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Informal vs. Formal Learning Opportunities in HR Practices


The process of learning has always been the foundation of any human activity. Before being able to perform any sort of conscious effort, a child needs to learn to walk and talk. Parents are our first teachers, though as life goes on, they are replaced by others – school teachers, driving instructors, trainers and mentors, workplace coaches, and many others. Our history is a history of continuous learning and work.

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In the 21st century, learning is more important than ever. Science and technology are moving at a rapid pace. Cutting-edge practices and technologies become obsolete in a matter of years, as more efficient products and practices take their place. In the past, an apprentice had to learn his craft from a master, who in turn learned from his master, and so on. Every chain link added a little bit of innovation to previous practices, and through these little steps, the industry moved forward.

In the 21st century, these processes are greatly sped up due to the ease of information exchange. Numerous chains form the web through which innovative ideas can fluctuate and motivate further progress. These tendencies present a new set of challenges for companies and HRD managers.

In an atmosphere of continuous progress, the employees are forced to learn, relearn, and sift through information in order to be able to stay on top and provide quality services using the most advanced technologies (“Why accelerating workplace learning,” n.d.). It is a challenge humanity experiences for the first time, as before what one learned in school was often enough to last a lifetime. Many modern companies, big or small, develop extensive training courses for their employees in order to ensure that their skill sets always remains up to the task. The HRD manager is seen as the facilitator of learning for the employees, whose job is to ensure harmonious improvement in abilities and skills, as well as personal growth.

As it stands, the majority of companies prefer traditional learning methods when empowering their employees to acquire new skills and improve their existing ones. According to Deloitte’s latest research regarding learning practices in business environments, out of 1200 global organizations that participated in the survey, 74% rely on traditional practices such as classes, dedicated training sessions and seminars (“Why accelerating workplace learning,” n.d.). These methods are very similar to those that are already ingrained into our lives and avidly practiced in schools, trade schools, colleges, and universities.

At the same time, innovations in education and advances in learning theories have brought up other perspectives on learning that could be integrated and used by the HRD to increase performance and facilitate personal growth. The concepts of life-long learning and informal learning are receiving attention from scientists, researchers, and leading HRD specialists such as Watkins, Marsick, Johnson, Deloitte, and many others (Colley, Hodkinson, & Malcolm, 2003).

These concepts focus on less formal and organized education and learning in favor of conscious and unconscious efforts to improve, as well as greater amounts of personal freedom to choose. However, due to a lack of coherent structure that could be found informal learning, such a form of education represents a challenge for the HRD practitioners.

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The purpose of this paper is to analyze both formal and informal learning models, understand their strengths and weaknesses in regards to particular businesses, and to answer the question of whether it is more important for HRD practitioners to facilitate informal learning than it is to provide formal training opportunities.

What is Formal Learning?

In order to answer the question of whether formal or informal learning should take priority in HRD practices, it is required to understand what formal and informal learning is. For the majority of workers and employees, learning at the workplace is associated with formal education (Colley et al., 2003).

Formal learning is typically associated with professional courses, which suggest the presence of a classroom where experienced trainers, mentors, and instructors provide formal knowledge to groups of learners, following a particular program or a curriculum. The presence of structure is what makes this type of education formal, as it goes through a list of predetermined skills and parameters, which it intends to teach.

This is the type of learning that employees are most familiar with. It is reminiscent of school education and various other forms of higher learning, whether in colleges, universities, or similar facilities. Many companies and organizations invest in formal training of their employees, believing that skill improvement comes from this type of education alone. Indeed, formal learning is the most visible and the most tangible. Skills and knowledge taught through formal means can be tested and measured through conventional means.

Examples of formal learning are many. In schools and universities, these are a series of lessons, lectures, practical assignments, workshops, tutorials, and professional seminars. A corporate training workshop may also include these elements, as well as group and individual industry-specific activities.

