The transfer of knowledge to or from an individual, to or from groups, and to or from organizations can be instrumental in enhancing the overall performance of an organization. Organizations can benefit from enhanced employee performance by realizing increased productivity and profitability.
One way that valuable knowledge in the workplace is acquired is through the informal learning experiences of the everyday work life of employees. This type of learning is referred to as being embedded and can be obtained or learned through self-directed learning experiences or passed down from our colleagues. Job-embedded learning refers to learning that occurs while on-the-job. Because learning occurs while on the job, integrating the new knowledge becomes second nature. Furthermore, job-embedded learning maximizes time because learning occurs while on-the-job. Finally, job-embedded learning is beneficial because it promotes immediate application of what is learned and costs less, in most cases, than conducting formal training.
As with just about everything, there are pros and cons to acquiring knowledge and skills informally. Identified in the table below are the pros and cons most evident to learning informally in the workplace:
|It is faster (just-in-time). Informal learning usually happens right when the learner can put the knowledge or skills to immediate use. For example, my assistant came to me and asked if I had the hard copies of the daily reports for a project. He needed to research a date when an accident had occurred on site. We keep copies of the daily reports electronically store on our shared network as well. Rather than thumb through months of reports, I showed my assistant how to perform a search using the keyword “accident” on the network drive. Within seconds the information was found!||Employees may waste time. If employees are given the “freedom” to engage in socialization, surf the internet, or seek the advice of their mentor, they may lose site of their learning objective and waste time.|
|It happens in context. Informal learning usually happens in context (“on-the-job”).For example, our accounting department uses a specific software program. New hires are coached on how to use this program rather than partaking in a formal class. The new hires station their computers next to the senior accountant each time a function of the software is explained. In this manner, the new hires can interact directly with the senior accountant and see exactly how to perform the function. If the have any questions at that time or in the future, the resource (senior accountant) is available.||Knowledge is not shared (who owns the knowledge?). Employees may feel threatened or reluctant to share the knowledge and skills they have obtained through informal learning experiences.|
|It is flexible and customized (self-directed aspect). Informal learning is individualized to meet specific needs and learning styles. For example, I often seek the advice of my mentor, the senior project manager. Recently, I asked my mentor how to go about submitting record documents to a project owner. At the same time, I asked my mentor how he handled communications with the architect for the project. Flexible because two topics were addressed at the same time and customized because I chose what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn.||Knowledge that is shared may be incorrect or missing information. Passing down knowledge can be much like playing a game of “Telephone”. Important aspects could be lost in the translation and therefore reduce or entirely eliminate its effectiveness.|
|It can enhance more formal training. Learners bring a wealth of experience gained informally into a formal training session.||It may require formal training. Although informal learning can enforce more formal training, it may require formal train initiatives to undo the knowledge or skills learned informally. Teaching yourself how to type “hunt and peck” style would be an example.|
In terms of learning in the workplace, the focus in on performance. Informal learning needs to be recognized and fostered by organizations. This may be accomplished through mentoring, coaching, or consulting subject-matter experts. Technology can also be used to facilitate the informal transfer of knowledge by including virtual-learning support groups, instant messaging, expert networks, and mentor and coaching networks. The goal would be to create a marriage in which formal learning events and the serendipitous learning moments are given equal value.
http://jimmywarren.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/watercooler-talk1.jpg, retrieved January 7, 2011
By Shirley J. Caruso, M.A. Human Resource Development