Graduate programmes: embracing informal learning

Organisations must ensure that graduate trainee learning continues in a post-Covid world

“Michele” just graduated from a digital marketing degree and won a place on a top graduate programme. She was assigned to a group of peer-graduate trainees and an organisational mentor, “Louise”, the senior marketing executive.

Michele would rotate throughout all departments in the organisation to learn about the business as a whole. The programme allowed Michele to get to know her peer graduate trainees and she learned a lot about marketing from shadowing Louise.

One day Louise’s product launch marketing team was looking at sales data for a new product and it did not look good.

The sales department claimed their marketing tactics had not hit the mark. Louise couldn’t argue with the data. Michele, though inexperienced, ventured some suggestions to the team on using a different digital channel. Michele’s fresh knowledge combined with Louise and her team’s product knowledge solved the problem and the sales rocketed. By the end of three months, Michele got to know Louise and her team – both personally and professionally – their abilities, strengths, behaviours, values and how the team worked together.


She could now count both a group of peer graduates and Louise and her marketing team among her work social network.

March 13th – Covid-19 arrived and the government announced lockdown. Michele, Louise, her team and all the graduate trainees now work remotely. The graduate programme will continue online and remotely.

Pivot to online

Covid-19 has resulted in organisations with planned face-to-face learning programmes pivoting and delivering online.

We know that when the same instructional methods are used, web-based and classroom instruction are equally effective. It is the instructional methods rather than delivery media that is most important in determining whether attendees learn during training.

Specifically, web-based courses with design features which provide trainees with control, practice on the training material, feedback and are longer in duration are found to be 19 per cent more effective than classroom instruction. In the absence of these design features the opposite is true.

This is good news for certain aspects of graduate programmes. However, how does the learning that Michele, Louise and the marketing team achieved from the informal learning encounters happen remotely or online?

How does remote working facilitate new graduate trainees to get answers to questions on everything from the organisation, to how we work around here, to questions about specific projects?

These questions point to three important ingredients in successful new graduate trainee learning:

– informal learning

– access to and learning from others

– social relationship building.

We know that the majority of learning in the workplace occurs through on-the-job experience and informally with estimates ranging from 70-90 per cent. This is because 90 per cent of the knowledge on which performance in real-world settings is based is tacit knowledge embedded in people’s heads. In addition, those who engage in informal learning behaviours average 32 per cent higher performance than those who do not. Those who engage in formal training average 23 per cent higher performance.

Employees and new graduate trainees don't get all the knowledge they need to do their jobs from formal training programmes, they also need to pull the knowledge they need as and when they need it. This pull is more likely to occur informally through relationships with colleagues like Louise and her team. Individuals are the key players in knowledge-sharing events as tacit knowledge is personal, hard to communicate and exists in individuals' mental models. It is the individual whom decides if they will share their knowledge.

Additionally, knowledge is socially constructed and embedded in people and their social relationships. These components are significant to graduate trainees who have limited relationships with established employees and who have yet to learn the language of the business.

Online social networking is different from face-to-face relationship building. We know a key factor for successful social relationships for knowledge sharing is trust and we know that trust development in virtual work relationships is unlikely to reach the same level as trust in work relationships that involve face-to-face interaction.

Employee strengths

So how can organisations ensure that those informal learning moments that Michele and Louise experienced continue post-Covid or in a future of work that is more remotely organised?

First, organisations are time and resource poor and so they need to hire new graduate trainees and employees whom are self-directed learners, learning agile, adaptable and as such pull the knowledge that they need, themselves, from wherever it is located. These competencies are what are required for trainee graduates to meet tacit knowledge needs.

Second, best available scientific evidence, as cited here from the book Learning & Development in Organisations: Strategy, Evidence and Practice, is useful in this context. It provides managers, learning and development and organisational development professionals with evidence from which to take action.

While online media and remote working cannot replicate the conditions required for informal workplace learning, they may be a necessity for a time. Some actions to take to try to improve informal learning conditions in the online and remote workplace context, based on what we know about the conditions for workplace informal learning, include:

“More support for employees in their work and learning. Extra supports for graduate trainees by assigned mentors, managers and human resources professionals so they feel connected to the organisation, visible to its members and involved in projects.

“Be a social network developer – connect employees and graduates to others who can help them. Build trusting remote social networks between employees. Focus on developing knowledge about and trust in others’ abilities and competence. Encourage incidences that promote benevolence – where for example team members need to help each other out and share stories about benevolent actions between employees. This is especially important for graduate trainees who have limited pre-established organisational social networks.

“Look beyond typical scheduled meetings and arrange ‘meetings’ that replicate ‘informal’ meetings that may occur where people were physically co-located – ‘learning meetings’.”

“Revise traditional plans on ‘who’ should attend meetings and invite broader, more diverse audiences and give greater voice to all attendees to replicate more of the informal occurrences where people learn from people not traditionally in such meetings. Make greater use of brainstorming, break-out rooms and feeding back to the larger group so more voices are heard. A survey of employees may reveal some key unexpected knowledge holders and vital sources for learning. Invite graduate trainees to such meetings to provide opportunity to listen and learn but also actively dedicate meeting space to allow them to contribute where their knowledge may be useful or where they may be able to join projects.

“Facilitators of online meetings and learning activities need to work to reduce the influence of hierarchical figures, power players, politics and fear of questioning. Create a more equitable, trusting and safe online environment.

“Investigate the informal workplace and social learning incidences most typical in the organisation and identify how to support such incidences in remote, online or a hybrid workplace.

Organisations will need to plan on informal learning, tacit knowledge sharing and socialising taking place virtually in the months ahead. Investing in initiatives to facilitate this in a more structured rather than organic way is key to making sure that new graduate trainees and indeed all employees continue to learn, if we can’t do so through direct observation and over a coffee in the canteen.

Dr Claire Gubbins is a professor of organisational behaviour & human resource management at Dublin City University Business School. She is co-author of Learning & Development in Organisations: Strategy, Evidence and Practice, a comprehensive and thematic overview of the thinking, research evidence and practice of strategic L&D in organisations