13:51 11/06/2004 Mathemagenic: PhD ideas, version Summer 2002
on personal productivity in knowledge-intensive environments, weblog research, knowledge management, PhD, serendipity and lack of work-life balance...

PhD ideas, version Summer 2002

This is an old version of describing what I was going to do for my PhD. I moved on with my ideas: currently my PhD focus is on personal productivity in knowledge-intensive environments (see http://iceberg.notlong.com for more details).

In case you want more on formal/informal learning:


Discovering the iceberg: how to support value-adding employee learning 

This document is a starting point for a PhD research. This is sligtly adapted version from my PhD proposal and I'm aware that its format is not ideal for the web. I'm not sure that I can rewrite it, but I promise to write something more readable.

If you have comments, please let me know: I'm only starting, so it can shape my research. 

You can find here:

Theoretical background

  • The iceberg: formal and informal learning >>
  • Linking learning and business results >>
  • Synergy between formal and informal learning >>
    • Table 1. Business value of synergy between formal and informal learning: some examples >>

PhD idea

  • Emerging research questions >>
  • Scientific and business relevance >>

    Current questions to narrow down PhD research

    • Starting point >>

      References >>

      The iceberg: formal and informal learning

      Employee learning can take a variety of forms. Courses, seminars or mentoring programs are the most common to think about. These forms could be referred as formal learning, the one that is planned and controlled by an organisation. In practice, such "organisationally controlled" learning is only a tip of the "learning iceberg": research shows that up to 70% of job-related learning is informal, driven by an individual [1]. Examples of informal learning include exchanging experiences in a professional community, studying relevant literature or learning by doing the job.

      Formal and informal learning represent two ends of a continuum, there different ways of learning are structured according to the degree of organisational control over learning process. For example, courses as organisationally predefined form of learning are at the "formal" end of the continuum, while "coffee table discussions" are driven by individuals and informal. Researchers use different taxonomies  to describe this continuum: formal/informal learning [1], formal/informal/ incidental learning [2], authority-directed/mediated/self-directed/unintended learning [3]. In this work we will use the following definitions:

      • formal learning - the one there process of employee learning is defined and controlled mainly by an organisation;
      • informal learning - the one there organisation does not have primary control over process of employee learning, including self-directed and incidental learning.
      Formal learning programs have been the focus of corporate education for a long time, while informal learning is only gaining such attention recently. Research on informal learning shows that it provides substantial share of employee learning [1, 4, 5] but difficult to identify and measure as it is often invisible as part of communication or work processes [2, 5, 6].

      Linking learning and business results

      4+1 level of training evaluation Companies do not support employee learning just for the "sake of learning": they expect contribution to business results and positive return-on-investment rates. In training and development (T&D) field these relationships are described as a chain of changes that starts from learning process that should (ideally) lead to competency development, then learning results have to be applied at the workplace to improve performance that finally can add value at the business level and provide positive return-on-investment (Figure 1, based on 7, 8). 

      There are a variety of factors that ensure business added value of learning [3, 8, 9, 10, 11]; they could be summarised as the following:

      • learners get enough support to achieve required competency;
      • learning is aligned with business needs;
      • learning and application of learning results (=better performance) are supported by organisational environment;
      • costs of learning (and learning support) are minimised.
      We have to note that most research in this area is focused on formal learning programs, while informal learning could be far more powerful in contributing to performance improvement as it is often driven by immediate work needs [1, 12].

      Synergy between formal and informal learning

      In practice the above forms of learning are more and more perceived as two sides of the same learning process, whereas organisationally they still "belong" to different departments [13]. Formal learning programs are planned and managed under HR/T&D umbrella, while informal learning usually addressed within knowledge management domain. This seemingly dichotomy results in a variety of learning-support efforts in a company that often are not related nor aligned. This results in lack of support for informal learning, duplicated or contradictory interventions, unnecessary costs and lost opportunities to improve quality.

      At learner's level formal and informal learning are interrelated, contributing in different ways to building knowledge and competency. In this respect we found the metaphor of iceberg very powerful: successful navigation really depends on taking into account both tip and underwater part of it. We suggest that considering formal and informal learning as two sides of integral process companies can benefit at conceptual, organisational and technology levels (see Table 1).

      Contributing to a business in terms of
      Conceptual Reusing learning-related methodologies from different theories (e.g. applying training evaluation methods to evaluate learning processes in a community of practice) Providing shared understanding of employee learning and reuquired support (an integral learning model) between different specialists (managers, T&D, KM and e-learning specialists)
      Organisation Reducing costs by eliminating overlap between T&D and KM initiatives (e.g. using competency gap assessment for establishing course catalogues, coaching programs, communities of practice, knowledge repositories, etc.) Improving the quality of learning programs by linking different efforts (e.g. involving communities of practice into orientation training for newcomers)
      Technology Reusing content between e-learning and knowledge management systems (e.g. between courses and communities) Providing learner with one "entry point" for different learning options (courses, communities, documents, etc.) combined with tracking system for competency development and performance results
      Table 1. Business value of synergy between formal and informal learning: some examples

      Emerging research questions

      As we noted earlier, employee learning can be described by the iceberg metaphor: visible formal programs are complemented with informal learning, which is more difficult to recognise and measure. This probably explains the lack of studies on supporting informal learning, although it is recognised that it takes larger share of time and could be more effective than formal learning programs.

