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How to Apply Formal and Informal Employee Learning

Continu Team
One Platform for All Learning

Blend formal and informal learning for optimal results. Dive into strategies, benefits, and ways to seamlessly integrate both approaches in your training.

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You spend time creating a formal learning program for employees whether it be for employee onboarding, compliance training, or learning a new skill. But is that enough? Is your program really comprehensive or are you missing a key training component?

There are really two different types of training: formal and informal learning.

Formal learning is a structured and synchronous learning style that has set goals and learning objectives created by the instructor or instructional designer. Examples of formal training include online training programs, remote learning labs, eLearning courses, workshops, webinars, and in-person classroom instruction.

Informal learning is unstructured and asynchronous, meaning it happens whenever without any clear objectives or predetermined goals. This learning style is usually self-directed and guided by the individual's desire to learn new knowledge or skills. Examples of informal training include social media engagement, workplace mentoring, seminars, happy hours or company events, and even escape rooms.

Simply put, informal learning occurs naturally through experience or participating in workplace events.

While most companies use formal learning through a tool like a learning management system, employees do learn in a different way. This could be classified as informal learning.

So how do you incorporate formal and informal learning into your organization? Here are some techniques to use both types of training.

Implementing formal training

Let’s start with formal training and discuss when to use this and how to use it. This training is best for mandatory learning with set objectives and deadlines. For example, new tax law is rolled out that your legal team needs to understand. This law takes effect in March so your training needs to be completed by February so that every team member is prepared with the new law’s nuances. So the training needs to be very structured.

When you are using formal vs informal employee learning, there are some methods that lend themselves well.

1. Create a course outline

The first step for formal training is creating a course roadmap. Basically lay out the objectives, what needs to be learned, and how it will be administered. Using a learning management system is a great way to organize each learner’s courses to take and when to complete these. 

2. Design courses for interest

Next, you want to think about instructional design. While you may have many eager learners, not everyone thinks of training in that way. That’s where course design plays a pivotal role. For example, you are training on what constitutes insider training. Instead of a long PowerPoint presentation, you break it up with short video clips, games, and short quizzes to keep the learners’ interest.

3. Track learning

After your courses are put in place, you’ll want to track employee training progress and who still needs to complete them. Metrics are also important to determine how well your training is being absorbed and where tweaks may need to be made in the future.

4. Ongoing training

Once the training is complete, you’ll need to decide if ongoing training should be implemented in the future. For example, compliance training may be required yearly so you’ll need to let the employees know the current training course is good for one year before it expires and will need to be retaken.

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Implementing informal learning

As you can see formal training takes a concrete path for employee learning. It is structured, timed, and has clear objectives. Informal training is quite the opposite. Here is the process for using informal training:

1. Define what it is in your organization

Although informal learning doesn’t follow a concrete plan, it doesn’t mean you can incorporate it into employee training. The first step is to figure out how your employees learn when not taking an assigned training course. For example, do they follow certain blogs? Do they watch webinars online? Or is it as simple as having lunch with a coworker to learn first-hand skills? An easy way to gather this information is to survey your employees about when and where they learn outside of structured training.

2. Store the information

Whether you have a corporate intranet or a more robust option like a learning management system, add in this informal learning. It could be as simple as a list of outside learning resources. Gather your employees’ favorite blogs, webinars, video, books and websites for learning and share these for everyone to utilize. Also, make sure you either add an admin tool function where employees can directly add new ideas or have a simple support email where employees can email suggestions to be added. That way, this becomes a collaborative company wide effort.

3. Refine the resources

Once you have a fairly robust list, further categorize the resources. For example, someone that is a content writer most likely won’t care about a new programming language. On the flipside, an article about corporate communication is great for the entire company to read. So create categories around key topics or job functions. That way, it’s easy for employees to click on the links that pertain most to their jobs. 

4. Tie it into your formal learning

Employees want to be empowered both on the job and in their training. A great way to get reluctant learners on board is by linking your learning management system or training portal to your informal learning page. For example, maybe an employee adds a great blog article about call center tips to help fellow customer service team members. Well chances are you have a few upcoming training modules related to customer service training. Simply add a line below that blog article link that says something like, “for more great call center tips, look forward to these upcoming training modules” and link directly to where those training sessions can be located. 

5. Learn from your employees

After you have a fairly healthy list of resources, take a look at what has been added and in what categories. For example, are there several legal links with your lawyers on staff accessing these often? Or are there quite a few YouTube videos posted onboarding exercises? Look for patterns of what may be lacking in your formal training. You may need to create additional training modules based on the informal learning feedback you are receiving. 

