Informal Learning in the Workplace Review of Research

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Learning is increasingly becoming important to organisations and is widely recognized as vital to organisational success. With "people" being acclaimed as the most important resource to organisations and the progressive popularity of the "knowledge market", practitioners as well as the academia continually seek to gain better understanding of how learning occurs within and out of the workplace and the impact this could have on organisational productivity and people development.

Organisations have over the past few decades shifted focus from merely training employees to creating learning environments where employees collectively learn as they tend towards becoming learning organisations.

A learning organisation is defined as an organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge, 1990:3)

In the workplace, learning has been identified to occur in various forms. Some schools of thought have classified learning in the workplace as formal and informal learning. Formal learning occurs when learning is 'institutionally sponsored, class-room based and highly structured' (Marsick and Watkins, 1990:12). However, opinions on the definition of informal learning or even defining any form of workplace learning as 'informal' varies based on past research writings. An extreme view of defining informal learning was cited in an article 'Critiquing Workplace Learning Discourses: Participation and Continuity at Work' by Billet (2001) who argued that it is incorrect to refer to any form of workplace learning as 'informal' stating that as it is in educational institutes, work practices are intended, structured around particular activities and continuous.

With the invention of technology, learning is seen to occur within the workplace in many more ways than it did a couple of decades ago. Online communication mediums have made it possible for people resident in different locations around the world to learn simultaneously as well as asynchronously. Through video conferencing, online forums, blogs and online networks, the ways through which learning occurs has grown wider. However, practitioners defer in what is and how formal and informal learning should be defined.

Amidst deferring opinions and for the purpose of the intent of this paper, informal learning is defined as those forms of workplace learning that are 'usually intentional but not highly structured' (Marsick and Watkins, 2001: 25).

Why Informal Learning?

Over the past five years of my work experience in Management Learning and related practices, incidents in workplace have stirred my interest in workplace learning, its benefits to organisations and how it could be best facilitated.

The understanding employees largely have about learning seems to tend towards formal or classroom training. As a component of the Human Resources team, many organisations create units or divisions who are responsible for employee learning. These units or divisions are usually termed "Learning and Development" or "Training and Development". However, the focus is largely on formal learning [that is, organised classroom learning] and little consideration and attention is given to other forms of learning that occur when employees interact amongst themselves on the job. Where informal forms of learning are given attention through the introduction of mentorship or coaching models, the trend and impact of these are rarely measured.

In a bid to understand the how learning occurs in informal forms within organisations that have implemented some form of mentorship or coaching models [or other models that facilitate informal learning], I undertook a research at Deloitte Consulting LLP USA, Region 10, Hyderabad, India titled "Informal Learning Networks: It's Impact On Formal Learning -A Case-Study Of New Recruits' Learning Post-Formal Training" in 2007 [with contributions from Chiranjeevi Tallapragada, Kunal Gulati, Rani Chittaranjan Das and Tony Mathew]. The purpose of the study was to identify the modes of informal learning that occurs within the SAP Practice [a 500-man department] and how this could aid the learning of new recruits to enable them get on the job faster and display higher level of efficiency.

The result of the research suggested that the learning environment created by the culture of the organisation is an important factor that may enhance informal learning in the workplace. Indicators of an organisation's culture from the research included: Organisational Communication [how and to what extent communication happens among peers, between subordinates and superiors, and within the entire team], Collective Learning Structure [where interactions that aid informal learning occur, the effect of buddy/mentor support model implemented by the department, and the on-the-job team support practised], Virtual Knowledge Sharing portals [established online mediums for collective asynchronous learning].

The research discussed above was conducted to understand "practice" with no intention of deducing a "theory" out of its findings. However, the result indicated some level of positive impact on organisational learning when informal forms of learning were facilitated within the organisation. The current paper intends to review a couple of related theoretical research writings which reported some schools of thought on informal learning in the workplace [how this could be beneficial to organisational learning and productivity] and how this compares with "practice".

Research Review

To gain a view of past writing on how informal learning occurs in the workplace, two research writings that centred on "workplace learning" or "work-based learning" were reviewed in this paper. The research writings reviewed below discussed learning at work using terms such as "organisational learning", "workplace learning" and "individual-collective learning at work". Although each of these did not necessarily focus on informal learning, a review of the two research writings proved that the forms of learning addressed were not necessarily formal or classroom-based learning but the studies largely addressed informal forms of learning [as previously defined].