      In practice formal and informal learning are addressed within different organisational domains (training&development and knowledge management) that results in unrelated interventions. We propose that considering the "learning iceberg" as a whole and aligning those interventions can improve the quality of employee learning and reduce associated costs.

      The above considerations force us to formulate our PhD project research question as the following:

      How synergy between formal and informal learning can add value to a business?
      This question can be subdivided into set of more specific questions:
      • How formal and informal learning can be related at conceptual, organisational and technology levels?
      • What value for a business such integral learning can bring? What interventions will be required to achieve business results?
      • How formal and informal learning and their relationships could be studied?
      Answering those questions can result in:
      • A model of "an integral learning" that describes formal and informal learning, interfaces between them, and their contribution to a business.
      • Assessment instrument that allows to identify (1) cases there synergy between formal and informal learning adds value, and (2) interventions to achieve this synergy. We suggest that those interventions will require both organisational changes and implementing enabling them systems and tools.
      • A set of guidelines to support implementation at organisational and technological levels.

      Scientific and business relevance

      Problems of supporting formal and informal employee learning are addressed within several scientific fields: adult learning, human resources development, e-learning and knowledge management. The same processes are addressed from different perspectives and often labelled with different terms, resulting in valuable, but isolated and incomparable contributions.

      We propose that investigating the relationships between formal and informal learning can help to establish common ground (integral learning model) between those fields, so different theories could be more easily related. Such a contribution is especially valuable for the e-learning field: development of learning objects makes it possible to build flexible learning programs spanning across "formal-informal" boundaries that will require understanding of learning as integral process.

      At the business level there is a need to answer more practical questions: How informal learning can be supported? How our experiences with different forms of learning can be related and reused? Where technology adds value? How to ensure business results and ROI? We assume that an integral learning model can serve as a starting point to develop instruments for mapping and relating different learning-related interventions and technologies that can result in improving its quality and reducing its costs.

      Starting point

      As we noted earlier, the state-of-the-art study should be aimed at the identification of more specific research questions within formal-informal learning domain. We suggest that this can be done by focusing at (1) forms of synergy between formal and informal learning, (2) business value of learning, and (3) feasible research methodology. Specific research questions include:

      • What are the different forms of formal and informal learning? How these different forms of learning are supported (organisational interventions, systems and tools)? How synergy between formal and informal learning at the conceptual, organisational and technological levels can be achieved? What is the current level of knowledge about such synergy?
      • What are the business targets for learning? Is synergy between formal and informal learning important from business perspective? What types of organisations can benefit more from aligning formal and informal learning? In what cases?
      • How informal learning processed can be studied? How the relationships between formal and informal learning can be revealed? What research methods could be used to validate results?
      We assume that based on the state-of-the-art study PhD research can be narrowed down by focusing either on specific type(s) of synergy between formal and informal learning (e.g. communities and training) or on integral learning contribution to the specific business need (e.g. learning that supports innovation). Available research methods will define the limitations of answering PhD research questions.


      1. Center for Workforce Development (1998). The teaching firm where productive work and learning converge: Report on research findings and implications. Newton, Mass.: Education Development Center.
      2. Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. New York: Routledge.
      3. Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (1998).  The adult learner: the definitive classic in adult education and human resources development. (5th ed.) Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.
      4. Tough, A. (1979). The adult's learning projects: a fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning. Toronto: OISE Press.
      5. Livingstone, D. W. (2001). Adults' informal learning: definitions, findings, gaps and future research NALL. Retrieved from http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall/res/21adultsifnormallearning.htm
      6. Tough, A. (1999). Reflections on the study of adult learning.
      7. Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1994). Evaluating training programs: The four levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
      8. Phillips, J. J. (1997). Return on investment in training and performance improvement programs. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.
      9. Sredl, H. J., & Rothwell, W. J. (1987). The ASTD reference guide to professional training roles and competencies Amherst: HRD Press.
      10. Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional design. (2nd ed.) New Your: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
      11. Harrison, R. (2000). Employee development. (2nd ed.) London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
      12. Kessels, J. W. M. (2001). Learning in Organisations: A Corporate Curriculum for the Knowledge Economy. Futures, 33, 479-506.
      13. Donker, P., Efimova, L., & Swaak, J. (2002). Knowledge Management and (e)Learning: a comparison through theory, tools, and practice. Enschede: Telematica Instituut.


      © Copyright 2002-2006 Lilia Efimova Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

      This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

      Last update: 11/22/2006; 6:59:23 PM.