How Embracing Informal Learning Can Help Retail Organizations Thrive

0aaaHawley Kane Saba Software

Engaging, retaining and growing talent in retail has implications far beyond employee churn. Companies that cultivate an organizational culture of learning and development (L&D) have a distinct advantage over their competitors — when executed well.

Research reveals that workers today spend an average of 505 hours learning each year: 494 informally and 21 formally, with informal learning comprising at least 80% of all workplace learning. Although a limited training budget might mean scaling back on the hours spent in training courses, seminars, classes and workshops, that doesn’t mean employees can’t learn in other ways.

Informal learning empowers employees to go out into the world to find their own learning content. From casual chats with colleagues to podcasts and blogs to online videos, people have the power to learn in more ways and places than ever before. But while learners today have 24/7 access to technology-enabled, just-in-time learning, L&D leaders can’t expect positive business results without some input.


The Truth About Informal Learning                                        

Informal, online learning has the power to grow individuals, the business and the results of L&D programs. But too frequently, it simply does not live up to its promise or potential — largely because of a hands-off, “build it and they will come” approach.


Sally Beauty knew to avoid this mindset when its L&D team rolled out “Thrive,” a new eLearning program in early 2017, in an effort to leverage technology to drive engagement and cultural transformation.

“We knew that this is not Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it, they will come’ is not a great strategy for launching something that requires the bandwidth of the entire team, and a great financial investment. So we knew we had to get people engaged,” said Yvette Birlew, Sally Beauty’s Director of L&D.

For Sally Beauty, learning participation started out as 100% voluntary — there were no required courses assigned at launch. The idea was to gauge employee interest after a pre-launch awareness campaign and kickoff event. Targeting corporate employees and field management, including those in customer service, distribution centers and accounting, the L&D team’s goal was 40% of eligible employees to log into the learning management platform (LMS) with 20% voluntarily completing at least one course by the end of the year. They surpassed their goals within 18 days of launch, with 51% of employees logged in and 23% course completion.

“It tells us that people are hungry — they want the investment of personal development,” Birlew said. “They want to know that they can grow. And the fact that our company has made the decision to do this investment for them, personally, has meant an enormous amount.”

No matter the type of learning, employees need a healthy dose of support and structure. And to get the most value out of informal learning, learning leaders must start by ingraining the drive to find information and learn on an ongoing basis into an organization’s culture.

But how exactly do you foster this culture of continuous development and facilitate self-driven learning that moves the needle on performance?

Embracing A Culture Of Continuous Development

Ever since “Google” became a verb, most people in the workplace are relatively competent at finding what they need. But there are a few critical steps organizations must take to give informal learning the active support necessary to drive successful performance outcomes.

Learning leaders can develop an organizational culture that prioritizes continuous development by incorporating aspects of L&D into the organization’s mission statement and a quarterly goal-setting process. Since managers have the greatest direct impact on employees, it’s also vital to ensure managers have the resources and training they need to nurture employee-led learning. Encourage managers to “make space” for employees to pursue learning at work by not overloading with tasks or assigning learning tasks outright. This is an especially critical consideration when launching a new learning program companywide.

Sally Beauty discovered that in order to be successful, program buy-in needs to occur at all levels of the organization so that employees are engaged in the process and can experience the resulting benefits. Their first order of business? Asking their employees what they actually wanted to learn! Birlew’s team took that feedback and thoughtfully selected courses for Sally Beauty’s learning library that supported employees’ interests, and then categorized the courses by topic, skills, and the organization’s corporate values. And this subsequently positively impacts other aspects of company culture.

“If [employees] get to pick which courses are offered, you’re already starting on that engagement process,” Birlew said.

Managers can further advance employees’ commitment to informal learning by ensuring employees set learning objectives during goal-setting discussions, as well as utilizing 1:1 meetings to coach employees to continue their self-directed learning. Asking questions like “What did you learn when you weren’t looking for it?” and “How can you make yourself aware of learning that happened unintentionally?” can help employees further develop their motivation and appetite to learn independently. By setting departmental training budgets to be spent on MOOCs (massive open online courses), subscription-only journals or paid industry news sources, managers can also demonstrate their commitment to continuous learning.

Informal Learning Experiences With Measurable Impact

Informal learning frees learners to explore beyond employer-directed training, but it still needs to support the needs of the broader organization. After all, what is the goal of learning and development if not to improve business outcomes?

Since it’s imperative to demonstrate the tangible business impact of any L&D initiative, it’s here that informal learning typically presents challenges. The very nature of informal learning is what makes it so valuable to employees. It’s also what makes it such a challenge for L&D leaders who still need to measure learning effectiveness. How do you embrace employees’ thirst for informal learning and track and measure it all – without destroying what makes employee-led learning so effective?

To give informal learning the structure needed to flourish, organizations must provide a place where employees can share “found” content, such as on an LMS or another online location. Establishing a central place where learners can share, rate, follow and collaborate on content enables employees to efficiently locate the most relevant resources.

It’s a uniquely human trait to want to share what we learn with others – and to keep track of information for future reference. By tracking all informal learning in a centralized location, organizations can help support learner-driven development, while also gaining access to the analytics and reporting needed to demonstrate the business impact of informal learning.

Enabling Learning Without Boundaries

Informal learning is not a new idea — people have been learning “on the job” for centuries. Information on any topic or skill is now just a click away for anybody with a smartphone, and employees are already taking to Google, YouTube, blogs, books and podcasts to get the answers they need. Information is ubiquitous and informal learning is the name of the game.

But while employees are taking advantage of self-driven education, organizations historically have not been very good at harnessing their full potential to connect learning to performance and improve business outcomes. However, as development-focused organizations like Sally Beauty have shown, by actively cultivating an organizational culture that puts employees in the driver’s seat of their own development — while leveraging technology to organize, track and measure informal learning — organizations can truly empower employees to learn without boundaries. And it’s in this environment where employees can truly thrive.


Hawley Kane is the Head of Organizational Talent and Leadership Development, Saba Software. As the organizational development leader at a talent management provider, Kane has the unique opportunity to marry Saba’s ongoing performance, continuous learning and career development strategies with the company’s own cloud solutions and services. Kane is responsible for global initiatives ranging from onboarding to performance management training and leader development, as well as Saba’s people and team-driven development programs.

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