Is informal learning this year’s L&D Fortnite?

According to the EU, informal learning is becoming Formal:

Formal learning strategies, like classroom-based training, provide structured content, but they don’t allow learners the freedom to make organic discoveries. If you want to bring deep learning opportunities to your workforce you’re going to have to look beyond the confines of the conference room and make room for informal (link is external) learning.

Something about this article triggered a memory: Josh Bersin woz ‘ere a decade ago. In 2009 Bersin & Associates published a piece called Informal Learning becomes Formal. In it, he wrote that he was

…now 100% convinced that “informal learning” has become “formal.”  That is, if you want to build a high-impact, cost-effective, modern training organization you must “formally adopt” informal learning.

He continued:

And best of all, an informal learning strategy saves money. By empowering people to publish their expertise and learn from each other, you can cut spending on content development, external content, and formal training – focusing  your energies on the “upper right” training programs in your organization. [his italics]

I’ve nothing against crazes, like Fortnite; this year’s best gamemoral panic: yawn.

Take Watchmen. I’ve been an Alan Moore fan since his work on 2000AD (8p Earth Money), and a Watchmen fan since it was first published as a serialized graphic novel back in the mid-Eighties. I think it’s fantastic that thewatchmen recent movie has brought Alan Moore’s magnum opus to a whole new audience (if not quite the quality of movie itself).

I’m sure I’ll be equally pleased when the movie version of The Ballad of Halo Jones, D.R. & Quinch are adapted for the big screen, and there’s even more appreciation of the quality of Mr. Moore’s work. Oh… you haven’t heard of those then?

Here’s first the thing about crazes – the objects at their center have usually been around for a very long time before they enter the general public consciousness. The Watchmen was first published in 1986. It is a troublesome work in many ways – it inverts the role of mythic archetypes (superheroes with all-to-human flaws), and it espouses a certain non-conformist approach that until recently had a value perceived to be inferior to traditional literary approaches – a “comics for kids.”

Yet I would assert that it’s very awkwardness has led to its longevity (if not it’s appreciation in the mainstream culture). When it was published, it was pretty much ignored – and it would probably still be regarded as a piece of interesting cult fiction if Alan Moore hadn’t gone on to write Batman: The Killing Joke, the inspiration for The Dark Knight film.

Had The Watchmen less intrinsic value before it became a revenue-generating stream for a conglomeration of media production and distribution outlets like 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.?


Here’s the second thing about crazes: they usually occur in ambiguous socio-cultural situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, it can be said that individuals will deem the behavior of others as better informed. Crazes can lead to conformity of large groups of individuals in either correct or mistaken choices, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior. Although informational social influence at least in part reflects a rational motive to take into account the information of others, analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may reflect very little knowledge.

Here are some stats based on data from research taken from 800+ HR and L&D managers surveyed in 2009 by Bersin & Associates:

  • 78% of corporate managers believe that “rapid rate of information change” is one of their top learning challenges.
  • 80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts, and managers (estimated data collected from over 1,100 L&D managers late in 2008).
  • Over 30% of all corporate training programs (ie. classroom or other formal programs) are not delivering any measurable value (data provided through the same survey).
  • Nearly all Millenial employees (under the age of 25) expect to find an on-demand learning portal (similar to Google and YouTube) within their employer’s environment.

Now lets look at some learning strategies and outcomes closely associated with very specific on-the-job learning and professional development needs of employees and line managers in a bank.

  • The sharing and exchange of knowledge, experiences, and good practices leading sometimes to the development of refined knowledge and approaches
  • Analyzing and developing solutions or major modifications to ideas and practices to increase value for the Bank and for clients
  • Integrating efforts across disciplines and developing joint ideas and products
  • Evaluating and reflecting on acquired knowledge, developing alternatives to existing knowledge, and generating new knowledge
  • Developing common frameworks, language or knowledge sets for mutual trust and joint efforts in development
  • Fulfilling a social need to be generative or for self-actualization
  • Increasing commitment, passion and honesty in participating in world development

These outcomes in the latter set of bullets align pretty well with the requirements of the former set, don’t you agree?

I think that they do.

Would you be surprised to know that the second set of points come from a paper called An Evaluation of Non-Formal Learning in Professional Technical Networks, 2000-2001 by Sukai Prom-Jackson et al, published seven years ago in 2002?

Here’s the last thing about crazes. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Now, informal learning seems to have emerged as the shiny new toy. It fits so well with social networking, Web 2.0, and asynchronous media delivery platforms. It’s primary value seems to be as a “money-saving strategy” (i.e. cheap), rather than for its effectiveness as a learning modality – and undertaken correctly it is a very effective approach to workplace learning.

But it’s is not this year’s novelty. Just like The Watchmen, it has been around for much longer than you may suspect. But you would not know it’s there if you googled Informal Learning; the domain characterized as “informal learning” by Bersin & Associates (and other organizations) is more correctly called Non-Formal Learning. What’s more, there is a solid body of research on the topic going back over forty years. In this context, reviewing the current crop of articles on informal learning is akin to watching people actually trying to reinvent the wheel.

Informal – non-formal – learning is a troublesome concept in many ways: it inverts the role of mythic archetypes (learners transferring knowledge and expertise outside of the context of a formal environment and without instructors), and it espouses a certain non-conformist approach that until recently had a valueperceived to be inferior to traditional types of training.

Yet I would assert that it’s very awkwardness has contributed to its longevity (if not it’s appreciation in the mainstream training and development culture).




Bersin, J. (2009) Informal Learning becomes Formal. [Internet] Available from: Accessed 15 March 2009

Johnson, S. (2017) 5 Reasons Why You Need Informal Learning. Internet. Available from: <>

Pope, A. (1709) An Essay on Criticism.

Prom-Jackson, S., Bina Palmisano, M., Kategile Jackson, W., Novojilov, R., &  Tena, M. (2002) An Evaluation of Non-Formal Learning in Professional Technical Networks, 2000-2001. WBI Evaluation Studies No. EG03-61, The World Bank Institute, Washington, DC.