Years ago a start-up commissioned me to write a white paper that would help put them on the map. I wrote the paper that follows. It’s probably the most popular thing I’ve ever written. The start-up stiffed me but the paper morphed into the Informal Learning book. I think it’s held up rather well. I’ll be leading a series of master classes on informal learning and working smarter in Europe
Informal Learning – the other 80%
Execution is the goal
This paper addresses how organizations, particularly business organizations, can get more done. Workers who know more get more accomplished. People who are well connected make greater contributions than those who are not. Employees and partners with more capacity to learn are more versatile in adapting to future conditions. The people who create the most value are those who know the right people, the right stuff, and the right things to do.
It’s all a matter of learning, but it’s not the sort of learning that is the province of training departments, workshops, and classrooms. Most people in training programs learn only a little of the right stuff, are fuzzy about how to apply what they’ve learned, and never address who are the right people to know.
People learn to build the right network of associates and the right level of expertise through informal, sometimes even accidental, learning that flies beneath the corporate radar. Because organizations are oblivious to informal learning, they fail to invest in it. As a result, their execution is less than it might be.
Let’s look at what informal learning is and what to do to leverage it.
“The best learning happens in real life with real problems and real people and not in classrooms.” Charles Handy
Learning is social
Most of what we learn, we learn from other people — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, playmates, cousins, Little Leaguers, Scouts, school chums, roommates, teammates, classmates, study groups, coaches, bosses, mentors, colleagues, gossips, co-workers, neighbors, and, eventually, our children. Sometimes we even learn from teachers.
At work we learn more in the break room than in the classroom. We discover how to do our jobs throughinformal learning – observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning – classes and workshops and online events – is the source of only 10% to 20% of what we learn at work.
Informal learning is effective because it is personal. The individual calls the shots. The learner is responsible. It’s real. How different from formal learning, which is imposed by someone else. How many learners believe the subject matter of classes and workshops is “the right stuff?” How many feel the corporation really has their best interests at heart? Given today’s job mobility, workers who delegate responsibility for learning to their employers will become perpetual novices.
In spite of this, corporations, non-profits, and government invest most of their budgets in formal learning, when it’s apparent that most learning is informal. This stands common sense on its head. It’s the 20/80 rule: Invest your resources where they’ll do the least good.
When I’ve pointed this out in presentations at conferences, members of the audience ask what they can do to improve informal learning. After all, they already have discussion boards and virtual classrooms and videoconference gear. I tell them they need to go beyond dumb technology. Linking me to a chat session is the equivalent of showing me the way to the library. Everything I need is in there, but it’s up to me to find it.
[Today’s teenager] “wants to socialize instead of communicate,” Tammy Savage, group manager of Microsoft’s NetGen division, said in a recent interview. “They want to do things together and get things done–and they really want to meet new people. They have a way of vouching for each other as friends, figuring out who to trust and not trust.” 
Achieving the proper balance
Neither investing in only formal training and education nor placing all your bets on informal learning is a good strategy. Extremism is rarely the answer to questions of human development. What you are after is the best mix of formal and informal means.
Achieving balance requires a scale of measurement. The metrics of our scale are the organization’s core objectives:
- Reducing time-to-performance
- Keeping the promises made to our customers
- Improving service and processes
- Understanding the organization’s mission and values
- Innovating in the face of change
- Optimizing the human value chain 
- Knowing enough to work smarter, not harder
- Replenishing the organization’s intellectual capital
- Creating value for all stakeholders
In the past, corporate America relied on training and indoctrination to meet these objectives. This worked better in yesterday’s command-and-control hierarchies than in today’s laissez-faire organizations. Now it’s often more effective to take control by giving control, by letting “the invisible hand” self-organize worker learning. The organization establishes the goals and gives the workers flexibility in how to meet them.
An organization named CapitalWorks  surveyed hundreds of knowledge workers about how they really learned to do their jobs.
- Workers reported that informal learning was three times more important in becoming proficient on the job than company-provided training.
