Employees’ Informal Learning in the Workplace

Key Takeaways:

  • Organizations should ensure that managers understand the benefits of informal learning and the various forms it can take.
  • Organizations should play an active role in facilitating employees’ informal learning in the workplace.

Because of the unpredictable and changing nature of work, employees taking charge of developing their skills, and advances in digital learning, there has been a notable increase in self-initiated learning in the workplace. One estimate is that employees acquire over fifty percent of their knowledge and skills through self-initiated learning (Bear et al., 2008).

Informal learning is a type of self-initiated learning that aims at learning new, work-oriented and organizationally valued content (Wolfson et al., 2018). Informal learning includes vicarious learning, feedback/reflection-based learning and learning through experimentation/new experiences (Noe et al., 2013; Wolfson et al., 2018). Informal learning is positively related to many desirable outcomes in the workplace, such as favorable work attitudes and improved job performance (Cerasoli et al., 2018).

Because of the importance of informal learning in the workplace, some researchers have focused on exploring the antecedents of informal learning. For example, employees need to have resources, time, and support needed to engage in informal learning. Based on the results of interviews with hospitalists, my co-authors and I gained a deeper understanding of the factors that influence employee engagement in informal learning. Our interview data confirmed that high work demands inhibit informal learning. Because work demands occupy employees’ time and mental energy, which means they deplete resources needed to engage in informal learning. For example, because informal learning is not mandatory, work and family demands can suppress their learning motivation and learning opportunities. In addition, it is obvious that informal learning was enabled by natural social interaction and information exchanges. Our results show the importance of the physical work environment for informal learning. For informal learning, close physical proximity to resources (i.e., colleagues or digital resources) promotes informal learning while distractions (e.g., noise) undermine informal learning. We have also found that availability of tangible learning resources such as computers, internet connections, videos and databases made it easier to engage in informal learning. Intangible learning resources, especially the availability of expertise, was also important.

In conclusion, research has suggested what organizations and managers should do to support employees’ informal learning in the workplace. For example, to facilitate informal learning, organizations should adopt policies that permit the use of social media for learning in the workplace and provide physical spaces and technology that employees can use to learn through interacting face-to-face or online with their peers or accessing digital resources. Additionally, managers should take action to facilitate employees’ informal learning by identifying and purchasing high-quality digital learning resources, communicating their availability, and making them easily accessible.


References

Bear, D. J., Tompson, H. B., Morrison, C. L., Vickers, M., Paradise, A., Czarnowsky, M., Soyars, M., & King, K. (2008). Tapping the potential of informal learning. An ASTD research study. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development.

Cerasoli, C. P., Alliger, G. M., Donsbach, J. S., Mathieu, J. E., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Orvis, K. A. (2018). Antecedents and outcomes of informal learning behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(2), 203-230.

Noe, R. A., Tews, M. J., & Marand, A. D. (2013). Individual differences and informal learning in the workplace. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 83(3), 327-335.          

Wolfson, M. A., Tannenbaum, S. I., Mathieu, J. E., & Maynard, M. T. (2018). A cross-level investigation of informal field-based learning and performance improvements. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(1), 14-36.

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