As I recently wrote in a post on the benefits of informal learning, companies today have the opportunity to leverage popular technological trends, such as the use of social media, for professional, workplace learning purposes.  Despite this incredible potential for engagement in professional environments, however, misconceptions about the effectiveness of informal learning sometimes prevent it from being adopted by corporate trainers.

Here are some of the most common myths about informal learning, followed by discussions that demystify the concerns they reflect:

Myth #1: It’s too unstructured Some may argue that informal learning may be a distraction from the goals of a training session, or may go off-topic due to the organic nature of the conversation it generates.

However, when informal learning comes with clear instructions and desired outcomes are explained ahead of time, learners will be more likely to stay on task and work towards the goals set out during training sessions.

Myth #2:  Learners will not retain the information they need Due to the fast-paced and ubiquitous nature of many informal learning tools, it may be difficult to see them as a legitimate means for building a broad base of knowledge.

This concern is overcome through the continuous learning and knowledge sharing that comes from informal learning.  Tools like wikis allow users to create a database of highly relevant content, while discussion boards and blogs can allow employees to store and exchange lessons learned from on-the-job experiences.  And, since all of this information is stored online, your employees can re-read relevant materials when they need it most.

Myth #3: Results can’t be measured There may be a tendency to believe that, because informal learning is so dynamic, it is difficult to quantify the impact it has on an organization.

Just because informal learning might occur outside of a traditional learning environment, however, doesn’t mean that impact on business can’t be quantified.  By measuring individual employee performance against what training has been received, it is possible to see what learning techniques have driven results for your organization.  Customizable learning plans can then be created for each employee to fill in gaps and build on strengths found in the learning process.

Myth #4:  It’s always a liability Since informal learning encourages organic and honest discussion, employers may be concerned about reputation damage or leakage of confidential information online.

Though these concerns are legitimate, managing online learning through both policy and active monitoring is the best way to ensure that your employees understand the consequences of what they say online.  And furthermore, I also hear that some trainers would RATHER conversations be out in the open so that they can personally address them and set the record straight.

Myth #5:  Only my younger employees will like it Many informal learning tools, such as social media networks, are mistakenly thought of as trends that are only used by young adults.

However, statistics show that nearly 60% of Twitter users are over 30, nearly three quarters of Baby Boomers have a Facebook profile, and LinkedIn is dominated by people over the age of 35. Though there may be a learning curve for some who did not grow up in the age of the Internet, you may be surprised by how many of them are already taking advantage of online learning tools.

At Blackboard, we have the tools you need to leverage informal learning for the benefit of your organization.  Collaborative learning systems like Blackboard Learn ™ provide an intuitive and efficient platform for tapping into the potential informal learning to engage your professional learners and help them reach their goals during training and beyond.

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  • Jay Cross

    Right on. I’ve found that optimists view these five things as benefits where pessimists see only red flags. I’m in the optimist camp. Here’s my take:

    “It’s too unstructured” = it’s open-ended, has room for growth, changes with the times, and let’s people be all they can be

    “won’t retain” = people who learn at the point of need apply their learning immediately. this reinforcement makes lessons stick

    “can’t be measured” = the measure of any form of learning is outcomes. hence, there’s no difference in the measurability of formal and informal learning

    “a liability” = no risk, no reward. being in business creates potential liabilities. without them, you don’t get any up-side gain

    “only the young…” = everyone loves to talk and be heard. that’s why most learning is informal. it’s ageless

  • Dan Roddy

    Hang on a moment, doesn’t this post fundamentally miss the point about informal learning as it was originally presented, by you Jay, that it is happening anyway? That 70-80% of the learning in an organisation is NOT taking place in the allocated space but at the water cooler or cafe. This seems to suggest that informal learning is something newly invented and available now for you to rollout in your organisation or institution.

    Point 1 says “too unstructured”, but too unstructured compared to what? To a planned taught course? Doesn’t informal happen alongside it anyway? It may not be on Twitter, it may be in the bar or students union afterwards, but it is happening now irrespective of what learning professionals might think.

    Point 2 includes the nonsequitor concept that ubiquitous computing somehow negates knowledge growth. I don’t see the connection here.

    When you consider the line “when informal learning comes with clear instructions and desired outcomes are explained ahead of time, learners will be more likely to stay on task and work towards the goals set out during training sessions” you have to wonder what it is that is informal about it. That to me is pretty formal, or perhaps “homework” might be another phrase to use.

    Point 3 further suggests that the author believes that informal learning is a new phenomena by suggesting its impact can be measured. This can only be the case if informal learning is a new factor, but if it is something that is there to begin with, how do you measure the impact of an already present thing. How could you account for the impact unless by seeing what happens if you remove the structured, formal component altogether?

    Points 4 & 5 reveal the authors underlying assumption that informal learning means using social media, but surely the concept is more sophisticated than that?

    The final paragraph reveals the killer punch. You too can have informal learning on your LMS if you just buy a Blackboard product. “informal learning” on an LMS!? Isn’t that paradoxical?

    Jay, you do your worthy concept a disservice by even dignifying this ludicrous post with your comment.

    • Jay Cross

      Dan, you missed my point. You and I are on the same page. 

      I counter the propositions in the post; I don’t support them. 

      For example, I think unstructured is an advantage. And learning at the time of need makes lessons memorable. And informal outcomes are as easy to measure as formal outcomes. I don’t bring up social media; this has to do with all aspects of business. An organization that does not trust its employees is dysfunctional; monitoring them will fail. 

  • Dan Roddy


    I tried posting on here from my phone yesterday but it didn’t seem to work. I saved my reply and it’s on my blog if you’d care to read it.


  • Harry Canfield

    You make some great rebuttals to these myths. I think despite some of these commonly held myths, informal learning will catch on… sooner rather than later. Dare I say it may become one in an arsenal of many e-learning tools.

  • Jenn Riddle

    Jay – thanks for your feedback on the 5 myths. We are in total alignment with you!

    Dan – Thank you for taking the time to share your perspectives as well. In response to your points, we definitely agree that informal learning is not something newly invented, but rather it is something that is finally being labeled/defined. Obviously, this is a big topic in L&D trade publications, with emphasis on how this type of learning drives business impact and contributes to a learning organization’s value. If one considers formal learning as traditional classroom learning, you can argue that anything outside of the classroom is informal. However, there are certainly more structured forms of informal learning than others (water cooler conversations vs. online discussion boards/communities of practice). And it is certainly worthwhile to try and measure this type of learning where it is possible in order to illustrate business impact.

    As for your point on an LMS including informal learning, we actually don’t consider ourselves a traditional LMS, but more of a social LMS. Our Blackboard Learn product facilitates social and informal learning both within a formal training course and outside of one. So, you are covered on all bases. Within a course, you can use wikis, blogs, groups, and discussion boards to ensure your learners are communicating informally with one another and the instructor. On the other hand, you also need to promote information exchange within the broader organization. Our community module allows you to establish communities of practice where like-minded individuals can gather to ask questions, network and socialize.

    We’d definitely love to hear thoughts around the label ‘social LMS.’ For those of you familiar with Blackboard, does that description ring true? If not, do you consider us to be a traditional LMS?

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