BlogLearning & Development

11 Informal Learning Opportunities to Provide Employees

Terri James
VP of Product

This blog explores the benefits of informal learning opportunities for employees, showing how self-directed and flexible learning methods boost engagement and complement formal training.

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We talk a lot about formal training here at Continu. It's the mainstay of your company's learning and development.

But, according to a common industry maxim, 90% of learning happens outside of formal training. Your learning and development priorities should reflect fact by fostering informal learning at your company.

Of course, most informal learning just happens – it is, by nature, informal and unpredictable. You can, however, put programs and policies in place that foster an environment of curiosity and collaboration.

Here are 11 things you can institute at your organization to promote more informal learning opportunities for your employees:

1. Peer mentoring programs

Learning directly from another coworker has many benefits. It's one-on-one and lets the learner and the teacher devote full attention to each other. It's largely driven by need, so the information being learned is highly practical. The social aspect deepens interpersonal connections at the company. And mentorship programs are easy to implement and maintain.

Peer mentorship doesn't need to be formal. You can get started by just asking for volunteers. The Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR) suggests getting a bit of information from each participant using a questionnaire and assigning mentor partners or letting each person choose from a few options.

Importantly, AIHR notes that a mentorship program involves coworkers at the same level of the organization, with the more experienced of the two acting as an advisor for the newer colleague.

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2. Job shadowing

Sometimes the best way to learn something is the simplest: watch someone else do it. This is the idea behind job shadowing, an effective way for employees to learn what their coworkers do and why.

A coworker shadowing another employee at work.

It's useful for employees considering a shift to a new team, those exploring new career options, or for people who just want to learn more about how the company works. Learning about seemingly unrelated jobs can change how people think about their own.

In general, workplace shadowing experiences are easy, low-cost, and don't require much preparation. If an employee is interested in learning more about another team or process, connect them with someone who'd be happy to explain how they do their job, and encourage them to set up a shadow day.

3. Job rotations

Depending on your organization, you may be able to go beyond job shadowing by having employees take on different jobs for a short period of time. This gives everyone the chance to see exactly what it's like in other parts of the company and provides valuable cross-training.

Job rotations are often practiced in fields that require physical labor to introduce variety and reduce the risk of injury from repetitive physical tasks. The practice can be very beneficial for knowledge workers, too, though. 

It's best to try to reduce the stress of changing jobs if you're going to rotate employees. Rotating during a slow period or season, for example, gives people a chance to learn a bit while they're not under pressure. Providing some basic training before the rotation also helps employees feel more prepared for their first day doing new tasks.

4. Cross-functional projects

Not all informal learning strategies involve time away from an employee's normal responsibilities. In fact, you're probably using this activity already without thinking about it as an opportunity for learning.

Cross-functional team interactions are one of the best ways to broaden your employees' knowledge and they happen all the time. To get the most out of this learning opportunity, though, encourage your employees to ask questions and get a better idea of what other teams at your organization are doing.

This is part of developing a culture of learning at your company. If you haven't made it a habit to encourage curiosity, use your next collaborative work project as an opportunity to practice.

5. Innovation and idea incubators

Some of the best ideas come from unexpected places. Idea incubators help you capture innovative ideas from your employees – even the ones you might not expect to offer input on a particular issue. When employees are given the opportunity to help solve a company-wide problem, many of them will explore new skills and areas of expertise.

There are many ways to foster innovation using this strategy. Taco Bell, for example, uses a formal process that involves teaching participants creative thinking strategies and a judging panel for their ideas. Other companies simply share a problem they're having with the employee base and encourage them to submit ideas for solving it.

You can form teams, encourage people to work individually, have a formal process, offer a reward for the best ideas, or just let employees know that if they see a problem they can recommend it for a more extensive look. The important part is to foster a culture of creativity in which employees are encouraged to stretch themselves, try new things, and explore even crazy ideas.

6. Social learning networks

Modern workplaces are highly connected and foster communication between employees. And while this constant connectivity has both positive and negative effects, it opens up some great opportunities for learning.

A very easy way to take advantage of connectivity for learning is to create a Slack or Teams channel just for learning (#learning and #askacoworker are good choices). Let your employees know that it's a place where they can ask questions about anything and get answers from other coworkers.

