What Business Are We In? – Part 2

You can find the background to this post in What Business Are We In? – Part 1 
Fast forward to the present day and we have a much more sophisticated take on things, with a greater understanding of how people learn and an unprecedented array of tools and technologies to help us. But we still treat training as a poor second cousin (if we can even bring ourselves to say “training” rather than “the t-word”). Which is a shame, when so much of what we do could best be described as training.
There’s now plenty of research which shows that most of what we learn in the workplace happens informally. The figures vary, but they’re usually in the region of 50–80%. That gives us some nice quotable figures such as around 80% of learning is informal and the remaining 20% is formal. We must remember that the numbers aren’t fixed, that they will vary from organisation to organisation, but they’re well accepted figures and sufficient as a guideline.
We’re also told that although we have the 80% informal, 20% formal split, we spend 80% of our budget on formal learning and 20% or less on informal. Why is that? Easy. We do that, because it’s exactly what we should be doing.
Remember, the 80% that’s informal is happening on the job, without the support or interference of L&D and quite often without the learner even realising that what they’re doing is learning. They’re just getting on and doing their job. Informal learning is doing quite nicely, largely doesn’t need our help, and contrary to what some people seem to think it’s been this way for a very long time, long before social media, mobile devices or the internet in any form played a part.
The reason that we focus our budgets and our efforts on the formal 20% is because that’s where it’s needed; by the business and more importantly, by the learners.
This slightly more formalised (excuse the pun) definition below is based on work published by David A. Cofer in 2000 in the Practice Application Briefing on Informal Workplace Learning.[1]

It is a characteristic of formal learning that the training or learning department sets the goals and objectives, while in informal learning the learner sets the goals and objective themselves.

Sound familiar? Remember, training is focussed on the needs of the organisation and learning is focussed on the needs of the individual.
The informal learning is happening in the workplace as and when the learner needs it. The rest is what the business needs us to design, deliver and to some extent, manage. It needs this because;
It’s too important
Some things are too important to leave to chance, such as compliance and regulatory subjects; things that are being done to ensure legal compliance and to mitigate risk. It also includes things that are critical to the way things are done in the business, for example; customer service standards, reporting procedures or keyholder responsibilities – in essence things that have a ‘right way’ to do them.
Novices need support
Every day is someone’s first day, whether that’s their first day in the organisation, their first day in a new role or just the first time they do something. It’s tempting to assume that everyone knows how to go about finding the information they need and where they should go to look for it. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a novice; someone who lacks the necessary knowledge, skills and organisational context. This is a serious issue. If you look at attrition rates in newly recruited managers, by far the most commonly stated reason for leaving is some variation on “I didn’t know what to do, or how to do it”. They want and need some structure; they need some degree of training.
The business requires efficiency
Even if it is possible for someone to explore and discover these things themselves, it’s often much quicker if their learning is given some formal goals, objectives and structure. Reducing the time to competency is a very reasonable business goal.
We can describe it any way we like, but to me it looks a lot like training.
Am I suggesting that we return to the days of endless face to face courses and tedious page turning elearning? Heaven forbid. What I am suggesting is that we recognise that the 20% isn’t just important it’s most of what we do and to make sure that what we do is well designed and aligned to organisational objectives. We should understand that compliance training may not excite us, but it’s a significant part of the real and perceived value we add to the organisation.
And maybe, if start using the word training with some sense of pride, we might be able to deliver something better than before.


  1. David A. Cofer. 2000. PRACTICE APPLICATION. BRIEF NO. 10. Clearinghouse on. Adult, Career, and Vocational. Education. Informal Workplace Learning  ↩