All of these examples have one similarity to each other. In all of them, the learners are not the ones to determine the knowledge and skills they require learning, as the curriculum is written by the company or corporation that is conducting the training session. It is why formal learning is popular in business; it provides the company with the possibility to grow specific skills in an employee. Preparation courses allow companies to forge industry-specific employees out of people with very little or no theoretical or practical experience in the field.

Formal learning processes are very efficient in providing basic skills and theoretical knowledge required for minimum acceptable performance in any area. It is the reason why many areas of working practice require formal degrees and diplomas as proof of having the knowledge required in their field of expertise.

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To summarize, formal learning systems are typically characterized by having these features (Shepherd, 2011):

  • Learning objectives. These objectives are meant to describe the changes in skill set, knowledge, or attitude that are expected at the end of the mentioned course. Even learner-centered formal courses tend to have certain learning objectives, as the system cannot function without any objectives at all.
  • An established learning plan, which describes the order and substance of learning topics and activities performed to achieve learning objectives.
  • Content. The content is usually assembled by a body of experts and is related to the area of expertise.
  • A designated teacher to act as an assessor and an authority on the matters not covered by the curriculum.
  • Assessment. Typically a test or a practical task devised to grade and assess the level of knowledge and skill of the learner.

What is Informal Learning?

Unlike formal learning, which is fairly easy to measure and describe, informal learning is an elusive concept that many researchers and learning theorists are having trouble identifying. This is not due to a lack of evidence, but rather due to an overabundance of it, which makes the matter problematic in terms of gradation and classification. In many cases, informal learning is hidden from both the manager and the worker, as the process happens without either realizing it. The main difference between formal and informal learning is that it happens spontaneously, often without a particular purpose behind it. Formal learning, on the other hand, is proactive – it is initiated by the learner with the purpose of acquiring particular skills or knowledge (Colley et al., 2003).

A good example of informal learning comes from sharing experiences at the dinner table, over a cup of coffee. Exchanging work-related stories allows the workers to learn from each other’s experiences, without any of the parties requiring it or asking for it. Another example comes from facing challenging and unorthodox tasks, which require a different and inventive approach. Other examples of formal learning include group problem solving, hypothesis testing, mentoring, coaching, and others.

It often involves seeking out individuals with higher levels of skill and knowledge in order to learn from them, but doing so without planning ahead for it. According to Jacobs and Park (2011), “most of this learning is unplanned and somewhat serendipitous in nature because it occurs as needed” (p.141).

A concept closely related to informal learning is the concept of “tacit knowledge.” This phenomenon describes knowledge that every person has and utilizes in day-to-day activities without making a conscious effort to do so. It is often colloquially referred to as “experience” or “skill.” The name, however, implies that while a user may be able to utilize that knowledge effectively, he or she may not be able to relate this knowledge to another person via verbal means.

The amount of tacit knowledge is what differentiates an experienced employee from a graduate that had just finished courses. Tacit knowledge is an accumulation of various notions, small changes, and alterations to the standard working process that a person developed on their own through practice and subconscious effort. It is not something that can be taught via formal learning and is obtained over time, as an employee deals with various obstacles during the work shift, which forces him or her to improvise.

There have been several attempts made by researchers to structure numerous examples of informal learning into categories based on the underlying mechanisms behind them. Eraut (2004) classifies informal learning into three subgroups, which are:

  • Implicit learning
  • Reactive learning
  • Deliberative learning

Implicit learning is largely subconscious learning, which happens without the person knowing it or putting a conscious effort into learning. It happens during the repetition of simple tasks when the brain makes subconscious adjustments to each repetition with a purpose of improvement. Reactive learning, as the name suggests, is explicit and conscious, but largely spontaneous. Deliberative learning stands closer to formal learning as it is explicit and often planned, thus not spontaneous or subconscious as the other two types of informal learning. However, this type of learning lacks the structure, outside influence, and formal intervention to be considered a type of formal learning.

