Difference between Formal and Informal Learning
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formal learning informal learning

The Difference between Formal and Informal Learning

When it comes to corporate training, quite often organisations are baffled whether they should lean towards a formal or an informal training program. While there are multiple opinions on both the forms of learning, there is certainly more than one approach for each one of them. The key, however, lies in the fact that the training experience you select largely relies on your organisation’s requirement, challenges, and objectives or goals. In fact, Jay Cross brings out this aspect very beautifully in his book titled: Informal Learning – Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, by stating that the difference between these two modes of learning can be compared to riding on a bus versus riding a bike.  For instance, if you decide to ride the formal learning bus, it is the driver who decides where to head, and the passengers merely ride along. On the other hand, if you decide to ride the informal learning bike, you can select your destination, the speed at which to ride, as well as the route that you would prefer to take.

To understand these two different modes of learning, let’s take a closer look at both these approaches from a corporate training standpoint.

Understanding the Concept of Formal Learning

Formal learning programs are programs which are typically synonymous with a Learning Management System (LMS) and have its curriculum and courses mapped in a structured manner. Since it is a structured form of learning, the content for this type of learning is usually designed and created by a group of qualified instructional designers and trainers.

The content development process for formal learning programs usually takes longer, since the instructional designers, graphic designer, and the programmers who are involved in creating the courseware are given to create and design long, through storyboards or presentations, which are then developed by the graphic designers, and published after incorporating the functionalities via a complex LMS tool set by programmers.

The content and the learning materials can be deployed either online or delivered via a traditional classroom training session, with a facilitator driving the course. It can also be delivered via live webinars or using the screen sharing technology so that even remote learners can attend the sessions and gain knowledge.

Formal learning is a relatively preferred mode of training for organisations who wish to have more control over the training experience of their employees. There are a lot of different varieties of LMS options that you can choose from. Each of them offers different levels of price, functionality, support, and flexibility.

Understanding the Concept of Informal Learning

Informal learning programs, on the other hand, are training programs that offer a lot more flexibility in the way content is created and used by learners. By removing the need of a formal full-scale LMS, organisations are able to create and deploy content faster to their target audience which makes sense sometimes depending on how urgent the training requirement is.

In the case of informal learning, instead of limiting the scope of content development to a couple of instructional designers, it prefers to use subject matter experts as well from across the organisation to drive the content creation process faster. The involvement of a subject matter expert facilitates faster content creation because relatively more volume of content can be created by experts who understand the needs of the target audience better than instructional designers.

While both these forms of learning programs can deliver content promptly on demand, however, the informal mode of learning is usually considered to be more convenient for the target audience, especially when it is coupled with mobile-friendly courses and presentations. Informal learning enables organisations to save time on tedious live training sessions which tend to take time away from an employee’s productive hours. Informal training programs also facilitate the easier division of the target audience for on-demand content by allowing the learners to choose the information they wish to learn, instead of making them sit through the entire duration of the live training session where not all the topics delivered may be relevant for everyone alike.

It is also easier to share and distribute the content for informal learning using various social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It is also more adaptable to mobile devices which facilitates on the go viewing and learning. In other words, a well designed informal training program provides information to its target audience anywhere and anytime.

A lot of organisations reuse the bulky power point presentations and convert them into voice-enriched on demand videos for its target audience. These videos can be easily deployed via an online web portal where anyone can access them. Trainers may also track and report the success of the learning material by establishing learning criteria and observing and making a note of who all viewed the content and so on.

The Deciding Factor

As stated earlier, it finally depends on your company’s requirement and challenges whether a formal or informal learning program is the best bet. For instance, you may take your call based on the following aspects:

  1. Content Development–Is it difficult to utilise the expertise of others in the company? How complicated is it to develop and deploy new content?  Do you have issues in getting timely messages out quickly? How often do you need to update the content?
  2. Audience– Are live training sessions taking too much time from the productivity of your employees? Do the live training sessions have the desired effect? Do learners face issues to locate the follow-up information when they need it?
  3. Tracking and Reporting– How many people need to generate X number of reports? Do you wish to have more or less control over the required courses? What exactly are you planning to track with the help of this training program?

The answers to the above questions should hopefully help you in taking your pick between formal and informal learning. The key thing to remember while developing your company’s training strategy is to list down your needs and objectives first, and then select the program that makes the most sense to you. You may even find that at times a blended learning approach comprising of both formal and informal training is the best way to go about.


Byron Conway

Content Coordinator at EmployeeConnect