Please Stop the Formal Vs Informal Learning Debate

Over the last few years, I have seen a great number of articles, books, and blog around the concept of Informal Learning.  For many professionals, the concept of informal learning is new, and the idea of incorporating it into an organizational learning strategy is daunting.  After all, many learning departments use the we-do-what-we-do-because-it’s-what-we’ve-always-done approach to strategy.
I think for many individuals and organizations, informal learning falls into the bucket of “We don’t know what we don’t know”.  That’s why much of what I’ve read and heard regarding informal learning can be frustrating, because it presents informal learning in a way that conveys it as a replacement to formal learning. 
That’s just not true.  I do believe that the majority of our future efforts will increasingly go towards the informal side.  However, that does not eliminate the need for formal learning efforts; it simply reduces our dependancy on it.  More concerning, is when I read that that approach is ‘better’ than the other.  Deciding which type of learning is better than the other is pointless.  It’s like a mechanic going to the toolbox for the best tool without knowing what the job at hand is first.
Last month I spent some time installing floor boards in my attic. I am not a handyman by any means, so my supply of tools is limited.  I was using a large hand saw for all of my wood cutting.  While at Home Depot buying more boards, one of the employees pointed out a circular saw that would be much more appropriate for the job I was doing, and boy was he right.  I will never use a hand saw for that task again, because the circular saw is much more effective. The hand saw was working for me because it was all I had available to me.  Once I was introduced to a new tool that was more effective for the task at hand, my dependence on the hand saw dropped substantially.
The hand saw still has value, and will likely be the tool best suited for attacking that dead tree in my backyard this spring.
The same concept is true with Formal and Informal Learning.  One is not ‘better’ than the other.  It’s a matter of which is a better fit for the task at hand.  For many learning professionals, their tool box is filled with mostly formal tools.  As research and best practices into informal learning approaches continue to be shared, new tools will become available that enable us to be much more effective, and they will naturally reduce our reliance on the formal tools.
In short, don’t worry about which type of learning is better. Understand the tools, and what they are best suited for, than match the tools to the task at hand.
That’s one of the reasons I love the recent article by Allison Rossett and Frank Nguyen for T&D Magazine entitled “The Yin and Yang of Formal + Informal Learning”.  The article doesn’t debate which is better; it presents scenarios and explores whether formal, informal, or some sort of blended approach might be best.  The article shows that deciding on the approach requires matching the tools to the situation. 
As an added bonus, the article also includes a link to an online tool that can help individuals and organizations decide what type of approach might be best for a given situation.  This simple tool asks 15 basic questions about the situation, and then provides feedback and suggestions on how you might want to tailor your learning strategy.
I highly recommend the article be read by all learning professionals.
Link to the YinYang Online Tool:

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