Informal learning and performance technology


Is informal learning just another flavour of the month that tries to be all things for all learners? Tony Karrer states that:

I’m becoming convinced that folks in the informal learning realm are quite willing to live with “free range” learning. It’s way too touchy-feely and abstract for me. If this stuff is important, then I want to:

* Know that it will work
* Know why it works
* Know that its repeatable

I don’t see free-range learning as a panacea, but neither do I believe that ISD can address informal learning needs. In the spirit of attempting to clarify the process, as Tony asks, here is one of my perspectives – human performance technology (HPT).

In HPT, one of the main areas of focus is the analysis; to determine what the performance gaps are. I was told by an experienced practitioner in the field that only 15% of organisational performance problems can be addressed by training. This is based on about 50 years of research and on the premise that “Instruction & Training” can only address a lack of skills or knowledge. The other 85% of organisational performance issues need other kinds of what are known as “performance interventions”. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Career Development
  • Human Development System Design
  • Communication Systems
  • Documentation & Standards
  • Ergonomic Design
  • Feedback System Design
  • Information System Design
  • Management Science
  • Job & Workflow Design
  • Organisational Design & Development
  • Quality Improvement
  • Resource System Design
  • Reward & Recognition System Design
  • Selection System Design
  • Measurement & Certification Programs

As you can see, organisational and individual performance can be influenced by a wide variety of factors. Because we are humans, no one will ever create the perfect performance system.

Where does informal learning fit into all of this? First, if you accept that only 15% of performance issues can be addressed through instruction and training, you accept that there is significantly more to look at in any organisation. A larger piece of the puzzle would be all learning interventions, not just those that address a lack of skills or knowledge.

In HPT, learning interventions can be divided into two groups – instuctional and non-instructional. Instructional interventions can be designed using ISD or other methods of training development. Informal learning, in my mind, is that other, and larger, grouping of non-instructional learning interventions.

Here is a sample list of non-instructional performance interventions:

  1. Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS)
  2. Workplace Design
  3. Knowledge Management (KM)
  4. Just-in-Time Support
  5. Communities of Practice
  6. Multimedia
  7. Internet and Intranets
  8. Corporate Culture changes
  9. Process Re-engineering
  10. Job Aids

I don’t necessarily agree with this grouping, but I thought that I’d show that there are others who use the same terminology. Of particular interest to me is Item 7, because the Internet has changed the balance of power and control in many organisations. With the Internet, and now with cheap and easy ways to connect people (Web 2.0), we have more possibilities for non-instructional performance interventions. Each of these addresses a different performance need, so there is no single methodology for informal learning. Building job aids is quite different from nurturing a community of practice.

As a learning professional, I am comfortable in prescribing and designing training when there is a lack of skills or knowledge. For example, I developed all of the training programs related to the operation of a military helicopter. There was a clear lack of skills and knowledge and we developed training programs to address this. However, there are a lot of learning needs that cannot be addressed through instructional performance interventions. These include:

  • Feeling and acting as a member of a team.
  • Group learning from operational experiences (see post on Storytelling in the Army).
  • Building morale.

Informal learning systems may increase overall performance but these cannot be exactly measured nor quantified. But then, neither can successful business practices or military strategy be exactly defined. Good business and military leaders know that success is a blend of science and art. I see informal learning as a similar endeavour. There are ways of measuring effectiveness – see Estimating the Performance Situation – and evaluation needs to be directly linked to your analysis. For example, morale cannot be quantified, but you know when good morale exists or when it is missing in an organisation.

Currently, we are looking at how certain technologies can be used to foster informal learning. The body of knowledge is not large, but we have adequate evidence that blogs, wikis, online fora, or knowledge-sharing are effective in increasing organisational performance. Again, take the Army Storytelling example and ask why this unstructured, informal learning activity is so important to the soldiers and their unit’s combat effectiveness, even though every soldier is highly trained.

I am certain that a good analysis that involves the learners and brings a knowledge of non-instructional performance interventions can have a significant impact on organisational performance. It took a lot of work and a world war to develop ISD, so I’m sure that we still have a way to go in the informal learning field, if it even can be called a field.

I think that informal learning is a way of categorising a whole range of strategies that we now have available with the advent of cheap web access, powerful personal computers and low cost applications likes blogs, wikis, tags, etc. Informal learning offers a new array of tools for the learning professional’s tool box.

11 Responses to “Informal learning and performance technology”


    Wanted to update you about what US Joint Forces Command is working towards in the training field.

    Knowledge Development and Distribution Capability continues training transformation efforts

    USJFCOM’s Joint Knowledge Development and Distribution Capability (JKDDC) Joint Management Office (JMO) has continued to sharpen its aim to transform training by providing the joint warfighter with the knowledge and information needed to make sound decisions whether in the heat of combat or during major humanitarian crises.

  2. Tony Karrer


    Great post! I plan to do a follow-up blog post, but I realized that I’m not all that clear on what you define as Informal Learning vs. HPT. It seems that you are using a fairly classic definition of HPT which has a very broad set of possible interventions. It also seems that you are then including Informal Learning solutions as part of that mix. But, I couldn’t tell which parts were considered the Informal Learning stuff in your mind. What are the “new array of tools”? Which of the performance interventions might be considered informal learning?



  3. Harold

    Tony, the way I break it down is:

    1. Performance Interventions are everything that you can use to improve organisational performance (the first bulleted list in this post plus Instruction & Training)

    2. Within these interventions you have learning interventions and non-learning interventions. A typical non-learning intervention would be a financial bonus system.

    3. Of the learning interventions, some are instructional (training) and some are non-instructional (job aids). They each involve learning, but not instruction. For instance, a job aid can be used after training, in order to remember tasks that need to be done infrequently. An analytical tool to determine what tasks are suitable for training is a DIF analysis:

    As for the new array of tools, I would include blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, podcasts and collaborative software such as Writely and Gliffy. They are not all that new, but they are now cheap and plentiful.

  4. Dave Ferguson


    I’ve been in deep lurk mode for a while, so it’s a pleasure to revisit and find you talking about HPT.

    As you know, I’m interested in finding ways that people are applying “social software” (to me a fuzzy and trendy term) to training (more formal), learning (less), and on-the-job (“performance support). I need to shape this up enough that I can talk intelligently about what I’m setting out to do, and so that I can exchange ideas and questions with people like you and Tony Karrer.

    I might quibble with “multimedia” and “intranets” as interventions — the former seems more like a component of some other intervention (multimedia in an online course, for example), and the latter seems more like infrastructure (an intranet being one way to support an internal community of practice). But that’s a quibble.

    — Dave

  5. Harold


    I’d be glad to continue the conversation (in any medium), as there is no single truth in this field. As a practioner, I have to deliver solutions to my clients. These may not be perfect academic solutions. The bottom line for me is to base my work on solid research and good practices.


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