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The Difference between Informal and Non-Formal Learning

There is a degree of confusion between informal and non-formal learning, which is caused by many similarities between the two, as well as by a lack of mutually-exclusive terminology. Non-formal learning is somewhere between formal and informal learning, as it often takes forms similar to formal education, but without a clearly-defined curriculum, teacher, and externally-defined objectives. Non-formal learning is typically centered on the learner and does not implement any formal accreditation tools, as the measure of success or failure is determined by the needs and expectations of the participant.

While lacking certain core qualities of formal learning, non-formal learning is not as spontaneous and natural as informal learning, which typically occurs while taking part in activities not necessarily aimed at expanding one’s area of knowledge and skill. The concept of non-formal learning is close to informal deliberative learning described by Eraut (2004). Examples of non-formal learning in business and education include adult education courses, professional conferences, and discussion boards, coaching and sports exercises, etc.

Non-formal learning has the following characteristics:

  • It is relevant to the needs of learners, thus making it a very useful model for adult learners, such as workers and employees.
  • It concerns a very specific category and cannot be extrapolated to every individual group of people.
  • It has a clearly-defined purpose, a trait it shares with formal learning.
  • It is flexible in terms of organization and educational methods, making it close to informal learning.

Non-formal training is a useful tool for HRD managers, as it allows for providing in-service and on-the-job training to personnel with the ultimate goal of improving their skill and performance, without disturbing the standard working schedule.

Formal and Informal Learning through the Prism of Workplace Learning Theories

There are many theories aimed to describe workplace behavior in relation to formal and informal learning. As it would be impossible to cover all of them in a single paper, only two theories will be addressed in the following chapter. These theories are behavioral learning theory and cognitive learning theory. y provide interesting viewpoints and put an emphasis on formal and informal learning, which has far-reaching implications for the HRD practices.

Behavioral learning theory was developed in the early 20th century, by a body of American psychologists who sought to study human learning behaviors using empirical means, with an aim to effectively bring psychology out of the obscurity, and into the realm of eligible and respectable disciplines and academic sciences. The theory is based on observing the visible behavior of humans and other beings to certain stimuli.

This theory puts an emphasis on the environment, as it is the outside sources that serve as stimuli for human behavior. This theory describes the mental processes of a human being in scientific and empirical terms, with physical evidence that could be held up to scrutiny. It was used to develop scientific explanations of the relationships between various environmental stimuli and mental responses. This theory was heavily influenced by John B. Watson, who is considered to be the “Father of Behaviorism.”

However, his works were built up upon the findings of Ivan Pavlov – a Russian physiologist who studied responses to visual and audio stimuli on dogs. The third important developer of behavioral learning theory was B.F. Skinner, whose ideas shaped contemporary educational and training practices (“Employee Development,” 2012).

Many modern ideas and practices regarding workplace education find roots in behaviorist theories. Namely, the predisposition towards formal learning as primary means assuring employee effectiveness is justified by the ability of formal training to provide a distinctive set of stimuli that would solicit the development of traits and reactions in an employee which are necessary for the job. Some researchers state that behavioral learning theory “… requires that the job be specifiable as a series of behaviors that can be minutely codified and workers trained to perform correctly.

The implication is that the required learning can be acquired in training rooms in advance of joining the workplace. Trainers merely need to set up the appropriate stimuli and reinforcement schedules for prospective workers to learn the specified behaviors” (Malloch, Cairns, Evans, & O’Connor, 2010, p. 18).

Skinner’s work, on the other hand, is the cornerstone of the modern system of positive and negative reinforcement as a means to control employee behavior and achieve the necessary results. This translates well into a system of bonuses and deductions, which are used by many companies, to various degrees. Skinner emphasizes positive reinforcement over a negative one, stating that negative reinforcement tends to reduce employee morale and not encourage them to go beyond the bare minimum that is required for the completion of a particular task (“Employee Development,” 2012).

