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Informal vs. Formal Learning: What's the Difference?

Feb 19th, 2021

Enterprises often wonder whether formal or informal learning, or some blend of the two, is right for their team. Before making this decision, it is important to understand the difference between the two and how they can each benefit an organization.

Formal vs. Informal Learning

Formal learning is structured, typically led by instructional designers & trainers in a classroom setting. It is what most people traditionally think of when they think of training. Informal learning, on the other hand, has no formal structure or curriculum, offers more flexibility for learners and can often be accessed on-the-go via mobile devices.

However, it’s important to understand that there are many different opinions out there on formal vs. informal learning, and there’s certainly more than one approach for each.

At Brainshark, we believe the training experience you choose should depend heavily on your organization’s needs, objectives and challenges. In his book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, Jay Cross likens the difference between formal and informal training to riding on a bus vs. riding a bike:

  • With the formal learning/bus analogy, “The driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride.”
  • As for the informal learning/bike comparison, “The rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route.”

To understand better, let’s take a closer look at how many view these two different approaches for enterprise training.

What Is Formal Learning?

Formal learning programs typically include specific courses and curricula mapped in a very structured way that must be delivered and consumed on a specific timetable. As a result, content is generally created and delivered by a specified group of instructional designers and trainers.

The content development process usually lasts longer with formal learning programs, as those involved are often tasked with creating long thorough presentations and publishing via a potentially complex platform.

Content and learning materials can be delivered via a traditional classroom training model, complete with lectures, required reading and scheduled testing. With so many organizations shifting to a full-time remote workforce, live webinars and screen-sharing technology can be used so remote learners can complete the required sessions.

Formal learning is a popular choice for organizations who wish to have more control over the learning experience of their employees.

Related: Sales Enablement & Training: Key trends for 2021

What Is Informal Learning?

Informal learning, on the other hand, provides a lot more flexibility in the way content is both created and consumed. Informal learning sessions are most often unplanned; they happen organically every day by design or by chance. When faced with a problem, employees will seek out answers wherever they can. Most often by use of search engines or by speaking to their peers. Organizations can continue to foster this behavior by providing ways for the entire organization to quickly create and deliver content in a way that makes sense for their employees.

The idea here is that rather than limiting the responsibilities of content development to a few instructional designers, subject matter experts from across the organization can now become part of the process. Since anyone can create learning resources quickly and easily, more content can be developed by those who best understand the needs of the learners.

While both formal and informal learning programs are capable of delivering content quickly on-demand, nature informal learning is by nature generally more convenient for the audience. Think of it is as ready-when you-are training, opposed to a formal onboarding program that must be completed in a timely fashion. Informal learning allows companies to save time on tedious live training sessions which tend to cut into employee productivity. It’s also easier to segment the audiences for on-demand content, meaning learners can choose the information they care most about and access it as needed, rather than sitting through mass live training sessions where the topics covered may not always be relevant.

Informal learning content can easily be shared and distributed via an internal knowledge base or through messaging apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams. In other words, a well-developed informal learning program provides information to learners anytime, anywhere.

Formal vs. Informal Learning: How to Decide

Each organization’s challenges are unique and therefore their training programs should be too. What it really comes down to is your company’s specific needs and how a formal and/or informal learning program can best help. For example:

  1. Content Development – How complicated is it to create and deliver new content? Is it difficult to leverage the expertise of others in the company? Do you have trouble getting timely messages out quickly? How often does certain content need to be updated?
  2. Audience – Are live formal training sessions wasting too much time? Are the sessions having the desired effect? Do learners have trouble finding follow-up information when they need it?
  3. Tracking and Reporting – How many people need to generate reports? Do you need more or less control over required courses? What exactly do you need to track?

Now that you know the difference between formal and informal learning, it is time to get started building a catered program for your organization. Just remember, when developing your company’s training strategy, iron out your needs and objectives first, then choose the program that makes most sense for your unique challenges. Many often find a blended learning approach of both formal and informal training is the right way to go.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2012 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.