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Grow Employee’s Skills through Informal Learning

The opportunity for an employee to grow their skills and abilities is often seen as a decisive factor in determining if one stays at the job.

While companies are stepping up to meet employee’s demand for learning and development opportunities, this often results in offering traditional learning and development courses (L&D courses) with a heavier focus on formal training situations.

Such classes require employees to take time away from their work, potentially adding more work to their plate.

A LinkedIn survey identified that most employees in Singapore do not have the time to take on such opportunities, with only 17% of the respondents managing to complete the L&D courses allotted to them by their bosses.

On top of that, where courses are organised by external vendors, the knowledge gained may not be applicable due to the unique conditions within the company.

All these signs point to a growing need for a more cost-effective and time-saving means of managing learning in the workplace.

Informal learning works just as effectively

In view of these limitations, companies should consider offering informal learning opportunities to their employees.

As the name suggests, informal learning refers to learning that occurs well away from structured, formal classroom settings. Some examples include coaching and mentoring sessions without the presence of others except the coach or mentor and their trainee.

Unlike formal learning, informal learning sessions tend to be more spontaneous and self-directed. It also includes being put on assignments that will stretch employees’ skill sets, while providing them with accurate and timely feedback.

One example includes allowing an accountant to take on the assignment of talking about strategy in front of the management board with the appropriate mentors on hand to provide guidance.

While the employee may make mistakes along the way, such stretch goals will accelerate the employee’s growth well beyond formal learning environments.

That said, such informal learning initiatives can only flourish when the management team also builds and maintains a conducive culture where employees can fail.

Their failures are cherished and seen as opportunities for growth instead of reasons for a negative appraisal.

L&D is ‘messy business’, not mission impossible

In the research and development field, a focus on learning, especially from failures, rather than performance can lead to informal, accidental or incidental learning. Such knowledge can form the building blocks of serendipitous and ground-breaking innovation.

At 3M, a scientist was trying to create a strong adhesive but ended up with a weak one. While this can be easily dismissed as a failure, it led to the creation of Post-it Notes.

This incidental, informal learning actually provided the springboard for a new invention that has fundamentally affected our daily work lives.

Learning can be a messy business, but it is not mission impossible. Employers will be able to chart a clear path through learning and development as long as they remain open and comfortable with dealing with ambiguity, missteps and mistakes.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "No time for training and development at work? Try learning on the job" by Dr Wang Jiunwen, Head of the Human Resource Management Programme, S R Nathan School of Human Development, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


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