Nevertheless, the behaviorist learning theory is not without flaws. Its emphasis on formal learning and set criteria of stimuli and responses in order to determine a worker’s efficiency is considered to be deficient in describing human learning behaviors, and it is suggested that the implementation of behavioral theory to enhance human resource development leads to underwhelming results. Watson’s and Skinner’s explanations of training and learning processes as assemblies of appropriate stimuli work with very few and very simple professions, which could be described through a mechanistic list of observable behaviors.

Such professions include laborers in a pre-robotized factory line and unskilled construction labor, as well as other manual professions that require automatic responses and repetitions of a single task. Professions that require less physical responses to external stimuli and more thoughtful reflections and more brainpower (high-skilled labor and managerial positions in particular) cannot be described through the prism of the behavioral theory, like decision-making, reflection, and critical thinking do not have many observable traits to identify (“Employee Development,” 2012).

This is where the cognitivist learning theory comes in. This theory appeared from the opposition to the behaviorist learning theory, stemming from the critique of its many flaws. One of the major complaints towards behaviorism is that it focuses solely on the outside, rather than on the inside. Cognitivist learning theory, on the other hand, studies the internal workings of the mind in order to describe the process of human learning, putting an emphasis on numerous related mental processes, such as perception, language, memory, concept formation, reasoning, problem-solving skills, and symbolization (“Employee Development,” 2012).

Cognitivist theories are of European origin, and the early versions of it bare many similarities with ‘Gestalt’ theorists of the 20th century, such as Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka, Lewin, and Vygotsky. These researchers have found new insights into the learning processes of a human mind. Wertheimer adopts a holistic approach to the perception and analysis of information by the human mind, stating that, contrary to behaviorist theories, a human being perceives events as a whole, rather than a series of pictures.

This is one of the major differences between behaviorist and cognitivist theories, as the former suggests compartmentalizing complex issues into simple ones, whereas the latter states that important processes and information are lost during such compartmentalization, and that the matter of human learning should be perceived as a whole rather than the sum of its parts (“Employee Development,” 2012).

Another major difference between behaviorist and cognitivist approaches can be found in the explanation of learning processes. While behaviorist theories suggest that the primary mechanism of problem-solving for beings is through trial and error, as is supported by many experiments involving animals, cognitivist theories have a different view of the situation. Koffka’s works on insightful learning suggest that in many cases, humans solve complicated tasks not through trial and error, but through a moment of sudden insight.

This theory has major implications for the HRD and teaching in general, as insightful learning is a necessary component in any profession that has to do with quick and accurate decision-making. These professions include high management, engineering, accounting, programming, and others (“Employee Development,” 2012).

The third point of contention between behaviorist and cognitivist theories lies in finding motivations for learning. While behaviorist theories look for outward stimuli in order to justify a proper response from an individual, such as bonuses, promotions, premiums, and other motivators, cognitivist theories acknowledge internal desires as being core motivators and activators in human learning. The work of Lewin, in particular, explores the concept of life-space.

Life-space is a collective term that contains the individual, the positive and negative goals in their life, the barriers, and the paths an individual takes in order to reach them. His works connect motivations, personality, and social psychology to cognitivist learning theories, implying that self-actualization, self-perception, the desire to improve and to master certain abilities, as well as the respect that comes from obtaining higher positions is a powerful learning motivator that comes from within, rather than without.

The implications of his findings towards human resource development are serious, as they suggest that individuals often have personal motivations to learn and improve and that the companies should offer opportunities for such improvement. At the same time, cognitivist theories seemingly suggest the greater importance of informal and non-formal learning as opposed to formal learning supported by behaviorist theories (“Employee Development,” 2012).

The cognitivist theory of learning is not without its flaws, however. Despite being popular, it has been criticized in the last thirty years for its inability to incorporate external stimuli into its view scope and complete neglect of the environment as a powerful motivator that influences and shapes a human’s learning process. In addition, both cognitivist and behaviorist theories have been criticized for diminishing the complexity of the processes of learning by putting an emphasis on one set of motivators over the other. One of the main points of criticism is that work-related learning is not something an individual simply acquires, but rather something that is constructed through interactions with the workplace and other individuals (“Employee Development,” 2012).

