Putting the 'Formal' into Informal Learning

Mad Men Informal Learning 01

Over the past fifty years, the professional workforce has become more informal. On the popular show “Mad Men,” set in a 1960s advertising agency, everyone dresses, speaks and holds meetings in a far more formal style than most offices, even those on Wall Street, in today’s world. No episode has featured a "casual Friday" or "a dial-in number for the telecommuters".

However, Mad Men has also showcased a powerful and integral component of today’s professional learning environment: informal learning. One secretary will show several other how to use the new electric typewriters, or a seasoned sales representative will explain the nuances of closing the deal to a more junior one. In 1968, those informal conversations and learning moments happened and then disappeared into the ether. Today those exchanges might have occurred in a company’s online community, a wiki or even a series of tweets. And they would have been recorded, measured and saved. In 2013, informal learning has become more formal.

Informal learning in professional settings has traditionally been defined as occurring outside of instructor-led or company administered (e.g., online courses) training. It has encompassed such activities as individual research, business reading, professional conversations with an exchange of knowledge, mentoring, and the modeling of best practices. Most industry experts estimate that only 20-25% of a professional’s learning time is spent on formal training with the remaining 75-80% on informal. (When I served as Head of Content for an e-learning company, several L & D directors of Fortune 500 companies admitted to me that the split might realistically be 5% for the formal and 95% for the informal.)

Yet most studies show that at least 80% of most companies’ budgets are spent on that 20% (or 5%) of formal training. The ASTD (American Society of Training and Development) estimates that $156 billion was spent on professional learning in 2011 (the most recent year measured), so approximately $125 billion is invested in formal training and only $30 billion in informal. And a recent study titled “Informal Learning: The Social Evolution” conducted by SkillSoft and cited by the ASTD, found that 36% of large organizations budgeted nothing for informal learning.

Why? While most L & D professionals acknowledge the critical importance of informal learning, it has challenged them in the past. Casual conversations or weekend book reading lists were difficult activities to measure and scale. They struggled to put rigor around them. However, recent developments in technology-internal and external online communities, wikis, Twitter, video chats-have enabled companies to build robust channels for informal learning. And the information exchanges on those channels can be measured and scaled.

Social learning comprises an important- though not the only- component of this new, more formal generation of informal learning. It has traditionally been defined as learning from and with others and has now been expanded to include the application of social tools to that process. Whereas social media uses these tools for communications or marketing, social learning transforms them into educational instruments. As noted earlier, company spending on informal learning is significantly lower than for formal. However, in a recent report from Bersin by Deloitte, it was noted that social learning spending by US companies tripled in 2012, with large companies now spending about $46,000 on these new technologies.

What are they spending this money on? In many cases, it is strengthening intranets, internal communication tools or external communities. Yet in other cases, it is being used in creative and powerful ways. In their book “The New Social Learning,” Tony Bingham and Marcia Connor, two renowned social learning experts, share best practices from early social learning adopters. Some of the names might surprise you. For example,

The C.I.A.

Over the past few years, the CIA, one of the most secretive workplaces in the world, has built Intellipedia based on the Wiki model. Intellipedia doesn’t produce a finished report or analysis but instead serves as an online intelligence encyclopedia, written by various experts and updated constantly with 10, 000 page edits each day.. It can be viewed on top secret, secret and unclassified networks and is now used by multiple intelligence departments.


Telus, Vancouver-headquartered telecommunications company, equipped its frontline employees with handheld video cameras. Throughout their days, if an individual encountered a challenging situation or had a question, he could tape it, upload it and ask for feedback from the 35,000 other employees. Within minutes, he’d start receiving responses. Over time, the videos were used as learning tools for future workers with additional commentary from the community.

My future blogs will delve into additional deployments and trends of informal and social learning as well as organizational changes around these areas. In the spirit of social learning, I welcome all comments, insights and best practices in the commentary section.

Perhaps the most powerful informal learning on Mad Men occurs in the exchanges between the brilliant Creative Director of the advertising agency, Don Draper, and his team who treasure each nugget of wisdom. Would he be blogging or tweeting today? Who knows? Genius still can’t easily be captured or transferred. But most likely his team, on the cutting edge of so many trends, would be formalizing their own informal learning exchanges with the tools of today for the Mad Men of tomorrow.