an obvious paradox today as large portions of their budgets are still dedicated to formal training.

training paradox

For a lot of years, many people said they wanted to see formal training disappear, which would have to include LMS, responsible for much of the bloat.

Still, the majority of business training professionals are likely to embrace these changes even though they are unsure of their new role in the informal training environment. For many, it represents chaos: no pedagogy, no golden rule on how to manage it or how to validate the skills or knowledge acquired. This results in a cautious wait-and-see approach.

And while they wait?

The arrival of Generation Y, long-since announced, is flooding businesses and boardrooms; “young turks” with immediacy in their DNA who will seek out information rather than wait for it to be brought to them on a platter.

Clients, those funny creatures, have become over informed, unreliable. Count on the fact that they use the same community loudspeaker as soon as they feel that they aren’t being listened to or answered quickly enough.

Meanwhile, marketing, client services, R&D… divisions that don’t trouble themselves with knowing if their approaches can make it into the training budget, are more or less happy to go the 2.0 route. Their goal is to prioritize contacts and openness, to let go of cumbersome hierarchies, become more reactive, more receptive to their environment and, in the best cases, to improve the flow of knowledge. Enterprise Social Networks are thriving, often from the naive hope of spontaneously creating a learning organisation.

And the training department? It has decided to try e-learning. Too heavy? Not interactive enough? Blended-learning then. Too costly for fragmented structures? Always a step behind on your colleague’s problems? Not trendy enough? Ok, so add a slice of social to LMS, always the road to trendy. Or maybe gamify some traditional PowerPoint presentations and voila! Rather than create informal learning environments, training departments are making concrete situations virtual; while they make the creative process longer, explode production costs and are ever-increasing formality. Am I going too far? Barely…

What can be learned from the 70/20/10 model?

Rather than think of these three forms of antagonistic professionalism, rather than leave the informal to other aspects of the company, the model should be thought of as the cornerstone of organizational development. As the Princeton group advises, imagine a holistic approach integrating both formal and informal. An approach that enables strong development of that 70% of experience learning, that takes advantage of the relational 20% and that designs using the yardstick of the 90% informal and 10% formal training.

We have a term for this at Socialearning: Iterative learning; or how the informal feeds the formal and fills the well of Enterprise 2.0.

But that is a topic for the next article …


Billet, Stephen Critiquing workplace learning discourses 2001

Boud, David & Middleton,Heather  Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning 2003

Carré & Charbonnier Les apprentissages professionnels informels 2004

Cofer Informal workplace learning 2000

Dale & Bell  Informal working in the workplace 1999

Dominice, Pierre  Les apprentissages informels font partie de la formation 2000

Fuller, Alison The Impact of Informal Learning at Work on Business Productivity 2003

Lior, Karen   Tacit Skills, Informal Knowledge and Reflective Practice 2001

Livingstone, D  Exploring the Icebergs of Adult Learning 1999

Loogma, Kirsta The Meaning of Learning at Work in Adaptation to Work Changes 2004

Svensoon, Lennart & Ellstr_m, Per-Erik Integrating formal and informal learning at work 2004

Michèle Drechsler, Pratique du socialbookmarking 2010


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