Is informal workplace learning always invisible?

Posted by ap507 at Jun 28, 2017 03:58 PM |
ULSB Research Associate and graduate Dr Kath Atkinson reflects on a new report about older workers, and the assumptions it makes about their learning

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How can a prominent UK government initiative to keep ageing workers in employment fail to incorporate a major form of workplace learning? The Department of Work and Pensions 2017 report ‘Fuller Working Lives’ aims ‘to support individuals aged 50 years and over to remain in and return to the labour market.’  The government has published several documents over the last few years, however, none of the work adequately addresses informal learning, the undocumented knowledge that comes with experience. This is a form of learning valued by all ages, especially many of those in the 50-plus bracket. So why does the report ignore it? Is informal learning being overlooked because it is ‘invisible learning’?

As is well known, the population in the UK is ageing, retirement ages have been abolished and the state pension age is moving ever further away.  It is not surprising therefore that expectations of retirement in the late 50s or early 60s have dwindled and there has been an increase in the over 50s in the workforce.  Although some continue working by choice, many need to remain in paid employment into their 70s.

In the workplace, the majority of learning is informal. It is incidental to the work taking place, it is not planned and nor is it examined or certified.  Despite being valuable, employers and researchers often overlook it. My research suggests that two main issues contribute to this.  One is that often the participants, and also their managers, do not realise learning is taking place, so they don’t mention it to researchers.  The second is that surveys often use attributes of formal learning, such as course registrations or certification completion, as a proxy for all learning undertaken.  Although convenient, this fails to collect any informal learning activity.  The consequent invisibility of informal learning is particularly significant for employees over 50 years of age in the knowledge economy. Learners in this sector tend to seek content rather than certification per se and therefore rely heavily on informal and non-formal learning.

With the learning activity of over 50s not adequately captured for analysis, it makes it harder for employers to know how to approach the development of this growing segment of their workforce. Indeed, the under-reporting may contribute to negative stereotypes of older workers not engaging in workplace learning at all. Supporting their learning will help older workers maintain and update their knowledge and enable them to be productively engaged in the labour market. In other words, understanding how older employees learn at work, and facilitating their learning, is essential for the success of policies to extend working lives.

So how come Fuller Working Lives does not cover this aspect? The reason appears to be the choice of underlying data, taken from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). This survey does not capture informal learning sufficiently well. The questions on workplace learning are mostly worded to suggest formal learning activities by use of words such as ‘training’ and ‘education’. Even in the question where informal learning could be captured, and despite the interviewer notes clearly explaining what informal learning is, the question wording steers the respondent towards more formal learning episodes.

The quick solution would seem to be to amend the LFS. However, this would involve a lot of extra work in an already long survey, and would only tell us what we already know.  We know informal learning takes place in workplaces and we know it is valued by all ages. So why not just ensure informal learning is considered when examining workplace learning?

Well one problem, as mentioned above, is that it is not as straightforward to identify because there are no easy-to-count courses. However, for those who therefore claim it is too hard and can only be captured by labour intensive qualitative study, owing to the need to educate respondents to identify such episodes as learning, think again. A team from the Centre for Labour Market Studies at Leicester proved it could be done in 2005 via a quantitative survey and construction of scales from pertinent variables. I successfully adopted this approach a few years ago in my doctoral thesis and am about to use it again. The supposedly invisible can be captured and analysed.  Informal learning really is visible, if you know how to look and if you want to see it.

So, if we, as researchers, are aware of the definition of informal learning and also the value placed on it by learners, it is surely our responsibility to ensure informal learning is incorporated into research on workplace learning. Regardless of the political and economic levers being manipulated to extend working lives, employees need to learn at work. We must therefore acknowledge the importance of ‘informal learning’, for all ages, and stop treating it as ‘invisible learning’.


Atkinson, K. (2015) ‘Does the Concept of Expansive-Restrictive Learning Fit Knowledge Workers Aged Over 50? An Examination of Selected Features and High-End Knowledge Workers in a UK Public Sector Organisation’ University of Leicester. (unpublished Doctoral Thesis)

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