The Interconnectedness of Formal and Informal Training

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					                     The Interconnectedness of
                    Formal and Informal Training
                                        Deirdre Kazi

Introduction                                       and giving and receiving feedback. The work-
                                                   ers were excited to start the program and
                                                   anxious to learn more communication skills.
High Liner Foods Incorporated was founded in       These same workers and adult education
1899 and currently employs over 700 people in      instructors shared their thoughts, experiences
Canada and the United States. It is Canada’s       and observations about learning to uncover an
leading frozen processed seafood brand.            interplay between informal and formal train-
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia is the corporate head       ing. The data also revealed that there is an
office and home of the High Liner processing       association between organizational support for
plant. The Lunenburg plant is located in a rural   learning and employee participation in both
setting with approximately 48 salaried and 290     formal and informal workplace learning.
unionized hourly workers. Most of the union
workers have been working at the plant for
between 16 and 30 years while many others          The interplay between informal
have little seniority and are not full time.       and formal training

High Liner received funding from the Nova
Scotia Department of Education’s Workplace         Formal training can be a path to informal learn-
Education Initiative for an Essential Skills       ing and informal learning can be a path to
communication program, and offered it to front     formal training. Each type of training creates
line workers who were frustrated by uncer-         new sparks which ignite into a rich and fulfill-
tainty, lay offs and poor communication. Nine      ing learning experience. These ways of learn-
workers completed the program and requested        ing and knowing rebound off each other when
a second communication program. I facilitated      interest, confidence and support come together.
this advanced communication program
(Communicating with Emotional Intelligence)        Formal training is often a catalyst to personal
designed from the needs assessment to address      interest in a topic, which inspires the desire for
objectives like respectful communication, self-    self-directed and informal learning and it can
awareness, assertiveness, conflict management      help to build the confidence in one’s ability to

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal Learning for Low Skilled Workers                 CASE 4       1
be a successful learner. For example, after the    Why participate in training?
communication program, several workers
asked for outside resources on communicating
with emotional intelligence such as on-line        Many factors effect a worker’s decision to
sites, books and other programs that would         participate in a learning opportunity such as
further their understanding of the subject.        their own values and beliefs about learning,
Conversely, informal learning can lead to an       whether they have family or a social network
interest in formal training. Learning something    of support and their previous lived experience
new often generates interest and inspires confi-   which influences their confidence, interest, and
dence in further learning. One worker put it       fear. As one worker put it, “I am more comfort-
this way, “I’m now reflecting on my skills and     able with learning now”. And another worker
abilities and job options and thinking about       aptly said, “there is a lot to think about, some-
taking a different life path”, while another       times I don’t deal with things, but now I think
employee said, “learning is a humbling experi-     about things more before I react, I’m trying to
ence, the more you learn, the more you realize     use it at home.”
you need to learn.”
                                                   The decision to participate in formal training is
Formal training and informal learning are also     influenced by the perception of a need, a bene-
interconnected when skills, knowledge and          fit and an opportunity to use the new learning.
attitudes are shared with co-workers in the        In other words, workers will participate in
workplace and with family and friends outside      training if they think that a change in skills,
the workplace. This is exemplified in this case    knowledge or attitude is warranted or it will
study as workers shared what they were learn-      help solve a problem. The problems at this
ing in the classroom with co-workers and           workplace centered on respectful and assertive
friends. One worker prepared a new response        communication among the front line workers.
to a difficult conversation she was going to       Workers also need to have assurance that they
have with a co-worker. When the worker             will have an opportunity to use the new learn-
changed her response, her co-worker in turn        ing to make a difference in their work life and
changed her reply and the communication was        home life.
effective. Another worker was able to express
herself more assertively to a family member        These employees either self identified the gap
and gained more confidence in communication        in skills, knowledge or attitude before partici-
skills. Other workers at the plant asked ques-     pating in a program or they were encouraged to
tions about the classroom learning and how it      attend training by supervisors. Participation
was helping in their different roles of worker,    should be voluntary, but as one instructor put
family member and citizen. This curiosity          it, “some workers are told to attend training.”
created interest in the program.                   Workers have an expectation that formal train-
                                                   ing will make their jobs easier. For example,
                                                   one worker described how she was able to

