Take a firm grip to encourage informal learning
New research realigns the role of performance appraisals
Most employees, from any profession or sector, will spend time talking about their job with friends, family and colleagues.
In most cases, if they are in the same job area with any consistency, they will pick up and read articles and books that relate to their profession, either casually in an ad-hoc way, or even in a more structured approach, with some self-improvement goals in mind.
All this is called informal learning, and while it clearly has the potential to have a positive impact on a person's performance in the workplace and their long-term career development, its formal role has never been fully acknowledged and has certainly never been rigorously measured or quantified.
Traditionally, the development of employee knowledge has been considered a top-down practice, where senior leaders determine the learning needs of employees and create and deliver structured development programs.
This is despite the acknowledgement that employees choosing to engage in informal learning tend to have high levels of confidence in their own ability and competence.
"It has had a little bit of a negative definition, for no good reason really, but informal learning is everywhere and in so many things we do," says Karin Sanders, a professor and head of the school of management at UNSW Business School.
"Even if you have a dinner, you are talking with your friends and that can be a part of informal learning. You hear something, you share knowledge and you are keeping up to date.
"Informal learning had a place in the development part of HR, but also it was not measured, and if you want to know more about it, and its impacts, then you need to measure it in a community of practice."
'You might have some wild ideas and if you talk about them or try them then you might lose your reputation' ?KARIN SANDERS
Link to formal functions
Informal learning was the focus of a recent research project by Sanders and former UNSW Business School colleague Timothy C. Bednall (now at Swinburne University of Technology), in collaboration with Piety Runhaar from Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
Taking a sample of 238 employees from 54 work teams in six Dutch vocational education training (VET) schools, the researchers looked at informal learning with the goal of understanding how it might receive more formal recognition within an organisation's human resource management (HRM) practice, and how the HR system could further encourage employees.
More specifically, the study looked at the effects of perceptions of performance appraisal quality and HRM system strength on three informal learning activities: reflection on daily activities, knowledge sharing with colleagues, and innovative behaviour.
"We also made a distinction between keeping up to date, also known as the reflecting on your own behaviour," says Sanders.
"These things, you can do by yourself, but other informal learning activities are more done in a team situation. Knowledge sharing – you can't do that by yourself. And there is an element of reciprocity, because you are giving and taking feedback."
The study collected two waves of survey data from respondents a year apart. The only selection criteria was that employees had to work at one of the six schools, and so the breakdown was between teachers (84.9%), teaching assistants (8.8%), team co-ordinators (2.1%), with the remaining 4.2% classified as "others".
Data was collected via self-filling software, with response rates just over 50%. The questionnaire measured informal learning activities by the respondents in four areas: reflection on daily activities, knowledge sharing with colleagues, innovative behaviour and also performance appraisal quality.
The idea behind the inclusion of performance appraisal was to see if this link to the formal HR function could be a practical way of integrating informal learning in a positive way into the HR system.
The results bore this out, revealing that the quality of performance appraisal from line managers had a positive association with all three informal learning activities in the second wave, and with reflection in the first wave.
A safe environment
The innovative behaviour category produced different results to reflection and knowledge sharing, suggesting that it is unique to the other activities.
For some employees, there was a negative association between a strong HR function and their motivation to innovate. Could the traditional top-down approach of HR be a stifling influence on innovation?
"It may be that there is an order to informal learning activities," says Sanders.
"First is reflection, such as reading professional journals, the next stage is having more information from colleagues, and the stage beyond that is innovative behaviour."
Unlike reflection and discussion with colleagues, she says, innovation requires a degree of pro-activity on the part of employees.
"Proactivity and innovative behaviour involve risk," says Sanders.
"You might have some wild ideas and if you talk about them or try them then you might lose your reputation. So you will need a safe environment before you can innovate, and in that way it is different to the other informal learning activities."
'If you have informal learning, then good quality appraisal sessions with line managers are the right forum for discussion'KARIN SANDERS
Open, clear and regular
The study makes a real contribution to understanding the challenge organisations have in encouraging participation in informal learning.
The findings suggest that the quality of performance appraisal has an influence on the willingness of employees to participate further in informal learning. By receiving accurate information on their performance, employees could feel more confident in making informed choices on the best informal learning activities to pursue, and feel motivated towards even greater participation.
Performance appraisal, the researchers found, had a role as a core HR practice which could bridge the gap between formal and informal learning and bring it, in some way, from outside the organisation to within.
High-quality performance appraisal appears to promote increases in reflection, knowledge sharing and can enhance employee confidence to the point that they are encouraged to innovate.
"These performance appraisals must be open, clear and regular," says Sanders.
"This is the most important message from the research. If you have informal learning, then good quality appraisal sessions with line managers are the right forum for discussion, and this can embed informal learning into the organisation's HR practice."
A combination of high-quality appraisal and a strong HRM system sends a signal to employees that ongoing improvement is highly valued by the organisation, and that informal learning activities are recognised.
Beyond that, the potential exists for a strong and tightly integrated HR system to offer employees complementary development services which can help structure and facilitate learning.
Crucial in this is the role of the supervisors delivering the appraisals, as their ability to engage on the right level with employees is critical.
"It can make employees feel safer about reflecting on their own behaviour, and can instigate more informal learning across a range of new areas," says Sanders.
"It if is done in a negative way, or irregularly, then the goals can change all the time and this undermines that feeling of safety which can take away the motivation for informal learning."