The Best Learning and Development Research of 2016: Part 1

Employee Learning

Formal and Informal Learning in the Workplace: A Research Review

Last year saw a host of learning and development studies published that provided interesting (and potentially game-changing) insight into how we learn at work.

I’ve picked out three that I think have the potential to kick your 2017 learning strategies up a gear, and will be sharing their findings over the course of the next few weeks.

We kick off the series with a research paper published in the International Journal of Training and Development into the relative effectiveness of formal and informal learning processes. Let me know your thoughts and reflections in the comments section below!


Thanks to technological advances, the rise of freelancers, and a host of other developments, the workplace has changed significantly over the last few years. This fast-paced environment is constantly calling for new skills and competencies, and it’s a climate that’s rapidly outgrowing the established learning frameworks many organisations still rely on.

Seeking to update these global learning models, the authors of this review analysed the most recent data on workplace learning. Focusing on the contrast between informal and formal learning behaviours in particular, they identified some key trends.

Key Findings:

Platforms like YouTube and other e-learning resources facilitate an ad hoc (informal) learning environment. This provides a direct contrast to the classroom-led (formal) environments that traditionally characterised workplace learning. The authors of this study aren’t the first to identify a global shift towards informal practices, but their recognition that workplace learning is now focused more on individual interests than organisational objectives is important.

Those of you who caught this earlier management article will know this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Managing to strengths and allowing individuals to seek learning in subjects that interest them has the potential to increase the value of the skills available to your organisation.

That said, this review did identify a number of potential disadvantages to informal practices. Specifically, that it is difficult to align ad hoc learning with organisational goals and measure its effectiveness. Plus, employees don’t always recognise it as learning, which can lower their confidence in their work competencies. The authors suggest supplementing informal learning with assessments and benchmarking would address most of these issues.

Employee learning infographic

Top Takeaways:

  • Employers have a tendency to view informal, ad-hoc learning as inferior to formal learning, despite the fact that it offers a number of performance advantages.
  • High levels of autonomy and responsibility among staff result in expansive learning environments and higher job competencies within the workforce.
  • Combining informal learning with formal assessments provides employees with direction, better aligning learning objectives with organisational goals and increasing confidence in learning.

Full study available from