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                          CASE 4      2
express her ideas around an easier way to         in the Workplace” reported practicing their
rotate workers on the production line to accom-   new classroom skills with co-workers in the
modate breaks without loosing time. She           workplace and with family and friends at
would have expressed herself in an aggressive     home. Each week workers would share stories
way before the program, but because of the        of successes and trials. One worker reported
communication program she was able to be          back to the class after trying a new approach
more assertive. In addition, some workers also    with her teenager on an old subject. She
expect that training will lead to increased       remarked that using “I” language and describ-
income.                                           ing her feelings kept her focused on the issues
                                                  and her daughter’s response was more positive
Instructors noted that workplace programs         and a good start to better communication. The
should be designed to support the needs of        workers gained confidence in their new skills
both the organization and the workers, but        and were eager to learn more. Some of the
sometimes they are out of alignment. This         benefits reported by employees focused on
problem can often be identified through the       worker relationships. For example, employees
individual needs assessment, or through up        felt that interactions with others improved and
front consultation. As well, the curriculum       that they were thinking more before reacting.
should also be adapted to accommodate differ-     They were also more conscious of the feelings
ent learning styles and the skill levels of all   of self and others which resulted in more posi-
participants.                                     tive interactions and less conflict.

                                                  Other benefits included feeling more assertive
Benefits of formal training                       and more confident to challenge or question
                                                  decisions made in the workplace by others.
                                                  Positive interactions helped to build trust and
Instructors agree that formal training improves   sharing among co-workers and this trust was
the nine essential skills and has many tacit      considered an essential ingredient in successful
benefits, such as an increase in self-awareness   learning. If workers have a successful learning
and self-confidence, assertiveness and problem    experience, they will often share their learning
solving skills. Other benefits contribute to a    with co-workers and friends. Workers reported
less stressful environment, more harmonious       that when they feel valued, they are more
relationships, and improved communication by      productive and that reflects the company’s
invested workers. These are skills that are       bottom line. One worker explained, “acknowl-
transferable to one’s personal life. One worker   edgement, a thank you or any show of appreci-
described the benefits this way, “good commu-     ation is all that’s needed, and for some people
nication skills give you a real advantage in      it’s the self satisfaction of doing a good job that
life.”                                            makes them feel good.”

Workers   in    this  program       called
“Communicating with Emotional Intelligence

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                          CASE 4       3
Organizational support                                 workers to think and feel supported, because
for learning                                           what you think informs how you feel and how
                                                       you feel informs how you behave.”

Formal training is often driven by the organiza-    Workers and instructors noted several ways
tion and triggered by changes in technology or      that organizations can support a learning envi-
a need to upgrade essential skills to keep up       ronment that includes both formal and infor-
with the global economy. To establish a learn-      mal training. One key way was the acknowl-
ing environment, both the organization and the      edgment of the new skills, knowledge or atti-
workers must support learning and there must        tudes by providing an opportunity to practice
be a perceived need and a perceived benefit.        the new learning. Instructors suggested that the
                                                    organization could initiate developmental
The same holds true for informal learning. This     activities like special projects designed to help
is also driven by the worker, and should be         practice new skills. An example might be prac-
supported by the organization. Workers feel a       ticing leadership skills in a coaching role for a
sense of autonomy when they have power over         period of time or heading a team on a special
their own learning and it is encouraged by the      project. Another way to show support is for
organization. As one worker explained “infor-       supervisors and coaches to be nurturing and
mal learning is free and is more powerful than      not critical when workers are practicing the
formal training because it is self-directed,” In    new skills, knowledge and attitudes. One
this study, workers reported that the organiza-     worker described it this way, “I rate intelli-
tion’s support for learning is often acknowl-       gence by what one does after they screw up.”
edged in the workers’ efforts to participate in
learning.                                           Workers also recognized that they were
                                                    responsible for supporting a learning environ-
The organization’s support and stance on learn-     ment. They needed to remain committed to
ing is mirrored by its workers. When the organ-     learning new skills, being open to changing the
ization shows support for learning, it filters      way things are done at work and having confi-
down through the hierarchy of the organization      dence that the new learning will improve the
and is role modeled by supervisors, coaches         current situation. For example, one worker was
and the front line. The result of this becomes an   able to use his new communication skills to
attitude of encouragement and trust. As one         express his feelings with another co-worker
instructor said,                                    who was using negative comments about his
                                                    lack of seniority, and lack of work hours. He
   “The organization has the opportunity to set a   was able to assert himself and ask his co-
   supportive learning climate, however, the        worker to refrain from making those kinds of
   expression of support must go beyond posting     comments instead of harboring resentment.
   its mission statements or corporate philoso-
   phies and demonstrate activities that lead