- Workers learn as much during breaks and lunch as during on- and off-site meetings.
- Most workers report that they often need to work around formal procedures and processes to get their jobs done.
- Most workers developed many of their skills by modeling the behavior of co-workers.
- Approximately 70% of respondents want more interactions with co-workers when their work changes.
Combining the results of CapitalWorks’ formal and informal learning surveys, here’s how people report becoming proficient in their work.
Tell me why
Isn’t this amazing? What on earth has led us to a situation where corporations overwhelmingly invest in formal training but workers overwhelmingly learn informally?
In his new book, Clusters of Creativity  , Rob Koepp writes “The dot-com craze was often seen in humanist terms — a force democratizing information, building online communities, increasing opportunities for entrepreneurs. Yet dot-com mania’s article of faith was that the technologies of the Internet essentially made human beings irrelevant. People became abstractions, recognized only as hits, clicks and eyeballs that propped up the preposterous market values of e-commerce plays.”
Real people are complex, integrated beings. Each is whole, unto him or herself. Body, mind, intention and emotion are inseparably bound. Situating our brains in our heads oversimplifies the situation; our brains are distributed throughout our bodies. Nerves, eyes, and receptors are all part of the way we think. And emotion? It’s inextricably linked to the other mental and bodily functions. The amygdala shapes the internal movie we call our time-delayed “reality” with emotion before we become aware.
Adapting to one’s environment involves much more than exposure to content. It is a whole-body experience. You cannot learn while someone is stomping your toes. You won’t pay attention unless other people are involved.
Other factors work to obscure the importance of informal learning:
- Learning implies school. School is chock full of formal learning — courses, classes, and grades that obscure the fact that most learning at school is either self-directed or informal.
- Vendors don’t make money from informal learning. Hence, it’s not promoted at conferences, in magazines, and through sales calls.
- The rapid pace of technological innovation and economic change almost guarantees that formal learning will be dated.
- One aspect of informal learning that makes it so powerful also makes the informal process forgettable: it often comes in small pieces.
- Who’s in charge of informal learning? Most of the time, it’s the individual worker. Another reason informal falls off the corporate radar.
- Most informal learning takes place in the “shadow organization,” oft described as “the way things really work,” as opposed to the boxes on the organization chart and their clearly delineated budgets.
Ottersurf’s Clark Quinn  notes that corporations invest in formal learning because it’s the one means they know – and know how to handle. “They’re still in the industrial model. Corporate learning lags the knowledge age and its associated technology. Sadly, this is a low priority with most CEO’s.”
“We learn by conversing with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us.”
Laurie Thomas & Sheila Harrie-Augstein
How workers learn now
Think about a go-getter knowledge worker learns something new.  The Training Department has been downsized. Even if it were at full strength, it’s unlikely Training would have much to offer on a new topic. So the worker checks Google or SlashDot or other resources on the web to see who’s got books or articles or blogs or case studies on her topic. In my case, I’d probably check the O’Reilly site since I maintain a virtual bookshelf there that gives me access to scads of technical books.
After the worker gets a sketchy framework of what’s to be learned, it’s time to dive in. Try things. Build on knowledge of similar subjects. Ask people in the office who’ve been there. Check with the technical equivalent of the jailhouse lawyer. The goal is not to master a subject area or pass a test; it’s to find out enough to dive into trial-and-error or to get the immediate job done. The worker doesn’t take off for a weeklong workshop; more likely, he picks up bits and pieces day-by-day for months.
This is self-directed learning, and that’s yet another reason it escapes notice. No one is responsible for toting up the learning every worker is engaged in. I wouldn’t be surprised if informal learning always outweighs formal learning in impact. Wonderful book title: All Learning is Self-Directed. 
At the beginning of this section, I said we were looking over the shoulder of a go-getter learner. Today, we’re in transition. Many learners are not self-directed; they are waiting for directions. It’s time to tell them that the rules have changed. It’s in their self interest to convert from training pawns to proactive learning opportunists.
Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.