You might be surprised how much engagement you get from something as simple as an "ask a coworker" Slack channel. There will be times when it's quiet or the questions don't seem very useful, but providing space for these connections truly fosters creativity in the workplace.

7. Reading groups

Slightly more formal than a social learning space, reading groups let employees voluntarily engage with a topic that might be outside of their comfort zone. It's fine if some folks from your marketing team decide to read a marketing book together – but if someone from the dev team wants to join, that's great. Reading groups can help people get better at their jobs, but they can just as easily serve as someone's first exposure to a different field.

Reading groups are easy to organize and a great way for employees to make new connections. You may be tempted to encourage groups to choose books that are very closely related to their jobs, but it's nice to offer some autonomy. Books about soft skills like communication, time management, or habit-building can be just as good for promoting learning and connection-building.

And don't underestimate the value of book clubs just for fun! I once mentioned that I was a fan of horror novels in a job interview. I got that job, and on my first day, I had already been added to the Slack channel for the horror book club. It was a great way to connect with new coworkers and I knew that my interviewers had really been listening.

8. Lunch and learns

Many employees love sharing their expertise, and this classic social learning strategy gives them the perfect forum. A 15- or 20-minute presentation over lunch that's open to everyone is low-pressure for all involved. And by encouraging people from other teams to attend, you'll foster interpersonal connections in your organization.

A startup company hosting a lunch and learn in the office.

Resist the temptation to make these sessions more formal. You already have a formal training plan, and the point of offering additional informal opportunities is to let people drive their own engagement.

While you'll usually want your presenters talking about something related to work, you can also open up lunch-and-learns to more personal or quirky topics on occasion. You might be surprised at what your employees want to get up and talk about!

9. Guest speakers

A slightly more formal alternative to lunch-and-learns is hosting occasional guest speakers. You can combine this with other events, like all-hands meetings or retreats, or set aside time monthly or every few months for your employees to listen to an external guest.

Not sure who to invite as a guest speaker? Start by thinking about your own connections. Do you know anyone who has an interesting entrepreneurial story? Someone who's done interesting work for a non-profit? Any trainers or other people involved in the learning and development world?

And, of course, you can extend the invitation to your employees to recommend guest speakers, as well.

10. Self-directed learning opportunities

Many of the strategies above fall under the umbrella of self-directed learning. But adopting it as an overall strategy for your learning and development is important, too. Letting employees choose their learning interests, goals, and pursuits helps them feel engaged in the learning process, and engagement is crucial not just for learning, but for workplace performance and retention, too.

This might look like establishing multiple learning paths and letting employees choose which they'd prefer. Or providing a professional development stipend and encouraging people to find courses or conferences they can attend. It could be as simple as encouraging occasional knowledge-sharing sessions.

Spend a bit of time thinking about how your organization can encourage learners to take ownership of their development process. It's worth the time and effort to put control back in your employees' hands (outside of formal, required training).

11. Resource libraries

Most companies generate a lot of knowledge. There are formal trainings, informal learning sessions, extensive process documentation, presentation slide decks, dashboards, and more.

Why not collect these things in a single place? Any employee who's curious will know exactly where to go to find self-directed learning resources. They might read the instructions for an internal system, look at last quarter's sales numbers, learn about executive priorities, or indulge their curiosity in another way.

There's very little overhead to creating resource libraries. It's possible you already store these things in one place. If you do – or if you can – be sure to let your employees know that they're welcome to explore the resources available.

Provide opportunities for informal learning for your employees

Informal learning is one of the most effective methods of on-the-job training. It's highly practical, fosters connection between employees, and lets learners drive their own learning journey. It also covers about 90% of the learning that your employees will undertake.

You can't force informal learning. But you can foster an environment of collaboration, curiosity, and learning by providing the right resources. Whether that's by establishing a mentoring program, setting up some lunch and learns, or making sure everyone knows how to access the library, you'll be on your way to encouraging more learning at your company.

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About the Author
Terri James, VP of Product at Continu
Terri James
VP of Product

Terri is the VP of Product at Continu, a modern Learning Management System built to help companies train employees, customers and partners using one platform. For over a decade, Terri has led Continu as a product and is passionate about helping companies build a culture of learning.

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