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                           CASE 4      4
Informal learning behaviors and                    resources at the end of the program. Evidence
workplace tasks                                    of such learning was seen in a positive change
                                                   in attitude and self-confidence, or when chal-
                                                   lenging workplace policies, regulation, or deci-
Workers in this case study learned informally      sions that were seen as unfair. As one worker
at the worksite in so many different ways such     mentioned he now had more confidence to
as by observing others, role-modeling behav-       discuss what he thought was an unfair decision
iors, asking questions, discussion, trial and      on shift scheduling with a supervisor.
error, through reflection and using intuition. A
case in point was when one worker had a            Workers identified many ways that they
hunch that the software problem he was work-       learned work tasks informally. For example,
ing on was really the cause of an underlying       one worker asked a more experienced co-
communication problem within the depart-           worker for his technical ‘know-how’ and
ments. The software problem had already been       advice for operating machinery that he was
fixed by the IT department, but this simple        unfamiliar with, while another worker joined a
piece of information had not been communi-         pension investment committee to learn more
cated to other departments. Evidence of new        about his pension fund. This same employee
learning can also be seen in behavior when one     also looked up safety research on-line as a way
tries something new, or tries a new approach to    of preparing before a safety meeting. A second
the same work problem. A few workers in the        example was when a worker studied specifica-
communication program used their new skills        tions so as to understand how a new product
to address negative communication with co-         would be processed before the product started
workers with varying degrees of success.           on the production line. And another worker
                                                   reported adapting her communication style to
Informal learning behaviors were observable        suit the different personality and management
when workers were discussing issues, asking        styles of her co-workers while a different
questions, storytelling and sharing resources.     employee used trial and error to solve software
Other informal learning included workers           formating problems.
using the Internet for research, observing
others, modeling behavior, mentoring others,       Instructors suggested that employers could
and seeking outside resources to learn more        recognize informal learning by being aware of
about a topic. Some of these same behaviors        the different types of activities and giving
were also seen in the formal classroom when        credit for the learning through a semi-annual
workers discussed their communication prob-        evaluation. Employees should track informal
lems with each other and helped each other         learning by documenting examples in their
plan for and role-play a new approach to           work life and by being aware of what they are
communication. An interest in a topic can trig-    looking for. The following are examples of
ger informal learning by seeking information       informal learning paths as documented by
beyond the classroom setting, as several work-     three workers.
ers did when they asked for communication

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                         CASE 4      5
Vignette 1                                          Vignette 3

After observing a butter melting process on the     Another worker informally learned how to
production line, a worker had an idea that there    change a code on the Loma Scale which is a
was a better way to perform this work task.         product coding system. This worker usually
Together with another open-minded co-worker         relied on others to change the code for her. But
they problem solved a safer, faster way to melt     wanting to learn for herself, she asked a more
the butter. By collaborating with a co-worker       knowledgeable co-worker to coach her through
who also had an interest in a solution, they        the procedures. This worker also informally
found a new way of performing an old task.          learned the meaning of phrases in the union
This same worker joined a committee to help         book by asking her coach and co-workers. In
solve a software problem with lotus notes. It       another activity, this worker learned how to
seemed that the reports were losing text when       conduct an end of line quality check for a new
printed at different workstations. By trail and     product that was being launched. This was an
error, observing others, and asking a lot of        audit process and she had to learn what to look
questions by phone, by e-mail and in personal       for to better prepare herself to do a good job. In
conversations, the worker was able to get to the    this case, she posed questions to the quality
root of the problem and uncovered that the          technician and he helped her figure it out. It
software problem had already been addressed,        made her job easier and more interesting to
but the information had not been communi-           understand how and why the check was done.
cated to all departments.