The New World
The world is moving a lot faster than when your father was a boy. In those days, a small intellectual elite identified what people should know. It didn’t change. Teachers taught it. The assumption was that you weren’t going to need to learn much after graduation. Folk wisdom, along with some psychologists, held that you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks or an old worker much of anything. The ability of humans to learn was presumed to decay over time.
Time is speeding up. In agrarian days, time didn’t matter so long as you got up around sunrise and turned in at sunset. Railroads had to keep schedules — and require people to agree on the time. (Before railroads, time zones were unnecessary–and often arbitrary.) Military coordination and air travel require even greater precision. These days, two minutes to receive a message from the other side of the world feels agonizingly slow. When I studied physics in college, we never talked about nanoseconds.
Now new discoveries and information gush out through our televisions, mail, the net, telephones, and friends at a staggering rate. A four-year degree in engineering will be obsolete in four years. Computer literacy skipped a generation, by-passing parents whose children now show them how to use the Internet, program their cell phones, and set the clock on the VCR. A good college education is no longer a lifetime meal ticket. If a worker can’t learn things through formal channels, she’ll take matters into her own hands. Workers have taken responsibility for their own learning.
“Brand You.” People direct their learning to improve their marketability. Learning is no longer memorizing what the teacher deems important; the teacher is almost certainly behind the times. Rather, learning is a matter of asking the right questions as well as answering them. By definition, this is a collaborative, community-based approach, for it’s others who help us define what is relevant.
To thrive in this environment, everyone must become student and facultyand publisher and instructional designer.
What does it take to play all these new roles? Ted Kahn  has identified seven skills that community-building, knowledge designers must know:
The 3 R’s are nearly obsolete. Reading? I skim or speed read instead of the word-by-word reading school teaches. ‘Rithmetic? Okay, it’s handy to be able to divide by 7 to calculate tips, but I’m rarely far from a calculator. Writing? I didn’t learn to write until I got out of college.
“It is a well-worn cliché that it is not just what you know, but who you know that matters for success. Yet despite this accepted wisdom, most people think of networking as an activity that occurs over cocktails or by virtue of exchanging business cards at trade conferences. Rarely do we see managers systematically assess informal networks within their organizations even though they represent critical individual and organizational assets.”
IBM white paper by Rob Cross
Kahn’s know-who, know-what, know-how, etc., are the meta-skills today’s learners need to master.
Find a connection
Thirty years ago an electronic calculator was a novelty that cost $100 or more.
Now everyone has at least one calculator, some of us have dozens, and they’ve become so cheap that it’s easier to get a new one than buy batteries when the original cells run out of juice. The calculator makes it a waste of time to learn long division, how to multiply with logarithms, and how to use a circular slide rule unless you’re a mathematician or perhaps a teacher.
Back in the old days, it sometimes made sense to memorize formulas, mnemonics, the exact date of events, and so forth. At one time in my life, I could recite the books of the Old and New Testaments, the Kings and Queens of England, and every machine language instruction for the NCR 390 computer. Of course I forgot all that long ago. No matter. I’m never far from the Internet, and its memory of these things is better than mine ever was.
In a connected world, it makes no more sense to memorize lists than to learn long division or the kings of England. When I have a good connection to the net or to a human expert who has the answer I’m looking for, that’s often just as good as carrying that answer around in my head. Granted, I need a foundation such as how to cut on the calculator or how to get to Google, but after that I can usually get what I need without relying only on what’s in my head.
Getting things done requires good connections, both the human kind and the Internet kind. You can think of the entire world as an immense interconnected, ever-changing network. Everything is connected to everything else. Thriving in the parts of the net to which we’re directly connected is a function of the number, bandwidth and quality of our connections.
To optimize one’s position in the global net, one can:
Schooling confused us into thinking that learning was equivalent to pouring content into our heads. It’s more practical to think of learning as optimizing our networks.
Learning consists of making good connections. We are each our own sys admins.
