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Eighty percent of learning is informal


Johannesburg, 18 Feb 2013
Read time 4min 20sec

I first heard that 80% of corporate learning is informal in a presentation in late 2001 by the late Peter Henschel, then Executive Director of the Institute for Research on Learning. IRL used an anthropological approach to research that enabled them to see things others were missing. Other studies, as noted below, confirm IRL's basic finding.

A word of caution is in order here. Some studies say 70%, others 80%, and some even 90%. Why? For one thing, informal learning has many definitions. Furthermore, the ratio of informal to formal learning varies with context. Learning to ride a bicycle involves a higher proportion of informal learning than learning to fly a plane. Most of us learned to use chopsticks informally, but learned algebra formally.

* Marcia Conner (2005) writes: "Most learning doesn't occur in formal training programmes. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organisations today." Conner also notes: "In 1996, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally."

* "Many organisations report that 85%-90% of a person's job knowledge is learned on the job, and only 10%-15% is learned in formal training events. (Raybould, 2000)

* In 1997, the Education Development Center, a Newton, Massachusetts-based research organisation, released findings from a two-year study of corporate cultures involving Boeing, Ford Electronics, Siemens, and Motorola. One of the most noteworthy findings of the study is support for estimates from previous studies that "attempted to quantify formal training's contribution to overall job knowledge: 70% of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with." (Dobbs, 2000, pp. 52, 54)

* "Not only do employee learning programmes based on informal methods and self-study increase employee knowledge and productivity far more than more formalised methods, they also cost less, according to preliminary research by CapitalWorks, a human capital management service in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Approximately 75% of the skills employees use on the job were learned informally, the study found, through discussions with co-workers, asynchronous self-study (such as e-mail-based coursework), mentoring by managers and supervisors, and similar methods. Only 25% were gained from formal training methods such as workshops, seminars and synchronous classes." (Lloyd, 2000)

* Approximately 70% of Canadians say their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own, rather than employment-related courses. The National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) at OISE/UT surveyed 1 500 Canadian adults on informal learning. Principal investigator David Livingstone summarised the results as follows: "The major conclusion from this survey is that our organised systems of schooling and continuing education and training are like big ships floating in a sea of informal learning. If these education and training ships do not pay increasing attention to the massive amount of outside informal learning, many of them are likely to sink into Titanic irrelevancy." (Vader, 1998)

* In January 2005, an eLearning Guild survey of its members and found: "Over 70% of respondents found or sought information on their own initiative... These results truly put more shape and depth to the 80/20 rule. Not only does it confirm the significant frequency of informal learning, it demonstrates that informal learning shows up in many ways: e-learning, traditional book study, social learning, and experience."

* Canadian researcher Allen Tough, at a presentation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, in 1999, said: "Another finding was that we were looking at all learning efforts, including 'professionally planned' or 'academic or institutional' or whatever you want to call them; formal. We found a 20/80 split. We found about 20% of all major learning efforts were institutionally organised, or it was like a driving school instructor or piano instructor, something like that. It was one-to-one, but it was still somebody you paid to teach you, so it was a professional formal situation. And the other 80% was informal. We didn't know what to call it. So we called it 'professional plan' and 'amateur plan', amateur being a positive word, not a put-down. That's when I came up with this idea of the iceberg as a metaphor, because so much of it is invisible, because we were surprised to find so much adult learning is sort of under the surface of the ocean, as it were. You just don't see it. You could forget it's there unless you keep reminding yourself that it's there.'

Author - Jay Cross and Internet Time Group

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Above and Beyond Concepts Stephen Langton slangton@abc.co.za
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