Earlier research into informal learning (1980s) focused on how executives learn. That research showed that executives learn 70% from their peers, 20% from their community, and 10% from other sources.
In contrast we investigated how everyone in the workplace learn informally, from entry-level all the way up to supervisory engineers. We were also interested in what activities the informal learning occurred and what actual competencies were learned. The research was conducted inside several small and mid-sized companies in addition to these well-known organizations:
- Ford Electronics
- Eli Lilly
We used both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, analyzing over 1000 statistically significant events. Our research team consisted of anthropologists, industrial psychologists, economists, journalists, and learning experts who conducted on-site research at these firms, including working alongside workers, semi-structured group and individual interviews, focus groups, and surveys.
Our research documents that 70-90% of learning in the workplace happens via informal learning outside of formal training events. This learning happens in 13 ordinary workplace activities and builds 31 key competencies.
When this study came out in 1998 and 2000, it was in high demand by executives and learning experts across the world. Since then, only a handful of practitioners have operationalized the 13 activities 31 competencies and the contextual factors that determine the quality of informal learning.
Surprisingly given these results, over $140 Billion is still being spent in the U.S. yearly on formal training. While few companies have made informal learning a key part of their central mission many are becoming increasingly interested in mobilizing this important channel of learning in an environment where speed, innovation, and quality are essential to compete.