Turning learners loose to decide what and how to learn and what connections to make is a new concept in corporate learning. Why? Because managers often start with the mindset that learners are deficient, and the objective is to bring them up to par. Workers resent these assumptions. Their goals are to be the best that they can be, not just to get by.
Optimism works better than pessimism. Better to begin from positive assumptions until proven wrong than to let negativity eliminate options before they have been tested.
Training, like psychology, is inherently pessimistic. Both fields are built on a core belief that people are deficient or dysfunctional.
Psychologists spend most of their time studying the deranged. Then they generalize their findings of these fringe cases to normal people. Hence, the psychological literature is filled with neuroses, diagnostics, therapy, and cures, but precious little on making people who are generally okay better.
Recently, a group of renegade psychologists founded the positive psychology movement. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness  , is their ringleader. Seligman studies happy people instead of nut cases. He offers prescriptions to make healthy people better. I am personally happier since reading him.
Most training looks at people as though they were missing something. The consequences of assuming the role of training is to fix what’s broken rather than make what’s already good better are enormous and disastrous.
Similarly, David Cooperrider  is helping inspire organizations such as GTE and the U.S. Navy by building on their positive aspects through illustrative stories. He and his associates have found that focusing on problem solving stifles innovation by keeping an organization from going beyond the solution to the problem.
Exchanging the concept of learning as medicine to cure deficiencies for the view of learning as growth experience is not something people accomplish one at a time. Shifts in organizational values and culture require a change management approach, with its stages of anger, denial, bargaining, and acceptance.
Taken from the negative perspective, the learner’s relationship to others is generally more take than give. The learner goes online when stuck for an answer; that solves his or her individual problem.
If we look at learners positively, we see that their learning creates new knowledge. Learners can give more than they take by sharing what they learned and how they learned it with others. At a bare minimum, the first ones to go down a new path could leave breadcrumbs for others to follow by recording their finding in an FAQ. Better still, new conceptualizations, metaphors, and stories co-created with learners could make the journey more effective and enjoyable for those who come later.
Think of a domain, say, chip designers. Or voice-recognition experts. Or international risk managers. They may be from one large organization or from a number of organizations. They come together to solve problems, to improve the quality of their decisions, and to try out new ideas. Longer term, their participation helps their organizations by improving their ability to foresee technological developments and market opportunities, to forge knowledge-based alliances, to benchmark against the rest of the industry, to gain authority with clients, to increase the retention of talent, and to build the capacity to develop new strategic options. 
These organizational advantages supplement the individual benefits of membership in the community, such things as help with challenges, access to expertise, self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and the fun of being with colleagues. In an increasingly turbulent and shifting organization, one’s anchor in a professional group provides a network for keeping up with new developments, a means of developing professional reputation, increased marketability, and a strong sense of professional identity.
To create intellectual capital it can use, a company needs to foster teamwork, communities of practice, and other social forms of learning.
Intellectual Capital by Tom Stewart
In sum, communities are much more than a way to make up for knowledge deficiencies of some individuals. They are the means by which organizations create and disseminate new knowledge and best practices. They are how an organization stays at the forefront of knowledge.
Focusing on Core Knowledge
In his marvelous book, Living on the Fault Line, Geoffrey Moore makes a strong case that the path to greater shareholder value is focusing on core activities and outsourcing everything else. You do what’s most rewarding.
It follows that the most valuable thing for people to learn is their organization’s proprietary, core knowledge.
Organizational wealth is created around skills and talents that are proprietary and scarce. To manage and develop human capital, companies must recognize unsentimentally that people with these talents are assets to invest in. Others are costs to be minimized.
Tom Stewart, Intellectual Capital
eLearning vendors look at another set of economics. For them, generic courseware is more profitable, for you can sell the same thing to a lot of people. So they typically end up producing same-size-fits-all generic programs rather than the proprietary programs that organizations need.
The perpetual dilemma is that we want instruction 1:1 from master to apprentice or custom programs tailored to our precise needs. Neither of these is economically viable.
