Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Please Stop the Formal Vs Informal Learning Debate

Over the last few years, I have seen a great number of articles, books, and blog around the concept of Informal Learning.  For many professionals, the concept of informal learning is new, and the idea of incorporating it into an organizational learning strategy is daunting.  After all, many learning departments use the we-do-what-we-do-because-it’s-what-we’ve-always-done approach to strategy.
I think for many individuals and organizations, informal learning falls into the bucket of “We don’t know what we don’t know”.  That’s why much of what I’ve read and heard regarding informal learning can be frustrating, because it presents informal learning in a way that conveys it as a replacement to formal learning. 
That’s just not true.  I do believe that the majority of our future efforts will increasingly go towards the informal side.  However, that does not eliminate the need for formal learning efforts; it simply reduces our dependancy on it.  More concerning, is when I read that that approach is ‘better’ than the other.  Deciding which type of learning is better than the other is pointless.  It’s like a mechanic going to the toolbox for the best tool without knowing what the job at hand is first.
Last month I spent some time installing floor boards in my attic. I am not a handyman by any means, so my supply of tools is limited.  I was using a large hand saw for all of my wood cutting.  While at Home Depot buying more boards, one of the employees pointed out a circular saw that would be much more appropriate for the job I was doing, and boy was he right.  I will never use a hand saw for that task again, because the circular saw is much more effective. The hand saw was working for me because it was all I had available to me.  Once I was introduced to a new tool that was more effective for the task at hand, my dependence on the hand saw dropped substantially.
The hand saw still has value, and will likely be the tool best suited for attacking that dead tree in my backyard this spring.
The same concept is true with Formal and Informal Learning.  One is not ‘better’ than the other.  It’s a matter of which is a better fit for the task at hand.  For many learning professionals, their tool box is filled with mostly formal tools.  As research and best practices into informal learning approaches continue to be shared, new tools will become available that enable us to be much more effective, and they will naturally reduce our reliance on the formal tools.
In short, don’t worry about which type of learning is better. Understand the tools, and what they are best suited for, than match the tools to the task at hand.
That’s one of the reasons I love the recent article by Allison Rossett and Frank Nguyen for T&D Magazine entitled “The Yin and Yang of Formal + Informal Learning”.  The article doesn’t debate which is better; it presents scenarios and explores whether formal, informal, or some sort of blended approach might be best.  The article shows that deciding on the approach requires matching the tools to the situation. 
As an added bonus, the article also includes a link to an online tool that can help individuals and organizations decide what type of approach might be best for a given situation.  This simple tool asks 15 basic questions about the situation, and then provides feedback and suggestions on how you might want to tailor your learning strategy.
I highly recommend the article be read by all learning professionals.
Link to the YinYang Online Tool:


  1. Thank you, Dave! Matters to me that YOU found value in our piece and tool.

  2. Great stuff! Made me think of the saying "If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then everything will look like a nail." Such is the case with learning...different initiatives and situations warrant different methods. Thanks for posting!

  3. Great post! I've been thinking along simlar lines. Not sure if you'll enjoy it or not, but here's a link to a post I wrote in early November:

  4. Great Post Dave. Keeps the wheels turning well after reading it - I like that in a writer. Can't say I read Allison's article yet, but I sure will! And thanks for bringing it to my attention. I found your "saw" story interesting. Interesting in that informal, context and social played a huge role in your being able to do your job (floor boards) a better way. You went to where the experts are, and had an informal chat(social); no scheduled meeting, no course on saw selection. You were a practitioner in carpentry and through social and informal means grew in your knowledge to improve your application. This is where informal and social learning are most needed (with practitioners and experts)where as novices definitely require some more formal intervention. Maybe interesting to is that the "decision" to learn was not directed - it was happenstance in that you learned by putting yourself in the right place ...the choice was yours...nobody but you decided. And that to me is what its all about when we talk about org learning - T&D doesn't own it, its happening already, lets just help it along.

  5. Haha. It's funny to watch people who get paid to inflict formal training on others so desperately continue to defend it.

  6. I think informal learning is better...for people who don't like formal learning;) I totaly agree with you. For me these are just two "tools" that are complementary.

  7. Hi Dave,
    Just wanted to let you know that I fully agree with you. I wrote a piece in my blog a while ago on the same topic 'Is the future of learning either/or?' you find it here

    Best Regards,