Training Programs

Formal vs. Informal Learning: Which Employee Training Strategy Is Better?

formalized training classroom setting

How do you know if your employee training strategy is appropriate for your organization?

How do you figure out if formal vs informal learning will work better for what your company is wanting to get out of training and development? Both strategies are effective, and provide different business benefits. However, recent research has found a strong shift towards the need for more informal learning. Employees today care deeply about training and development opportunities. In fact, 59% of millennials say that it’s one of the most important factors for them when looking for jobs.

The question is, does your employee training strategy need to be one or the other? Can there be a balance? We think there can be, and this balance is where your company will find the best alignment with HR and business goals.

HR goals focus more on employee engagement and retention, while business goals focus more on sales, reducing costs, and improving quality.

Learning and development is meant to support both business and HR goals. Let’s take a look at how both formal and informal training strategies can be utilized to achieve goals across the board.

The Pros and Cons of a Formal Employee Training Strategy

There are various ways to describe formalized training, including mandatory or directive. Some of the key benefits of this type of training are:

  • A large number of employees can learn at once
  • Accurate, up-to-date content
  • Quicker ramp up for new employees
  • Can include a variety of training methods conforming to adult learning principles

For example, a formal strategy is necessary when it comes to compliance training, as the objective here is to make sure all employees have completed specific training.

Mandatory training has a short runway to success, because the goal is typically to answer the question, “Did the training program get completed, yes or no?”

The downsides to formalized learning are typically focused around employee engagement. Employees often see mandatory training with a negative connotation, either due to past experiences or because they don’t feel like the training is effective.

Getting employee buy-in is essential for formal training, as they are very likely to disengage and learn little to nothing if they feel they’re being forced to do something that isn’t worthwhile. They need to be shown the benefits of the training before going into it.

What Does an Informal Training Strategy Look Like?

An informal training strategy, also known as elective or self-directed, has different benefits from formal training:

  • Less costly / more time efficient
  • More personal / less intimidating
  • Subject matter experts can be more willing to share knowledge with this type of learning
  • Employees are less resistant to learning

Using an informal training strategy means that employees have little to no learning requirements, but rather are encouraged to complete training courses by choosing it for themselves.

This gives elective training a longer runway for success, since employees learn on their own time, without deadlines.

The risk with operating solely on an informal strategy is that some employees may not engage in training at all. Although, the benefit is huge when elective training leads to high employee engagement.

The next generations coming into the workforce have very little patience for spoon-feeding, single-track instruction, and working alone. They increasingly need to learn and improve soft skills, which are better grasped through informal interaction, as compared to a classroom.

Along with this generational shift, the availability of learning through online and social tools has created more of a possibility and a need for informal training than ever before.

Does that mean in the battle of formal vs. informal learning, that informal wins out?

Not necessarily.

L&D professionals should be careful of getting entrenched in one training strategy or the other. You may find that adding in more of a strategy you have not been using leads to the outcomes you’ve been striving for.

How Do We Strike a Balance?

In Western culture, we see the symbol of yin and yang and think of it as finding a perfect balance between two opposing things. It’s not seen quite the same way in Eastern culture, though. They recognize that there will be sway back and forth, and what’s important is to not get stuck on one side, completely out of balance.

It is acceptable to never find balance between yin and yang, but instead to always seek, reflect, and add elements of the other.

So, if your organization’s employee training strategy is way off balance, try some of these strategies to see alignment of HR and business goals come together.

Adding formal training strategies to informal learning:

  • Curate content or courses for developing specific skills or job roles
  • Use a modern learning management system that helps you track training utilization while still promoting exploratory learning
  • Use gamification to encourage employees’ participation in learning
  • Have managers hold regular coaching sessions with their team members individually
  • Conduct an analysis of employees’ skill gaps
  • Ask employees for feedback on the training they’re receiving
  • Encourage managers to recommend training content to employees

Adding informal training strategies to formal learning:

  • Offer an online library of curated content that employees can access whenever they want or need to
  • Regularly market your training offerings to employees to encourage elective learning
  • Start a book club to promote discussions on personal and professional development
  • Pair new employees with a mentor they can talk to for guidance and advice
  • Create online forums where employees can talk about questions or takeaways from training
  • Add training reinforcement to extend the learning process

These are just a few examples, but the best strategies for you may include something else we haven’t listed here. Pick out a couple of these that make sense for your organization and give them a shot – you might be surprised just how much a blended training strategy can improve your results!

Learn best practices for incorporating on-demand learning into your training program in this free ebook:

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Krista researches, analyzes, and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. She looks at the industry shifts and trends that matter to L&D and HR professionals, and helps them understand how to create better training programs that grow their employees and their business.