Collaboration contextualizes content. Local experts add the layer of understanding that converts the generic to the specific, from everyone’s organization to our organization. For example, in-house network might upgrade a course on managing networks to a course on running our network.
How to Create and Expand Core Knowledge
Generic programs do not focus on internal issues: that’s what makes them generic. Work groups always focus on internal issues: that’s their raison d’être.
“While the automated systems approach has its place, we believe that these and other weaknesses prevent the method from supporting scalable solutions to human-interaction intensive learning. However, we are not advocating a return to the one teacher for every student. The dualism of teacher-supports-students or automated-system-supports-students is a false dichotomy. There is another option — students-support-each-other.”
First-generation eLearning had blending all wrong. Implementers thought the important thing was to mix online and F2F. The old hands knew that all along. The blending that counts is the mixture of generic and proprietary. Whip up packaged generic content with informal proprietary information and sip the froth of “how we do things here.”
The hunger for proprietary knowledge does not stop at the firewall. Consider Cisco, a company with a staggering thirst for new-product information and detail. Several years ago, they rolled out an online learning program for their field sales and support employees. The next year they implemented a similar program, absent some employee-only information, for partners like IBM, KPMG, and Accenture. This year they’re opening the connection to customers.
Marcia Connor throws another variable into the mix: intentionality.  The self-directed learner we talked about in the section above was guided by intent. She intended to learn something new and went after it. Not all learning is intentional. We learn things by accident, too.
Often we learn the most when we’re looking for something else. A change in environment sparks new concepts for me. On a recent trip to Paris, ah-ha’s seemed to pop into my consciousness almost continuously. If I’ve got a thorny problem to solve, I tell myself “the boys in the backroom” of my brain will work on it as I sleep, and most of the time I magically awake the next morning with an answer.
We can put ourselves in places where learning accidents are more likely to happen. Again, in my own case, I learn from participation in professional groups. The eLearning Forum conducts a monthly educational meeting. What activity do participants value most highly? Networking. Why? Because they rapidly find out what’s going on in a matter of minutes. They get precisely what they ask for. Compared to most means of learning, this is fun.
Individual learning evolves
For at least twenty years, instructional designers have talked about matching the delivery mode of learning to the style of the individual learner. A visual learner would see lots of pictures and diagrams, a verbal learner would hear and read lots of words, and a kinesthetic learner could take frequent reinforcing exercise breaks. Unfortunately, no one has successfully produced a program in this parallel structure because:
Perhaps more importantly, how people learn varies as they master a subject and what they already know. A novice needs familiarity with the basics and conceptual understanding. An apprentice needs foundation skills and practice. A seasoned professional needs to keep up with changes in his or her discipline. A master needs recognize when it’s time to innovate and be open to inspirations. Everyone needs to keep up to date with changes.
People love to learn but hate to be taught
Ask net-savvy younger workers how they would like to learn new skills, and they bring up the features they enjoy in other services:
At one time, functions like these would have been impossible or at least prohibitively costly to contemplate. The interoperability made possible by Web services standards, both .NET and J2EE, changes the game. Additional services can be bolted on to existing infrastructure.
Looking back to Geoffrey Moore’s concept that core activities create greater shareholder value than context, many of these informal learning add-ons will probably be provided by third party specialist firms.
What’s the best way to invest in informal learning?
Informal learning has always played a larger role than most people imagined, but it’s becoming increasingly important as workers take responsibility for their own destinies. Formal learning consists of instruction and events imposed by others. When a worker chooses his path to learning independent of others, by definition, that’s informal.
Several years ago the late Peter Henschel, then director of the Institute for Research on Learning, raised theimportant question on this. If three-quarters of learning in corporations is informal, can we afford to leave it to chance? 
If you agree that the answer to Peter’s question is no, here are three suggestions for organizations seeking to boost results by focusing on informal learning:
1. Streamline the informal learning process
2. Help workers learn to improve how they learn
3. Create a supportive learning culture
Streamline the informal learning process
Help workers learn how to improve their learning skills
Create a supportive organizational culture