Your powerful informal learning engine

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 February 2015

Every organisation has one. A huge and powerful informal learning engine running in the background. It has always been there, and it always will be, whether you are aware of it or not. We all learn informally as we notice what happens when we do something, as we reflect on what happened, as we discuss what happened with other people, as we notice how other people do things, as we seek information to know what to do next, and discuss what might happen next.

Most of this learning is completely out of our conscious awareness. By that I mean that we are unaware of the fact that we are learning something. Most informal learning is simply a side effect of life. Did you ever set out to learn how to run a household? And yet you do. Running a household is a complex process and you must have learned how to do it somewhere at some time. Living your life, indeed your very survival, is dependent on the informal learning that happens during your life. In the same way, every organisation is totally dependent on the informal learning engine running in the background.

You cannot do this, but just imagine for a moment that you could. Imagine being able to turn off the informal learning engine running within your organisation, so that all informal learning stopped at midnight tonight. How long do you think your organisation would survive? A week? A month?

It is impossible to control or manage the vast amount of informal learning that happens within an organisation. However, what we can do is make the informal learning engine that is already there run smoother, and more powerfully, and make sure it is pulling us along in the right direction. We can even plug into it, and harness its power for some specific learning outcomes.

Typically, informal learning has no agenda, and the learning that results is haphazard, unplanned, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes helpful, and sometimes unhelpful. Without some attention and maintenance, the informal learning engine can stutter, and misfire. The popularity of the 70:20:10 model has made the informal learning engine much more visible. It is out of the shadows, and consequently people are now trying to find ways to harness the vast power of this engine.

And yet many people struggle with ‘implementing’ 70:20:10. From many, many conversations about informal learning, I suspect one of the reasons is that L&D people think that they have to crank up the informal learning engine to get it running. They think that they need to put in place ‘interventions’ in order for informal learning to be successful, or even to happen at all. They have failed to really understand this behemoth in the background that will happily share its power, if only it is approached in the right way.

In the next couple of blogs for Training Journal, I will share some ideas on how to get the informal learning engine running smoother, and how to directly tap into its massive power for specific learning outcomes.


About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via

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