The first research reviewed, explored how learning is managed in organisations and the process through which it transcends levels of individual, group and the entire organisational system. Titled "Learning and Leadership in Organisations: Towards Complementary Communities of Practice", Driver (2002) in her article proposed a model that describes learning in organisations as a concept of a 'role negotiated between superiors and their subordinates' rather than the traditional approach to viewing learning as individual/cognitive or social/cultural processes. Describing learning in organisations as processes of 'role-taking, role-making and role-routinization' (Driver, 2002: 104), the paper pointed out that resources including time, money, support, personal attention are allocated both by superiors and subordinates. In the workplace, leaders [who formally hold the organisation's resources] and followers [who own their individual intellectual resources] individually allocate resources at their discretion and the extent to which these resources are used and shared may dictate the extent to which learning occurs within the organisation (Driver, 2002).

Furthermore, Driver (2002) affirmed that people learn in organisations by specializing in some particular learning tasks. Role behaviours and resources usually determine the extent to which subordinates and superiors negotiate resource transfer amongst themselves within the workplace to aid or impair learning opportunities and processes. In addition, individuals may prefer a learning task above other learning tasks and this influences resource transfer. With organisation learning identified as is an important task for organisation's success, the study, drawing from past learning models, conceived two learning tasks- 'routine learning and innovative learning'. The former describes solving problems in a defined or usual manner and the latter portrays identifying problems through questioning of the status-quo and the eventual generation of new ideas (Driver, 2002).

The model proposed in this article shows its distinction from past learning models in that it identifies learning roles as focused on flows of resources rather than traditional models that are centred on 'individual/cognitive or social/cultural learning processes' (Driver, 2002).

In exploring how individual learning could be transferred into organisational learning, Driver (2002) questioned assumptions of past writings which infers that individual learning are transferred into the organisation's systems and structures and knowledge are shared through communities of practices [implying that individuals always learn within the system alone]. Rather, workplace learning could be a combination of knowledge transfer [i.e. formally sharing tacit knowledge and social-cultural form of learning] and knowledge sharing through informal forms. The emphasis is however on the fact that both forms of learning occur and are important to every organisation and so both of these should be combined in a balanced structure such that organisations will be able to apply existing knowledge whilst exploring new ideas and concepts.

The paper concluded that learning in organisations is not merely achieved through direct transfer of individual knowledge to organisational systems but it rather entails a structured process through which knowledge is exchanged within the organisation through social endeavours.

With learning being described above as occurring through social endeavours, it indirectly infers that the form of learning referred to is collective [that is, involves people learning together] and also informal.

In the article titled "A Model of Work-based Learning" by Raelin (1997), the writer conceptualised a model that merges integrated learning and work. Combining explicit and tacit forms of knowledge with theoretical and practical modes of learning, this writing attempted to show how these correlates with individual and collective learning.

Explaining how work-based learning occurs, Raelin (1997) stated that work-based learning surpasses mere experiential learning which involves an addition of experience to knowledge. He affirmed that theory could be acquired during practice and theory could also be introduced after experience.

Raelin's (1997) proposed model 'incorporates two dimensions that are fundamental to the process of work-based learning' (Raelin, 1997: 564) - theoretical and practical approaches to learning and explicit and tacit forms of knowing. Theoretical learning involves questioning the assumptions of practice while practice involves a process of acquiring and practicing artistry (Schon, 1983). In explaining the forms of knowledge, the paper stated that explicit knowledge are forms of knowing that could be transmitted in formal systemic language while tacit knowledge are forms of knowing that cannot be reported because they are deeply embedded in individuals' actions and their involvement in a specific context. This is observable even if individuals cannot express them through words. However, tacit knowledge is teachable through the observation of behaviours or actions (Raelin, 1997).

An interesting feature of the model is that it explores how individual learning occurs as well as how collective learning occurs. Using the same dimensions of learning modes and knowledge forms, Raelin (1997) came up with two sets of matrices that describe individual learning and collective learning. These are shown in Figures One and Two below.























