How do employees learn in your organization?

By Gale Mote / Guest Editorial

I was almost 7 years old when I learned a valuable lesson about trust from my Dad. It had been raining most of the day. We were walking the lane out to the pasture to check on one of the dairy cattle due to give birth, when my Dad suddenly stopped and picked up a damp stick that was hidden in the grass next to the fence line.

“Here, take this and touch that wire over there,” he said with an interesting grin on his face.

Being a loyal and trusting daughter, I grabbed the branch, touched the wire and felt a jolt of electricity travel through my arm. Immediately dropping the branch, I yelled, “Ouch!” My father was smiling at my innocence. That day, I learned that even when you trust someone unconditionally, you still need to remember to use common sense.

Learning happens at many different times in many different ways. Most job-related learning does not happen in a formal, structured classroom environment. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of on-the-job training is the result of informal learning.

According to 2013 research, “Informal Learning: The Social Evolution” from the American Society for Training and Development, informal learning is defined as, “a learning activity that is not easily recognized as formal training and performance support. It takes place without a conventional instructor and is employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth and timing. It tends to be individualized, limited in scope and utilized in small chunks.”

Think for a moment about all of the opportunities in your business for employees to learn about the organization, its goals and strategy, their customers, the competition, their jobs and the work itself. Now write down all of the ways employees learn that do not include organized classes (instructor led or on-line), workshops and job aids.

Here are some examples: social networking, blogs, wikis, Intranet communities of practice, peer-to-peer coaching, mentoring, Internet searches, knowledge networks, instant messaging, meetings and hallway conversations.

So why is this so critically important? To be able to provide employees with the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in today’s marketplace, where the skill gap is high, budgets are tight and the demands for performance increase exponentially, leadership needs to be keenly aware of the informal learning opportunities available within the organization. As more and more baby boomers retire, it is important to capture the knowledge and experience that abounds before it disappears.

Some ways management can support an informal learning process include setting up help desks for informal inquiries, identifying subject matter experts, providing places and tools for workers to congregate and learn, creating useful, peer rated FAQ’s and knowledge bases and encouraging cross-functional and cross shift gatherings for people to talk about the work they share.

It is important to help provide a way for employees to capture what they have learned using all types of technology (including mobile devices) and then finding a place to share those lessons with others. Some great questions for employees to discuss include: What have you learned? Who helped you? How will you apply it? What mistakes did we make? What lessons did we learn? What did we discover today?

At the cafeteria of Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution, management provides pads of paper and pencils on all the tables to help employees capture what they learn during casual conversations and impromptu knowledge-sharing sessions. Posting lessons immediately to a tablet or smart phone and then uploading to a shared database is powerful.

To reap the benefits of informal learning, clear expectations need to be established that employees are responsible for demonstrating the initiative to learn, to explore and to search for answers and share lessons learned. Informal learning is driven by the employee, not the manager.

Some employees have little confidence in their learning abilities although all people are natural learners. It is helpful to assist employees in understanding how they learn best, so they will seek out informal learning opportunities that align best with their learning styles.

Learning styles include visual, auditory-musical, verbal, physical or kinesthetic, logical, social and solitary. For me, I am a visual, social and verbal learner. I would much rather sit, face-to-face with a group of colleagues and tell stories than sit in front of my computer searching Internet files. For a free assessment to discover your own learning style, go to

Charlie Brown once said, “The more I learn, the more I learn how much I have to learn.” There is real joy in learning and more satisfaction when you share what you have learned with others. Shared knowledge is power. Take advantage of the many informal learning opportunities happening every day inside your organization. Remember, we often learn more in the break room than the classroom.




Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at