12 Ways to Promote Informal Learning in Your Company

By Saul Carliner

Learning management systems and learning content management systems are the centerpiece for many learning departments, but most organizations are unaware that these systems have capabilities to support informal learning.

Learning leaders can support informal learning within systems, but all solutions are not rooted in technology. Some tactics require only that managers and employees revisit lessons when and where appropriate and provide adequate learning support or access to developmental resources.

What follows are 12 ways to engage a workforce in informal learning tactics.

1. Encourage learners to continue learning after formal courses.

Most enterprise learning systems provide a variety of communication capabilities that not only share administrative information about course materials but also facilitate informal learning after the course finishes.

These communication capabilities may include pre-set notes, which can prompt workers to apply skills taught in training at times when instructors anticipate workers might need reminders. Or, the system may enable distribution of resource materials, such as supplementary readings, references, job aids and similar materials that workers could consult in a performance support context.

Ongoing discussions among participants in which they can share challenges and strategies to transfer learning to the job are another possibility.

2. Provide a space for communities.

Because they let learning professionals distribute information and promote conversation among participants in a course, most enterprise learning systems allow users to set up groups with the same capabilities. Within these groups, learning professionals can promote conversations among:

• Occupational communities that find online communities helpful when they do not have an opportunity to work together in-person. These communities could include decentralized communication professionals or occupational safety teams in organizations with several work locations. For instance, IBM has had communities like these for many years.

• Demographic communities that find that online communities let them connect with people who share similar characteristics, such as gender, race or sexual orientation, but who might be uncomfortable meeting in public. For example, many large organizations have women’s, African-American, Latino and LGBT networks.

• Interest-based communities that find online communities provide them with an opportunity to discuss particular subject areas, such as agile programming or management.

3. Provide self-assessments to assess workers’ interests and skills; apply that self-awareness.

The self-assessments can be written internally or acquired through third-party sources. For example, the website for prospective students of the Masters of Technical Communication program at Southern Polytechnic State University near Atlanta lets prospects assess whether a master’s degree even meets their needs.

4. Maintain skills profiles for key job categories.

Enterprise learning systems provide a number of capabilities for skills management. The first of these are tools to maintain profiles for the skills or competencies needed in particular jobs. These skill profiles play a key role in performance and career management.

One key challenge with skills profiles is developing them. Someone in the organization needs to identify the competencies needed in each major job family, as well as distinguish among junior, intermediate and advanced skills. That’s easier said than done since doing so involves many people, starting with workers who hold those jobs and their managers.

Devising the list also may seem daunting because organizations have two strategies: go for a limited number of broad competencies, which may be too general to be useful, or collect a larger number of specific competencies, which can feel restrictive and likely should contain competencies unique to a position rather than general ones for all positions. Further, a system cannot resolve these philosophical issues or develop the lists.

Because their primary service is skills, most large professional services organizations invest heavily in skills management, as do many larger, more established government agencies and high-technology companies. However, the benefits associated with skills profiles can effect any organization looking to optimize hiring, facilitate retention and create targeted developmental interventions to build the workforce.

5. Assess skills workers possess.

In addition to developing skills profiles for particular jobs, some enterprise learning systems let managers assess workers’ skills against profiles. Managers and workers can use this analysis to determine individual training and development needs.

Essentially, while working with a manager, learning leader or other third party, workers review a list of competencies needed in their jobs and, for each, indicate their skill level. The system matches the skills and employees’ levels with a generalized profile of workers in that job and generates a list of skills gaps where the worker’s skill level falls below that of a competent person in the position.

At that point, a manager can step in to direct any development needed, or if the organization has self-paced development options available, employees could take advantage of existing resources to improve their skills and close gaps.

Skills assessment processes pose challenges. One, the longer the list of skills, the more burdensome an assessment can be. Imagine assessing dozens of skills. Two, a values-based assessment — “satisfactory, good and excellent” — can lead to more poor assessments than a performance-based assessment — “can perform independently,” “can perform with moderate assistance,” “can only perform with substantial assistance.”

6. Track skills development.

If organizations can link competencies developed through training to the competencies in one or more skills profiles, the system can automatically update workers’ skills profiles to reflect the new skills acquired when learners complete programs. This can be an asset when leaders are considering what candidates are available for internal promotions, development options like projects or succession planning.

Most systems also let people manually update skills profiles to reflect competencies developed through informal learning. Ideally, a system should require that workers actually demonstrate they can perform a skill to a manager before updating the profile. Otherwise, workers could receive recognition for skills they might not really have.

7. Match skills available with those needed.

As part of hiring, talent management systems which link learning to other talent processes such as selection can generate a list of workers in an organization who already possess skills a hiring manager wants.

Doing so lets organizations manage their inventory of skills as well as provide tangible recognition to workers who have developed in-demand skills, including those developed informally. For example, skills tracking capabilities in LinkedIn help track skills, and fee-based services let recruiters use them to identify candidates.

8. Assist with career planning.

Provide self-assessments to help workers determine what types of work suit them. Also provide career road maps to identify skills needed in a particular career. Let workers assess their current qualifications, and link those skills to developmental opportunities to fill gaps, including informational interviews, training, developmental assignments and professional organizations.

This connection to talent strategy boosts learning strategy effectiveness and can help to boost retention. Employees not only see opportunities for advancement, but they also see learning as a tool to facilitate career growth.

9. Tailor information to each workers’ needs.

Provide workers with the information they are likely to need based on their particular work contexts. Learning and talent systems maintain profiles for each worker and match worker characteristics with labels on content that authors included when they stored the content. Emerging systems hope to offer additional levels of tailoring, much like Amazon.com and e-commerce systems that pinpoint content based on previous use.

10. Record informal learning activities.

Because most informal learning happens outside of an internal development event or some similarly measurable activity, it often requires some manual effort to track it. Managers and workers might add participation in conferences, completion of university and other third-party courses, books read, leadership roles in nonprofit organizations and similar activities. Doing so increases the likelihood that others will recognize the worker for skills acquired informally.

11. Track progress toward a particular goal.

Just as enterprise learning systems can track informal learning activities, they also can track activities focused on a larger goal.

For example, a company that makes custom hearing devices can certify new workers who custom fit the devices through a combination of classes and supervised field work. The system automatically records course completions. Later, managers manually record completion of each supervised field activity in the system. When workers complete all of the required activities, they receive certification.

12. Track informal learners, which informal learning resources they use and which ones they don’t.

The analytics and reporting capabilities of most enterprise systems report the number of times that workers visited particular resources used in informal learning and the number of unique users who did so. For instance, if a particular user visits the same resource four times, that would count as one user but four visits. Therefore, distinguishing among visits and visitors can help leaders assess the general usefulness of a particular page.

Some systems also let designers request satisfaction data from users on each page. For example, some systems let learning professionals include a two-question survey asking users whether the information on the page answered their question and include a space to explain why or why not.

For learning leaders looking to increase the availability of and participation in informal learning in an organization, these capabilities can help. In many cases, the company is already paying for them. Find out what existing systems offer, then choose one on which to pilot informal learning efforts. When the organization embraces it, add another.

About the Author:

Saul Carliner is an associate professor and university e-learning fellow at Concordia University in Montreal, as well as author of eight books, including “Informal Learning Basics.”

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

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