Which Type of Learning is better?

After giving identifications and descriptions both to formal and informal learning, as well as studying the theoretical background on learning theories, it is necessary to identify the type of learning that is objectively better in the scope of the workplace environment and managerial competence. However, as it could be seen in the previous sections, even the grand theorists of the past century are having trouble identifying the better type of workplace learning.

The reasons for that are simple – the question is as vague and obscure as the definition of ‘workplace’ itself. There are as many workplaces as there are professions, if not more. A construction site is very different from an office, a taxi driver and a pre-school teacher have very little in common as well. Every person is unique and has a unique predisposition towards one or the other type of learning, depending on their profession and the circumstances.

As it is already explored in the previous sections, formal learning and education is good at providing the necessary basics of any profession but fails to translate into higher stages of professional development, where skills, experience, and informal knowledge provide optimal growth. Informal learning, on the other hand, is increasingly hard to assess, promote, and structure due to the fact that such learning is spontaneous and does not always provide the intended results.

Non-formal learning is a third option, as it provides an amalgamation of formal and informal learning methods – it possesses a clear goal at the end, but is much more flexible in terms of structure and learning schedule, thus allowing the learners to think for themselves and acquire the knowledge they consider important and valuable to their profession. At the same time, it also facilitates a degree of informal interaction between learners that could facilitate experience sharing and mutual growth.

An important question that needs to be asked is whether formal and informal learning could actually exist as separate entities. Certain modern researchers point out that formal and informal education cannot exist without one another, as formal education contains numerous informal aspects to itself, as well as informal learning often possesses an internal curriculum that is being used in order to pass on the knowledge, especially if said knowledge was acquired through formal means.

Examples to support this point of view are plenty – a student tasked with solving a geometrics problem that has to be solved applying not one but many geometrical theorems and principles analyze the entirety of the problem and apply the knowledge that he or she already possesses in order to fill the gaps. At the same time, an experienced employee that is asked to tutor an intern would instinctively fall back on formal knowledge in order to teach the basics of the position. According to Colley et al. (2003), “…it is not possible to separate out informal/non-formal learning from formal learning, in ways that have broad applicability or agreement… it is more sensible to see attributes of informality and formality as present in all learning situations” (p.3).

To conclude, neither type of learning in itself is better than the other due to the point that they are often interconnected and are better at solving particular tasks.

Is it More Important for HRD Practitioners to Facilitate Informal Learning than it is to Provide Formal Training Opportunities?

The answer to this question depends greatly on the circumstances surrounding every individual HRD practitioner. It is obvious that these circumstances would greatly differ for one another. An HRD manager tasked with turning unskilled or semi-skilled employees into a qualified workforce would require providing formal learning opportunities in order to teach the employees the basics of the trade. On the other hand, an HRD manager tasked with improving the quality of work and facilitating personal and professional in an already experienced and qualified workforce would find formal means of doing so to be of little help.

This is why practice classes often take the form of lectures, which are familiar to many young men and women who have just graduated from schools, colleges, and universities. Advanced classes, however, aimed at proficient and experienced employees, however, often take forms of seminars, conferences, and gatherings where the more experienced employees are encouraged to share their thoughts and practices with the less experienced attendants (“Formal and informal learning,” n.d.). Everyone is offered to provide input and offer a great deal of insight for all those attending the conference.

As an HRD manager, one needs to have a clear understanding of what he or she can and cannot control, whether directly, or indirectly. When it comes to learning, formal learning offers a great degree of control, non-formal learning – less degree of control but potentially higher output, and informal learning – practically no direct control over the process, as such happen spontaneously. Some researches indicate that attempting to artificially facilitate informal learning (for example, instruct senior workers to share their insights during dinner conversations) would severely reduce the effectiveness of informal learning, due to the fact that the conversation would not be perceived as genuine, and any input provided by the more experienced employees would be largely ignored because it was offered at a wrong place and at a wrong time, without request (Boud, Rooney, & Solomon, 2009).