Applied Science

Action Learning

Action Science

Community of Practice

Figure One: Model of Work-based learning at Individual level Figure Two: Model of Work-based learning at Collective level

Source: (Raelin, 1997:565,568)

Although this paper is intended to focus on collective learning in the workplace, it is imperative to understand how people learn as individuals so as to better comprehend how collective learning occurs.

As shown in Figure One above, there are four dimensions of individual learning namely: Conceptualisation, Experimentation, Experience and Reflection (Raelin, 1997). Each of these is briefly explained below:

Conceptualisation involves the learner going through theoretical forms of learning to gain explicit knowledge. When new principles are introduced to learners, it is conceptualised thereby giving them an ability to solve work challenges in new and different contexts. When learners conceptualise they are better positioned to reflect on their actions based on newly gained theoretical learning (Raelin, 1997).

Experimentation takes conceptualisation a step further in that is an act of putting learning into practice (Raelin, 1997). It is the application of theoretical learning to gain tacit knowledge. When theories are put into action, learners are able to see the applicability of their espoused theories [that is, initial theory with which they enter a situation (Schon, 1974)] to their present situation and thereby gain deeper tacit knowledge or understanding (Raelin, 1997).

Experience refers to how people learn in practice to gain tacit knowledge. It reinforces the tacit knowledge acquired through experimentation (Raelin, 1997).

As explained by Raelin (1997), Reflection denotes an 'ability to uncover and make explicit to oneself what one has planned, observed, or achieved in practice' (Raelin, 1997: 567); simply explained, it is a process of gaining practical learning by applying explicit knowledge.

In the second matrix- "Model of Workplace learning at Collective Level", Raelin (1997) explains how people collectively learn in the workplace [as shown in Figure Two]. Identifying four different types of collective learning each of which have been studied independent of others in the past the writer concluded that collective learning occurs in Applied Science, Action Science, Action Learning and Community of Practice.

Applied Science entails turning an individual's mental models into explicit knowledge. Mental models are 'images, assumptions and stories' about the individual and others contained in the individual's mind. In Action Science, perspectives and assumptions are questioned and as a result workplace learning is stimulated (Raelin, 1997). An example of this is learning that occurs when employees question existing organisational values, principles, policies and objectives thereby querying the status-quo to determine how things can be better done.

Action Science evolves from collectively learning theory to gain explicit knowledge such as situations where scientists come together to identify areas of undiscovered objective knowledge. In a achieving this, scientists selectively experiment patterns of conceptual relationships from which conclusions are drawn, thus explicit knowledge gained is considered true, valid, logical and could be later refined through further scrutiny (Raelin, 1997)

Action Learning enables learners to reflect and ultimately convert theories learnt or assumed into tacit knowledge. Within the workplace, Action Learning occurs as practitioners integrate their theoretical principles and the social model on which their organisation is built. Through the process, known theories and past experiences are shared, new perspectives explored and further inquires are stimulated (Raelin, 1997). In recent history, corporate and non-corporate organisations as well as institutes of learning have successfully applied Action Learning. In organisations, through Action Learning, real-time experience which employees face on their day-to-day job now constitutes major subject matter for collective learning. Employees participating in Action Learning debrief real-time experiences and gain feedback on how others perceive their actions as well as feedback on their ability to apply theory to practice.

Applying Action Learning in educational settings, institutes of learning develop learning frameworks where students are initially presented with some theoretical modular presentation and are later on required to apply these theories to real-live projects beneficial to the individual or the sponsor organisation. These students are teamed in group formations called "Action Learning-sets" while they work on real-live projects with assistance from other students and qualified tutors who help learners relate relevant theory to their project experiences (Raelin, 1997). It is necessary to mention that the programme for which this paper was written (Masters of Art in Management Learning and Leadership) is being offered based on an Action Learning model and has recorded significant success over its twenty-eight years of existence. Drawing from their conclusion after reviewing differing approaches and practice of Action Learning, Marsick and O'Niel (1999) stated that Action Learning is believed to be about individuals intentionally learning from their experience in a defined pattern through real-life experiences and this enables them to direct their own learning and 'as such, achieve more control of their destiny'

