Informal and Incidental Learning

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. New York: Routledge.


  • People learn out of need when they encounter a situation that requires new information. In this way, learning is learner-centered.
  • Learning vs Training

    • "Training usually refers to short-term activities that emphasize practical skills immediately applicable to the job. Training is sometimes, but not always, distinguished from longer-term courses that develop generic abilities and developmental activities (p. 4)."
    • Learning is contextual and occurs daily out of necessity.
    • Con: "Of course, people do not always learn from their experience and often, when they learn in this way, they may reinforce inaccurate ways of doing things (p. 4)."
  • Preview of part one

    • "As a result, both informal and incidental learning often take place under non-routine conditions, that is, when the procedures and responses that people normally use fail (p. 6)."
    • Informal and incidental learning are different.
    • "Incidental learning is defined as a byproduct of some other activity, such as task accomplishment, interpersonal interaction, sensing the organizational culture, or trial-and-error experimentation (pp. 6-7)." Incidental learning is unplanned and unintentional.
    • "Incidental learning, however, is never intentional and seldom explicit. It is serendipitous or coincidental with some other activity, and largely buried it eh context of other tasks (p. 8)."
    • Informal learning can but does not have to be planned or intentional.
    • "Critical reflectivity is related to the surfacing and critiquing of tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs that need to be examined in order for people to reframe problems. Creativity refers to the capacity of people to see a situation from many points of view, and to use new perspectives and insights to break out of preconceived patterns that inhibit learning (p. 8)."
    • "...learning takes place through an ongoing, dialectical process of action and reflection (p. 8)."
    • "To reflect, people must consciously become aware that they are learning (p. 8)."
    • "Reflection is enhanced by the active application of concepts in practice. Informal and incidental learning, on the other hand, take place without much conscious reflection (p. 8)."


Chapter 1: Toward a Theory of Informal and Incidental Learning

·      Overview

o   "Informal learning, a category that includes incidental learning, may occur in institutions, but it is not typically classroom-based or highly structure, and control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the learner (p. 12)."

o   "Incidental learning, on the other hand, almost always takes place in everyday experience although people are not always conscious of it (p. 12)."

o   "Informal and incidental learning take place along a continuum of conscious awareness (p. 13)."

·      Definition and Characteristics

o   Learning From Experience           

§  Learning From the Context

·      "We believe that context is more important to learning from experience when the nature of the task is interpersonal or social in nature, and thus subject to a greater number of differences in interpretations (p. 16)."

·      "Field independents seem more able to separate an object and its context, more analytical in nature, and more oriented to internal frames of reference. Field dependents seem more influenced in their perceptions by the context, more social in nature, and more oriented to external frames of reference (p. 16)."

§  Dewey and Lindemann

§  Action Science

·      Argyris & Schon (1974) - coined terms of espoused theories & theories-in-use; single loop & double loop learning (borrowed from Ashby 1952)

o   "Single-loop learning works well in most ordinary situations where our assumptions about cause and effect are correct. Double-loop learning is needed when expected results are not achieved (p. 18)."

·      "We make errors because we jump from the directly observable data to higher-level inferences which we assume are accurate and upon which we then act (p. 18)."

·      "In learning to think like a professional, whatever the profession, people do not only learn certain skills for certain tasks; much background or contextual learning takes place, consciously or unconsciously, that shapes their perceptions. This background learning bears some similarity to incidental learning (p. 18)."

§  Alternative Experiential Learning Theories

·      Kolb (1984):

o   Two ways of apprehending:

§  (1) Concrete Experience

§  (2) Abstract Conceptualization

o   Two ways of transforming:

§  (1) Reflective Observation

§  (2) Active Experimentation

·      Jarvis (1987) critiqued Kolb as being too simplistic

·      "Meaning is derived through reflection on experience (p. 20)."

o   Non-routine vs Routine Conditions for Learning

§  Learning occurs when we encounter the non-routine (I think it is similar to a discrepant event)

§  "Unprogrammed activity occurs when there is no tried-and-true method for handling the problem either because it is a new situation, its nature is elusive and complex, or it is so important that it deserves a customized response (p. 21)."

§  "Informal learning, by definition, is non-routine because it occurs in an indeterminate, unsystematic, uncontrolled context (p. 23)."

o   Tacit Dimension of Knowledge

§  Discrepant events result in the construction of new frameworks.

o   Delimited Nature of Informal and Incidental Learning

§  Problem Framing

§  Work Capacity

·      Enhancing Informal and Incidental Learning

o   Proactivity

§  Freire (1970)

§  "Freire reminds us that powerlessness is a social issue, which requires structural solutions. For that reason, empowerment in the workplace is typically associated with organizational changes that allow workesr greater participation in decision making and access to the benefits of their labor (p. 29)."

o   Critical Reflectivity

§  Mezirow

o   Creativity

·      Other Definitions

o   Incidental Learning

o   Unintentional adult learning - Reischmann (1986): "Learning 'en passant' (unintentional learning) has these characteristics: it is integrated, holistic, not compulsory, individualized, uses a wide variety of support, builds on previous learning, can be a basis for further learning, and, important to this discussion, it can be especially identified by looking back, i.e., by reflection (p. 34)."



·      Formal & Intentional = content; Informal & Unintentional = Skills/Dispositions

o   I'm thinking that when we think about learning, we often think about formal and intentional learning. I relate that to content. We are always trying to teach content. While there can be some content that is learning unintentionally, the content in formal and intentional learning is more controlled. I'm thinking then that skills and dispositions are learned primarily through informal and unintentional experiences. Both of these have implications for my research with regard to supervisor learning.

o   How then do you teach skills and dispositions? Through experience w/support, reflection.

o   Can the teaching of skills and dispositions ever be intentional? What examples can I draw upon (inquiry???). How do we know?


Chapter 2: Understanding Learning in Training

·      "Workplace learning involves a social contract among individuals who work together to achieve higher-order organizational goals (p. 35)."

·      Relate to teaching: "None the less, individuals learn and work in social units where interactions are not typically subject to design and control by trainers (p. 35)."

·      Trends Toward Learning

o   Evaluation necessitates workplace learning.

·      Learning Levels: Overview

o   "It is much more difficult to document collective learning or to understand how it influences individual learning. None the less, we believe that collective learning may be the distinguishing feature of workplace learning, and that it plays a particularly strong role in informal and incidental learning because people learn through interaction in bounded social groups that are connected by common organizational goals (p. 39)."

o   Learning at the Individual Level

§  Joseph Lufts and Harry Ingram (1961) creators of the Johari Window

§  "Because of the nature of the workplace, where personal and professional concerns are frequently kept separate, many meaningful concerns related to personal social networks remain in this quadrant (lower left of the Johari Window) (p. 41)."

o   Learning at the Group Level

§  "Groups learn when they monitor the effectiveness of the process of group interaction while simultaneously attending to getting the task done (p. 41)."

o   Learning at the Organizational Level

§  "However, when organizations learn, individuals become agents who in some way influence the way others in the organization think, act, and learn (p. 42)."

o   Learning at the Professional Level

§  "Professionals are not as easily socialized into the organization because they have learned to think independently. The are more likely to question orders rather than execute them with obedience. They draw on an extensive knowledge base which they update by reading, interaction with colleagues through professional associations and journals, and participating in seminars or other continuing education offerings (p. 44)."

·      The Human Resources Learning Cone

o   This figure shows the hierarchy of learning using informal and incidental learning as the circular base and then moving from the base to the tip of the cone is individual learning, group learning, organizational learning, and finally professional learning.


Other notes:

·      Feedback and disclosure create the conditions for learning.