Training for the New Year: Formal vs. Informal Learning

To improve our knowledge sharing in the year to come, we need to move into the Information Age, where knowledge is on demand.

As we prepare for the New Year, we’re reminded of the trends and practices we welcomed in 2014, while also calling attention to the processes that require further change in the months to come. Despite the various boundaries pushed, the training industry is shifting, and informal learning strategies are beginning to take precedence over formal training. As the workplace puts a heightened lens on an approach that best accelerates performance, the 70:20:10 concept couldn’t ring more true. While not the silver bullet to everything, it demonstrates that lessons learned are: 70 percent from practice; 20 percent from people; and 10 percent from content.

Yes, both formal and informal training promote the dissemination of knowledge, but let’s learn—if you will—a bit more about each to inform decision-making. A GutCheck Instant Research Community (IRC) with relevant industry leaders validates the following:


Typically, formal training is any learning experience that is planned and organized a la classroom-based lectures and structured e-learning courses. Certain times and instances call for formal learning. These include teaching tough subjects such as company policies or emergency response procedures; the things you need to ensure will translate and be fully comprehended by all involved.

However, formal training often is considered just that—too formal. Knowledge transfer doesn’t have to be stand and deliver, and even in highly regulated industries, it doesn’t have to be cut and dry. Using potential pitfalls (where warranted) can be a powerful engagement tool and is a great way to encourage trainees to internalize what’s being taught.


Informal learning, on the other hand, is social learning on the fly, offering a more individualized, hands-on approach to learning a job or process. In this case, it’s acceptable to remove the aesthetics in order to provide something that’s more accessible, digestible, and peer to peer versus top down. While it does depend on the environment, there is an underlying level of trust needed—do employees know where to find information, and do they know how to access it once there? It may be a learning management system (LMS) or SharePoint, but it also could be a simple spreadsheet with links.

Video is a great way to capture on-the-job communication, because as good as face-to-face interaction can be, it doesn’t scale as well. This is also representative of the need to have light boundaries, not in the sense of structure, but rather in measuring and tracking experiences. The downfall of informal training, however, is the potential redundancy in knowledge, as it’s difficult to know ahead of time what concepts trainees are familiar with. In this respect, it’s easy enough for trainees to request skipping one topic and learning more about another. An even bigger drawback is inconsistency on the part of the trainer. The relaxed nature of informal training can be advantageous, but if there are holes in the instruction, future output may be disrupted.

Application Across Business

Knowledge training takes place in all types of formats, and certainly isn’t one size fits all. It’s important to note, however, the pros and cons of formal versus informal approaches at different size companies to determine which approach is best suited for your organization. Small businesses, for example, tend to rely on informal training because it’s expensive to put corporate training into place. Those companies without a dedicated Human Resources department also are more likely to use informal learning because of a lack of capacity to design training materials.

On the contrary, informal learning can be cause for concern for large organizations. A big question is: What to do if information is wrong? While it’s hard to control the spread of learning experiences, one of the benefits of informal training is the ability to offer peer review, so the best information is supplied and repurposed as needed. There is a spectrum of informality here; for those workers with secret corporate talents, it’s an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat. For organizations, it’s an opportunity to secure intellectual property and institutional knowledge prior to transitions such as maternity leave or retirements. With that being said, as companies grow in size, some standardization becomes necessary.

Why Informal Training in 2015

For a long time—and still to this date—the training industry has operated based on an Industrial Age model. People expect we can stamp out exact results for everyone in varying scenarios. Formal learning does just this, as it’s about you fitting the model versus the model fitting you. To improve our knowledge sharing in the year to come, we need to move into the Information Age, where knowledge is on demand; where learning can be fit to me as opposed to me having to fit everything to it.

How do you break rules, get better, do things faster and more efficiently? An assembly line model isn’t the answer, and isn’t going to get us where we need to be in an age in which people constantly seek access to data and information in real time. GutCheck’s IRC found specifically that people prefer a training approach that keeps the “human touch” in the process. It keeps intimidation and worry to a minimum, and instead fosters a level of dependency and comfort between the trainer and trainee. Encourage people to ask questions and make mistakes. Train your employees in whatever way is most effective for you and them, but 2015 is bound to be the time when 70 does more lifting than 10. Remember, as Confucius said: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Matt Pierce is customer engagement manager at TechSmith Corp., a software company that provides practical business and academic solutions that change how people communicate and collaborate across devices. A graduate of Indiana University’s School of Education’s Department of Instructional Systems Technology, Pierce has 10 years of experience working in learning and development with a focus on visual instruction. He has directly managed the training and user assistance teams for TechSmith, and also has run its visual communication Web show, The Forge, interviewing guests from around the world discussing the use of visuals, video, and technology in education, training, marketing and more. Teach him something @piercemr.