Vignette 2                                          Attitudes towards lifelong
Another worker consulted with friends, books
and the internet and asked questions to infor-
mally learn how to paint her home, organize a       Workers had specific responses to the Effective
large group meal, and learn the business side of    Lifelong Learning Inventory, which measured
cleaning. Through asking a lot of questions she     the three factors of imagination, dependency
learned about how much to charge, what types        and growth and their polar alternative
of cleaners and equipment to use and how to         approaches to learning. On the factor of imag-
use her time efficiently. In another informal       ination and creativity, a high score in this item
learning activity at work, the same employee        group indicates that an adult likes challenges
consulted with her team on the stick line to        and appreciates the struggle when learning. It
problem solve how to pack a level box of fish.      also indicates confidence and interest in learn-
The fish wouldn’t fit in the box with the lid       ing. A low score on the items indicates a pref-
closed, so working together and using their         erence for clear-cut information with little or
collective imagination, they tried a few ideas      no struggle which makes learning easy. It also
until they were able to pack a level box of fish.   indicates fear and doubt in one’s ability to

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                           CASE 4       6
learn. Workers’ responses ranged from 4 to 9        self-confidence and a fear to try new things.
with the mean of 6.7. On one end of the contin-     Workers’ responses ranged from 6 to 11 with a
uum, one low score indicated a strong dislike       mean of 7.8. On one end of the continuum one
for the struggle while learning. However, the       high score indicated that interest played a
mean score indicated that this group takes          significant role in the learning path. However,
some challenges, but does not fully embrace         the mean score indicated that this group is
the struggle in learning. For example, in the       more receptive to the challenge of learning
beginning of the communication program, this        especially when the subject is of interest.
group was excited about learning more               Based on my observations, interest was evident
communication skills but were still apprehen-       in this group as they were engaged in the learn-
sive about how this new learning would effect       ing and eagerly participated in homework,
changes in the workplace.                           group work and self-evaluations. As well,
                                                    everyone was on time with very few absences
On the factor of dependency and fragility, a        and each member of class planned out a
high score in this item group indicates that an     potluck lunch.
adult does not like to try new things, has little
confidence, little motivation and a lot of fear
and doubt. A low score in this question group       Conclusion
indicates one who is high in self-confidence,
motivated, interested, willing to try new things
and comfortable making mistakes as part of the      This case study illustrates the interconnected-
learning path. Workers’ responses ranged from       ness between formal and informal learning as
4 to 9 with a mean of 7.0. On one end of the        one sparks the other. There are many internal
continuum one low score indicated a strong          and external trigger events that cause a worker
dislike to feeling confused and uncertain while     to undertake learning. Internal factors include
learning. However, the mean score indicated         the previous experiences with learning, current
that this group has some fear in learning and       values and beliefs about learning and a support
lacked confidence. These workers expressed a        network that can shape a learning exchange.
lack of confidence in their ability to make a       External factors also included the need to
difference in the workplace with their new          upgrade essential skills for work, the need to
skills and a few were concerned that they           use new technology, and other life changing
would be made fun of or put down if they tried      events that cause the need to seek out a learn-
to communicate differently.                         ing opportunity. Perceived needs, the opportu-
                                                    nity to practice new skills and organizational
On the factor of growth orientation and             support lead a learner to participate in training
challenge, a high score in this item group indi-    of both a formal and informal nature. In this
cates that an adult likes challenges, has confi-    case study, the employees and the instructors
dence in learning, especially when they are         pointed out that interest, confidence and
interested in the learning and perseveres after     support are common themes along the learning
making mistakes. A low score indicates low          path at the workplace.

The Interplay Between Formal and Informal for Low Skilled Workers                           CASE 4      7

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