Learning professionals know that keeping up-to-date with the latest trends in the age of digital learning is challenging, but informal learning is a means of doing just that. We understand the need to adopt the latest research into how adults learn and how technology can enable and support the learning process, but we’re often overwhelmed with the constant flow of new and exciting information.
Personal learning networks (PLNs)
While most organisations offer formal learning opportunities through traditional facilitator-led programmes and access to digital learning, informal learning has become widely accepted as a critical component of the learning process. Informal learning is a way to supplement, and often enhance, formal programmes.
The establishment of PLNs is an example of informal learning. PLNs provide a means to connect people and information. They are made up of a collection of connections and resources including individuals, professional bodies, books, conferences, blogs and online communities. This type of learning shifts the focus away from merely accumulating knowledge to creating and maintaining connections as sources of information.
PLNs may be technological or non-technological
A recent study  showed that most learning professionals set aside approximately three hours a week for informal learning to keep up-to-date or equip themselves with knowledge and skills for new projects. This included an automatic push of information via subscriptions to LinkedIn, professional organisations and e-magazines and Google search. Webinars and blogs were also seen to be highly valued sources of information. A second approach is deemed equally beneficial: reaching out to people in personal networks.
Application of PLNs in workplace learning
There is a definite need for learning professionals to develop PLNs to support their own continuous learning and to promote the use of them in the workplace. This will encourage a shift from meeting only 20% of an organisation’s learning needs to implementing new approaches that meet 100% of the learning needs.
The study recommends the following for constructing a PLN and implementing a learning strategy to meet organisational needs:
Personal learning network construction
• Incorporate blogs, Twitter and other social media as integral parts of personal learning.
• Create new, timely, and relevant content to enhance social ties.
• Use social bookmarking to access and share relevant information with the network.
• Create dashboards to aggregate content from various sources based on topics of interest.
Formal learning strategy
• Develop courses only for critical procedures and for the appropriate moments of need: when first learning about a topic and when learning more about a topic.
• Leverage experts as facilitators of course topics, possibly in MOOCs, rather than only as subject matter experts.
• Develop small ‘just-enough’ training learnlets, especially using a video format, that can be tagged and searched using a Google-like interface.
Informal learning strategy
• Leverage the learners’ approach to informal learning: use email for on-going learning and Google searches for project-based learning.
• Develop a wiki that is curated by the Training or HRD group and added to and updated by the entire organisation.
• Encourage the development of communities of practice across all departments and internal organisations to break down the silos of information present in many corporations.
1. Manning C. The Construction of Personal Learning Networks to Support Informal Workplace Learning of Training Professionals. International Journal Of Advanced Corporate Learning [serial online]. May 2015; 8(2):4-12.