Community of Practice is formed when a group of people working together on 'a common enterprise develop shared history, particular values, beliefs, ways of talking and ways of doing things' (Raelin, 1997: 569). Within Communities of Practice, people continually depend on themselves for support till their efforts become tacit and they could be considered to be working together seamlessly (Raelin, 1997). When it occurs in workplace learning, Communities of Practice have been found to be more useful than such forms of learning as classroom learning due to the fact that learning gained in the classroom might not be directly applicable to real-life scenarios. When people learn within Communities of Practice, learning gained is 'enacted' [that is, constructed on the spot as new information comes on-line]' (Raelin, 1997: 570). In the work-life of technicians who usually have documented manuals meant to guide them in problem-solving on the job, Communities of Practice are evident. Manuals have limitations in that they cannot always correctly predict exact problems and as such, these technicians tend to solve their individual problems through informal interactions and story telling. This enables them collectively discuss and share accumulated experience and know-how. Thus, for them, problem-solving transforms to social activities and becomes a natural exercise rather than following a set of guidelines (Raelin, 1997). It is important however, that people in a Community of Practice frequently work together in order to build mutual expertise (Kofman and Senge, 1993)

Action Learning and Community of Practice as explained above discussed tacit modes of gaining knowledge rather than explicit knowledge acquisition which is expressed in Applied Science and Action Science. The former two prove greater significance to the purpose of this paper which is intended to focus on reviewing past research that are related to collective-learning in the workplace.

Relating the definitions of Action Learning and Community of Practice to the forms of learning identified within the SAP team [as described in the study titled "Informal Learning Networks: It's Impact on Formal Learning -A Case-Study Of New Recruits' Learning Post-Formal Training" discussed above] and as such relating "theory" to "practice", traces of Action Learning through the Virtual Knowledge Sharing portals were observed albeit in unstructured or semi-structured forms. In addition, the effort of the department to facilitate rapid on-the-job learning by introducing mentor/buddy support systems as a form of collective learning, ignited the formation of a Community of Practice [around SAP skills] within the department. Thus, the concepts of Action Learning and Community of Practice are relevant in practice when considering how collective-learning occurs through informal means.


As stated earlier, the intent of this paper is to relate theoretical inference from the two research writings reviewed to what obtains in practice within organisations. As explained in the review detailed above, Driver (2002) explicitly discussed on how learning can be managed within organisations to ensure it transcends from individuals to their team and subsequently to the entire organisation. By implication, one can conclude that if individual learning is not shared within a team, it can not be transferred across the organisation and therefore, such organisation is not able to transit into a learning organisation. For learning to occur, Driver (2002) established a major fact affirming that the people within the organisation must be willing to allow resource transfer amongst themselves. Such resources include intangible elements like time, money, support, personal attention and other related resources that enhance learning. Superiors as well as subordinates negotiate resource transfers amongst themselves and this is an important determining factor if collective learning must successfully occur in the workplace. This assertion raises questions on what organisations must do in order to keep their people motivated and willing to allow easy transfer of resources to aid learning. Do working conditions, organisational structure, organisational culture, learning models [etcetera] have direct or indirect impact on people's willingness to share such resources within the organisation?

The writer further asserted that organisational learning occurs as a result of social endeavours inferring that although it is an earnest and contentious activity, learning in the workplace often happens via social [informal] interactions amongst employees within an organisation. And if learning happens through this medium, what do organisations need to do in creating an environment that facilitates socialisation amongst employees? Do the layout of the organisation, cultural factors within the organisation and its immediate society, organisational policies and processes [for example, open-door policy] have any relationship with socialisation in the workplace?

Raelin's (1997) "Model of Workplace learning at Collective level" explained two forms of gaining tacit knowledge through theoretical and practical modes. These are Action Learning and Community of Practice. These two types of learning models have proven successful when implemented in various types of organisations with the intent of promoting collective learning. However, it is expedient to further probe to identify specific factors that enhance or hamper the effectiveness of Action Learning and Community of Practice when implemented in organisations via related initiatives. Is there a relationship between their success and factors like: type of the organisation, culture of the organisation, layout of the workplace and other related features?

In conclusion, it is recommended that further research be done to identify specific factors that enhance informal collective learning in the workplace. A comparative study of various organisations with differing structures, cultures, workplace layout, policies and practices in relation to the sort of informal collective learning that occurs therein will add value to inferences from current research writings.