Book Review: Informal learning at work: How to boost performance in tough times

Well, this will be my last book review for 2013. This review will be on a topic that is near and dear to my heart — informal learning. I just finished Paul Matthews‘ book, Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times*. As the title indicates, Matthews is looking at informal learning from the perspective of the workplace. During tough economical times, learning and development (L&D) departments are usually the first to take a budget cut; yet, employees still need to develop and learn in order to help the company flourish. Very often employees take it upon themselves to learn when and however they can. As Matthews points out from his research, employees are learning how to do their job informally — 70-80 percent of the time. What Matthews does in his book is provide guidance for supervisors, leaders, and organizations to help this continuous learning effort.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” ~W. Edwards Deming

Matthews provided a wealth of information on the topic of informal learning in this 232 page, 11 chapter book. Throughout the book, he provided examples of how companies and organizations support informal learning efforts. I personally wish the examples were a little more specific so that I would be able to easily replicate them.

Matthews began his book by pointing out the obvious — people learn informally than they do by attending formal training sessions. He added that employees simply do not have the time to be locked up in formal training; however, they still have a need to learn in order to overcome workplace problems. “In organizations that are responding well to these changes, this has a led to a shift in focus from training to learning” (Matthews, 2013, p. 5). Businesses have realized that their bottom line is closely tied to the competency of their employees. Helping employees learn the way they like to learn is helping organizations to be profitable. The closer learning opportunities are to the workplace, the better it is for the employee, supervisor, and company. However, most organizations, supervisors, and employees are not prepared to learn informally. Most organizations are still heavily tied to formal training.

“In organizations that are responding well to these changes, this has a led to a shift in focus from training to learning.”

In chapter two, Matthews pointed out that organizations need to become more agile in how they apply training. Due to the rapid change of information, L&D departments are not able to provide training in a timely manner. Employees need to be taught how to search out information on their own. Organizations need to help employees tap into streams of relevant information. Employees need to learn in real time.  Organizations need to expand their options for sharing information and knowledge. It has to be more than classroom training; it has to be real-time lessons learned systems, social media, knowledge management systems, etc. Throughout the book, Matthews stressed the importance that leaders, supervisors, and managers had in the learning environment. Leaders at all levels can help make or break this important function.

Informal learning is defined in chapter three. Matthews highlighted the fact that both informal learning and formal learning sit on a continuum. Each are necessary in a robust learning environment. Formal learning can best be used to introduce new topics or to bring a novice employee up to a specific knowledge standard. However, informal learning can best be used to fill in knowledge gaps. Formal learning opportunities should highlight informal learning resources to be used following training.

In chapter four, Matthews provided a number of examples of how informal learning looks in the work place. These examples included on-the-job training, mobile learning, information gathering, individualized instruction, professional groups and communities of practice, trial-and-error, online help, wikis, social networking, virtual classrooms, peer coaching, mentoring, among other methods.  I was personally intrigued by the use of the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) console as a training and learning tool. I am planning to experiment with one to see how it can work.

Chapter five addressed how L&D departments could best support informal learning in the workplace. Matthews advised to first understand what was already going on in terms of learning, and more importantly, understand business objectives. L&D must figure out how to tie learning to business objectives while allowing employees the freedom to learn as they see fit.

In chapters six and seven, Matthews provided practical guidance for supporting informal learning. He initially recommended to map how information currently moves through the organization and how employees collaborate and share information. This can be done in part with a social network analysis. This type of analysis maps out the nodes in a communication network. It will often be very different from a organization chart. Matthews also spoke about Know it versus Find it. While he stressed the importance of understanding your employees’ needs, he did seem to advocate for Find It systems as a means of continuous learning. Again, in regards to tools, Matthews recommended developing knowledge management systems; he highlighted the benefits of wikis and blogs as part of such system. In addition, he recommended RSS feeds, forums, information sharing, social learning, internal social media platforms, and other methods. He provided an excellent example with the Army’s (now site; this started as a grassroots effort by a couple of Army officers.

Chapter eight focused on managing the learnscape. Perhaps one of the more important lessons imparted in Matthews’ book is the need to teach others the importance of learning and how to learn. This can be in part on how to help search for information or how to develop a personal learning environment. Informal learning can also actively involve others through coaching, mentoring, cross-training, observing, or shadowing.

“Learning is a skill we all have; however, it is clear that some people are far better at learning than others.  Despite the incredible importance of learning in our lives, there is little in the formal education system to teach us how to learn” (Matthews, 2013, p. 174).

In the last three chapters, Matthews talked about barriers to implementing an informal learning program, how to get managers more involved, and evaluating informal learning. Anytime you are trying to change something, you can expect some resistance. Matthews provided a number of reasons why there could be resistance to implementing an informal learning program; in some cases, it may be directly linked to leadership. Fortunately, he also provided guidance for overcoming these barriers. In many cases, it can be as simple as getting the supervisors and managers more involved, first by educating them of the importance. In other cases, it is a matter of making information easier to access. Finally, Matthews discussed evaluating informal learning. He noted that it is very different from formal learning; therefore, the methods must be different. He went into depth on the different methods and points of measurements to use.

Because I am very interested in this topic, I found the book to be highly informative. It pulled together countless resources and topics that I had seen separately. For an organization, I believe this book is a useful resource on how to get more out of employees or volunteers. It stresses the importance of informal learning and the sharing of information. It is something I believe we can do a better job. I would certainly recommend this book if you are involved in educating others.


Matthews, P. (2013). Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times (1 edition.). Three Faces Publishing.

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