Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Victoria Marsick on 'Informal' and 'incidental' learning. Technology (EPSS, LXPs, LRSs, AI, Data) now implementing her ideas...

Victoria Marsick is Professor of Adult and Organizational Learning at Columbia university, known particularly for her work on adult and workplace learning. Her work on informal and incidental learning tried to reshape how we see adult learning but she also has a deep interest in learning organisations, team, action and reflective learning. Her view of learning is one of continuous learning, learning as a process, not training events alone.

Informal and incidental learning

In Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace (1990) she challenged the world of traditional training to widen their perspective to include these concepts, as this is where much organisational learning actually takes place. This includes experience and context. She recommends taking these modes of learning seriously and plan to make them possible, rather than just letting it happen, as that may result in dysfunctional performance. Using the ‘point-of-sale’ analogy, she says that learners are like shoppers, they are at their most interested and curious at the point-of-sale or point of need. This is rarely during a workshop, seminar or course. Yet courses are timetabled to suit the organisation, not these learner points-of-need. Encouraging and enabling learning at the point-of-need will increase transfer, as well as grow a learning culture.

Marsick defines ‘Informal’ learning as not taking place in the classroom through a structured course but in the hands of the learner. Typically this is self-directed, can be planned and intentional, through networking, performance reviews, coaching and mentoring. It is consciously encouraged or presented as learning, albeit not a formal course.

‘Incidental’ learning is unintentional, never planned, the result of something else, a by-product of a task, project, problem solving, social encounters or perceived need. People are rarely conscious of it happening as learning. 

An approximate ratio for formal to informal learning, from Carnevale (1984) is:

  • 83% informal and incidental

  • 17% formal

Informal and incidental learning take place during problem solving when an unmet need arises, with incidental learning, in particular, arising when there are mistakes or failures.

To successfully encourage informal and incidental learning, one must induce: 

  • reflection

  • proactivity by the learner

  • creative problem solving

If you critically surface your weaknesses or deficits, then you can take the initiative to improve and see a problem from several perspectives by reframing. Informal, incidental and formal learning differ in the degrees of action and reflection by the learner.

These ideas are seen as being implemented at the individual, team, organisational and professional levels.

Learning organisations

In Sculpting the Learning Organization: Lessons in the Art and Science of Systemic Change (1993) she used case studies to push learning at four levels; individual, team, organization and society, using ‘action imperatives’. Learning has a range of structured, less structured and unstructured experiences. 


Marsick’s work goes back to Tolman’s research and definition of ‘Latent learning’ (1930), Coombs and Ahmed’s ‘Nonformal ‘learning (1974) and distinctions made Mocker and Spear (1982) onFormal, Non-Formal, Informal’ and Self-Directed learning, also Reischmann’s learning ’en passant’ (1986). It also has a route into social learning (Bandura) and learning within teams and communities of practice.

Her view is that formal learning, largely courses, has distracted us away from how people actually learn in the workplace, which is continuous. Marick therefore provided the theoretical basis for future takes on informal and incidental learning that led to Gery and Cross and the technology that enabled this to happen. As the internet grew so did online learning, yet in the direction of content and courses, not performance support. It took over 20 years before the technology caught up with the theory.


Garrick, J. Informal Learning in the Workplace: Unmasking Human Resource Development. London: Routledge, 1998

Marsick, V. J., and Watkins, K. Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Reischmann, J. “Learning ‘En Passant’: The Forgotten Dimension.” Paper presented at the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education Conference, 1986.

Carnevale, A., 1984. Jobs for the Nation: Challenges fora Society Based on Work. American Society for Training and Development, Alexandria, Va.

Mocker, D. W., and Spear, G. E. Lifelong Learning: Formal, Non-Formal, Informal and Self-Directed. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education, 1982.

Coombs, P., and Ahmed, M. Attacking Rural Poverty: How Nonformal Education Can Help. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

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