Thus, an HRD manager can influence informal learning only through indirect means – by making novice employees work on more difficult and innovative projects alongside more experienced employees, facilitating a good working climate within the organization, and forming bonds between individuals and groups of employees. These methods, while promising long-term growth, are not predictable, and heavily rely on a multitude of inside and outside factors, including every employee’s personality, personal preferences, and ambitions, as well as family life – something that lies well outside of an HRD manager’s control.

Therefore, the answer to the question put at the beginning of this chapter is manifold. If an HRD manager is dealing with novice employees and is required to help them acquire core competencies, it is necessary to provide plenty of formal learning opportunities through classes and courses. This would allow the employees to acquire the basic set of skills necessary for performing in a company and help them retain their jobs. At the same time, in order to ensure progress and continuous growth, the HRD manager is required to offer non-formal outlets for learning as well, through seminars and conferences.

The approach to informal and tacit knowledge should be different, however. In order to grant the HRD manager more control over that kind of learning, an effort must be made to transform informal and tacit knowledge into formal knowledge. It is a difficult process, as it seeks to transform individual experience into something that could be taught via a curriculum. Adding informal knowledge would greatly expand the limitations of formal learning and allow it to progress beyond the basics of every individual trade, transforming it into an intermediary course. Non-formal learning could be used in tandem and for the same purpose, improving the quality of already skilled employees.

To summarize, I disagree with the statement that HRD practitioners should focus on informal learning over formal training opportunities due to the fact that informal learning is hard to facilitate and control. Instead, an effort should be made to introduce informal learning into the standard formal learning processes in order to significantly increase the effectiveness of the latter and employ non-formal learning techniques for advanced classes.

Is Workplace Learning a Good Thing?

Although the primary question that served as the basis for this paper has been already answered, there is an important addendum to consider. In the scope of this research, the term “learning” has been used in a positive connotation, when in reality it is not always so. Not all individuals express the desire to learn and improve, especially when their current level of skill allows them to perform at an adequate level of competence and efficiency.

Certain human resource development managers may feel the urge to use the excuse of facilitating formal or informal learning in order to increase the workload or exploit the employees against their will. Such practices greatly diminish the desire to perform better, as learning is forced upon the individuals rather than sought out by them, which annihilates informal learning completely and reduces the effectiveness of formal and non-formal learning as well (Avis, Bathmaker, & Parsons, 2002).

This issue finds roots in Marx’s theory of conflict as well as in Skinner’s works, as the latter states that negative reinforcement is more subjective to extinction as soon as the threat expires. Thus, an HRD manager’s primary concern is to ensure that the employees are receptive to learning and do not see it as an inconvenience to them. In order to do so, they would be required to implement various techniques of positive reinforcement, ranging from promises of promotion and bonuses towards the employees willing to learn and improve their performance to building an atmosphere of dignity and respect, where hard work is seen as admirable and worthy of admiration not only for managers and senior staff but every individual employee. Transforming individual goals into collective ones and the acknowledgment of the greater good could be done via team-building exercises and facilitation of a friendly and supportive climate within the company.


Formal, non-formal, and informal learning plays an important part in human resource development. Emphasis on certain aspects of learning could be done depending on the specifics of the contingent that an HRD manager has to work with, but as a general rule, all three kinds of learning must be facilitated in order for the employees to grow in skill and develop personal qualities necessary for more effective and productive labor. Informal learning, while being an important part of every learning process, is too vague and ambiguous of a term to be effectively focused on in HRD policies, as any attempt to control it would effectively remove its spontaneity and effectiveness. Instead, an HRD manager should focus on introducing informal learning as part of formal and non-formal education, while at the same time providing ample opportunities for either.


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Colley, H., Hodkinson, P. & Malcolm, J. (2003). Informality and formality in learning. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

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Shepherd, C. (2011). The characteristics of formal learning. Web.

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