Informal learning can be a great win for an organization. Not only do you empower your employees to take training into their own hands, but you can learn where you can add more training value within your formal training program. Plus, employees will be more invested in the training you are presenting since you are now offering exactly what they are searching for on their own.

Tools to use in formal learning

Now that you know the process of formal versus informal employee learning, let’s talk about tools you can use for both. For formal training, there are quite a few ways you can make your training more robust and also most interesting for your employees. 

Include classroom instruction 

While many companies have a robust elearning training component, there is still a need for classroom instruction within formal learning. For one, everyone is present so you know everyone is taking the course that has been assigned. Plus, it allows employees to interact with one another so it builds soft skills like communication and team comradery.` And when an employee doesn’t understand a concept, he or she can easily ask questions in real-time. Finally, employees can use other senses and emotions to better understand concepts. 

Use gamification

Another effective formal learning tool is gamification. If you are unfamiliar, gamification applies game designs and elements to entertain and keep the interest of the learner. As a result, even routine training modules can be brought to life. For example, top scorers earn badges or awards. This builds some healthy competition among co-workers and keeps training top of mind. Plus, it’s a chance to give out certificates or call attention to top-performing employees. And recognition is a great employee motivator.

Update with video elements

When you have a training session with heavy text, the learner often zones out. So you want to break up training with interactive elements. Just like employees turn to YouTube to learn new personal skills, use short video clips for on-the-job training. It’s a great way to demonstrate key points. Plus, the employee can easily pause or rewind part of the video to understand the concept in more detail. And it's a fact that people retain more through video than they do through text format. 

Use simulations

The point of formal training is to connect new concepts to the employees taking the training. The issue is sometimes people don’t see the point of taking the training they have been assigned. To counteract this, use simulations. Just like a pilot watches a pretend flight before actually flying, an employee can walk through their job before actually performing it. Simulations are an opportunity to be thrown into a situation and forced to act. And it’s a lot easier to relate to training when you make employees the center of training. 

Play games

Unlike gamification which uses awards or recognition as the training tool, you can also use games as a formal learning tool. Playing games is a great way to exercise the brain and get employees interacting with the training. For example, you could quiz the employees and see if their score can beat that of the system or you could play games among co-workers. Whether you use riddles, puzzles or interactive games, it will make training fun and offer instant engagement. 

Tools to use in informal learning

Just like formal learning, there are tools even for informal learning that can pair well with your training program. Here are some of the tools to implement.

Use infographics 

When an employee takes a training course, they will forget sections of what they learned over time. So a way to counteract this is by using informal learning and a tool like an infographic. Have downloadable takeaways after a course is complete. That way an employee can make quick reference when they need the information in real time. This informal learning on-the-fly further drives key skills to memory.

Offer training support

As part of your formal learning, include training support that is available 24/7. Whether this is a chatbot, email support or an informational call center, this calls attention to informal learning. Say for example, an employee completes a course on customer service and fully understands the lesson. However, once they are back on the job they can’t recall how to react in a given situation. Instead of searching through training sessions or asking a co-worker, they can get the learning they need from training support. 

Create a social network

People use the Internet to search for answers to questions. They likewise use their social networks to learn new skills and get questions answered. So, a great tool for informal learning is building a social network. This allows employees to exchange information to one another and get answers to questions quickly. You can also use this as a way to set up a mentorship program for newer team members and for sharing among different teams.  Not only does this build comradery, but it makes asking for help less formal. 


Although microlearning can be used within a formal learning module, it’s also great for informal learning. Say an employee needs a quick refresher course on a key topic or just wants the high-level details of a training course. Including a section in your learning management system for microlearning sessions is ideal. Employees who need answers immediately and are limited on time, can use these sessions to learn on the go. 

Online seminars

Another idea for informal learning is to have a list of optional online industry webinars. Then either display this information in your learning database or eblast upcoming opportunities to employees. That way, employees can pick and choose the ones that work best for them when they need the additional support.

Formal and informal learning add value

The success to any training program is employee buy-in and needed skills applied to the job. While this sounds easy, sometimes it’s hard to implement. But by creating a formal learning program and recognizing when and how your employees learn outside of this program is key. You can then take this information and create valuable informal training tools to supplement your formal training. Your employees will appreciate the various ways they can access information and you have a better learning retention ratio for your company.

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About the Author
Continu Team responsible for Continu's content.
Continu Team
One Platform for All Learning

Continu is the #1 modern learning platform built to help companies scale and consolidate learning. From training customers to employees, Continu is the only platform you need for all learning.

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