A New Study on Fostering Social Informal Learning in Organisations

A New Study on Fostering Social Informal Learning in Organisations

Social informal learning

Knowledge is one of the most important resources possessed by organisations. This is largely because it is one of the primary factors to distinguish one business from another, and it provides the basis of any business’s competitive advantage. Therefore, facilitating learning and the development of knowledge within organisations is crucial. Despite this fact, many organisations fail to provide support for informal learning, even though it accounts for approximately 80% of learning that occurs in the workplace

Informal learning

Informal learning refers to any learning that occurs through everyday practice, experience and contact with others and that is not part of an explicit programme to acquire skills or knowledge. Employees often become motivated to improve skills and gain new knowledge when they encounter new situations, or when they are assigned challenging work tasks and projects that require problem-solving and learning. An intent to learn can also lead to seeking feedback from supervisors and co-workers, as well as self-reflection.

…an intent to learn can also lead to seeking feedback from supervisors and co-workers, as well as self-reflection.

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Social informal learning

Social informal learning occurs through daily interactions between people in the workplace and beyond. The quality of work environment or “learning climate” plays a significant role in how well these interpersonal exchanges are supported.

Social informal learning

Learning climate

An organisation’s learning climate or learning culture is defined by a variety of conditions within the material, informational and social environment in the workplace, and is often set by key people like supervisors, managers and leaders, as well as influential employees . Important learning conditions include such things as:

  • access to other workers and departments
  • access to knowledge management and informational systems
  • access to, and involvement in, professional networks
  • the rewards provided for skill proficiency
  • constructive supervisor feedback

The 6 dimensions of learning climates

Previous studies have identified 6 dimensions that structure an organisation’s learning climate:

  1. Learning leadership – managers who have a positive attitude towards learning and a learning orientation (a passionate focus on learning) tend to facilitate social informal learning within their organisations.
  2. Space for learning – social informal learning is more likely to happen when employees have easy access to:
    • • information sources
    • • time for learning and skill development
    • • access to professional networks with subject matter experts (SMEs)
    • • time to reflect on their performance
  3. Exchange of knowledge – critical and open knowledge exchange that occurs during discussions with colleagues and supervisors facilitates social informal learning because employees can gain insight from other’s differential expertise and experience.
  4. Support for learning – positive feedback and rewards that recognise the learning efforts of employees, whilst creating a safe space for experimentation. This allows people to make mistakes, share concerns and try new things with a high level of psychological safety.
  5. Individual responsibility and autonomy – giving employees the freedom to pursue knowledge and holding them accountable to follow through tends to promote social informal learning. This is because informal learning is primarily self-directed.
  6. Opportunities to learn – providing new challenges for employees that require skills development and problem solving. Additionally, allowing people to share information with co-workers during daily activities also enhances social informal learning.

All 6 of these learning climate dimensions can have a significantly positive impact on the level of social informal learning happening in organisations.

Learning culture

Previous research

Previous research looking at the dynamic effects of learning climate characteristics on social informal learning has found that:

  • Learning oriented leadership (a style of leadership characterised by open and enabling behaviours focused on leading and organising employee learning and development) tends to drive learning activities like collaboration, feedback and both formal (in meetings, etc.) and informal (water cooler / coffee machine moments) knowledge sharing.
  • Situations where employees are empowered and allowed to participate in decision-making tends to promote learning.
  • Trust has been found to be a significant predictor of knowledge transfer.
  • Employees tend to have more opportunities to learn when risk-taking is encouraged.
  • A positive learning climate is crucial for increasing levels of employee engagement, which in turn increases their future employability.
  • Supportive learning climates also tend to increase leaders’ corporate social responsibility practices, as well as engagement in continuous learning.
  • Informal social learning increases knowledge management effectiveness, which, in turn, is a predictor of organisational performance

A new study

A new study by researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands has looked at the characteristics of social informal learning to understand how an organisation’s learning climate affects social informal learning.

social informal learning - learning climate


The study found that social informal learning is characterised by several elements including:

  • The intentional and deliberate actions of employees to learn from co-workers.
  • Employees learning from people with whom they are in direct contact, for example, supervisors, other team members, customers and the work team as a whole.
  • Physical closeness and daily interaction tend to facilitate social informal learning.
  • Environments where employees ask co-workers for feedback on their performance, instead of their supervisor. This can often avoid a sense of being judged during their learning attempts.
  • Engaging in collaborative learning passively by observing co-workers and modelling others’ behaviour, was also found to promote informal social learning.
  • Leaders encouraging employees to learn efficiently and quickly, due to deadlines and time pressures.
  • Open sharing and discussing knowledge.
  • A desire to improve professional skills.

Additionally, an organisation’s learning climate was found to have a significant impact on social informal learning:

  • Supportive learning climates encourage and facilitate social informal learning.
  • The individual responsibility and autonomy dimension gives employees control over their own learning and professional development, along with the freedom to act. This prompts them to take charge of their own learning.
  • The opportunities to learn dimension motivates employees to learn from colleagues when job requirements are challenging.
  • Higher task complexity and more responsibility pushes employees to search for new information and solve challenges.
  • The learning oriented leadership dimension creates a work environment where room is provided for learning, growth, and development.
  • Learning oriented leaders are the most important dimension of a learning climate.

The quality of an organisation’s learning climate tends to determine how much social informal learning actually occurs.

social informal learning - learning climate

Based on these findings, the researchers have some recommendations:

  • Organisations should teach supervisors about the importance of social informal learning and the impact it can have on organisational performance.
  • Organisations need to give managers and leaders coaching capabilities. This was found to be a significant predictor of both enhanced leadership and management skills, but also tends to promote a better learning climate. This in turn increases informal social learning.
  • Organisations should give employees more chances to expand their roles and responsibilities. Challenging work and autonomy both promote increased self-directed learning.
  • Organisations need to provide passive learning opportunities, like job shadowing or team projects that require employees to observe and model co-workers’ positive behaviours.


Crans, S., Bude, V., Beausaert, S., & Segers, M. (2021). Social informal learning and the role of learning climate: Toward a better understanding of the social side of learning among consultants. Human Resource Development Quarterly.

Informal learning: Definition and application.


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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