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  • 1 Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary
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Abstract

This study investigates occurrences and tools of informal and non-formal learning at work, focusing on the Hungarian IT sector. The aim is to demonstrate that learning at work mainly manifests informally and to identify its patterns. Companies shifting towards teleworking during the pandemic further increased the importance of informal learning. The empirical research uses complex methodology of three pillars: A questionnaire about workplace learning conducted among employees in the IT sector (N = 162). Case studies of three Hungarian IT companies using questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. Learning activity logging of work-related learning events were recorded by participating employees (N = 19). According to the main conclusions there is a positive correlation between the number of available workplace learning opportunities and opinions on the efficacy of informal learning. Informal learning dominates the learning patterns of employees in a knowledge-intensive industry. In supporting employees’ learning the average number of informal learning opportunities are significantly higher than those of formal learning and both employees and employers agree that this mode of learning is more effective.

The results highlight that reinterpreting workplace learning is necessary due to economic, social and technological trends not to mention employer flexibility becoming more and more inevitable. Thus, the importance of informal learning is unquestionable.

Abstract

This study investigates occurrences and tools of informal and non-formal learning at work, focusing on the Hungarian IT sector. The aim is to demonstrate that learning at work mainly manifests informally and to identify its patterns. Companies shifting towards teleworking during the pandemic further increased the importance of informal learning. The empirical research uses complex methodology of three pillars: A questionnaire about workplace learning conducted among employees in the IT sector (N = 162). Case studies of three Hungarian IT companies using questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. Learning activity logging of work-related learning events were recorded by participating employees (N = 19). According to the main conclusions there is a positive correlation between the number of available workplace learning opportunities and opinions on the efficacy of informal learning. Informal learning dominates the learning patterns of employees in a knowledge-intensive industry. In supporting employees’ learning the average number of informal learning opportunities are significantly higher than those of formal learning and both employees and employers agree that this mode of learning is more effective.

The results highlight that reinterpreting workplace learning is necessary due to economic, social and technological trends not to mention employer flexibility becoming more and more inevitable. Thus, the importance of informal learning is unquestionable.

Introduction

The role and importance of workplace learning has increased in recent decades, because the ability of organisations to adapt quickly to the ever-changing circumstances around them has become crucial in a competitive market. The pandemic has accelerated the unprecedented pace of change in the way we work and, with it, the work-related learning conditions. This is particularly noticeable in those sectors where teleworking or working from home can be applied in medium to long-term and organisation development deals with mostly work design and process improvement (McLean & Jiantreerangkoo, 2020). The role of informal work-related learning through teleworking or working from home has become more emphasized, but its conscious use and support in the training and development programmes of organisations is not yet pervasive, even though there are many options (Hamburg, 2021). However, damage to the texture of the previous normality causes reflexivity in relation to previous practices, so the epidemic can provide an opportunity to introduce changes (Cozza et al., 2021).

There are several interpretations of the concept of workplace learning in the Hungarian and foreign literature, such as workplace learning, work-based learning and learning at work, and in Hungary the term corporate learning and training is also widely used. The conceptual definition of workplace learning is characterised by diversity, it is observable, that the term varies according to the aspect of emphasis in the interpretation of the concept. In the case of workplace learning, we can also talk about learning tied to work, learning connected with work and work oriented learning (Sz. Tóth, 2006). Theories of workplace learning have most often looked at the dimensions of location, process and approach and interpret the concept along these dimensions (Hortoványi & Vastag, 2013). The identity of the learner is also important because knowledge cannot be separated from the person, that is, we cannot examine the process of the creation of knowledge without examining the person who created the knowledge (Polanyi, 1966).

One of the most relevant statements of learning theory related to workplace learning says, “that knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989).

Examining the relationship between work practices and learning is difficult. Orr’s research shows learning cannot be distinguished from the work activities whose expertise depends on “the interactive construction of an understanding and a basis for action in the context of the problematic situation” (Orr, 1996, p. 12).

I use workplace learning as an umbrella term based on Tót (2002). Learning takes many forms in the context of work, but there are no uniformly applied practices for measuring it, so in many cases we think of it in terms of definitions. There is a risk that the use of overly narrow definitions of informal learning, a dominant but often invisible form of learning, is outside the interpretive frameworks that are prevalent among practitioners.

For the purposes of this research, workplace learning is defined as work-related learning activities, formal, non-formal and informal, intentional or unintentional, that are directly or indirectly related to current or future employment, according to the field of activity and the social experience context. Learning in the workplace typically takes place in the workplace, or in a work situation, regardless of location, usually in a collegial environment and social interactions, but can also take place individually without being embedded in work activities. The sharp increase in teleworking and working from home also justifies the need to de-emphasise the concept of on-site contact and to define workplace learning as learning related to work and profession.

In the European Union’s adult education, vocational training and employment policies, workplace learning is defined in terms of “on the job” (Cedefop, 2011), “work-based” (European Commission, 2013) and “job-related” (Cedefop, 2015) learning activities (Stéber, 2017). A ‘skills policy’ permeates these three policy areas, focusing on the skills of the individual rather than on formal qualifications (European Commission, 2010; OECD, 2011). For skills policy, the focus is on workplace learning, i.e. what happens inside the workplace, where skills are used by people and can become real value-creators (Halász, 2013).

Informal learning is present in all areas of life, but the main spheres of activity are leisure and work. In the world of work, informal and non-formal learning has become more prominent due to the limitations of formal learning (Erdei, 2009). Informal learning is embedded in workplace activities and is therefore more common in the workplace than formal learning (Eraut, 2004; Hager & Halliday, 2006; Le-Clus, 2011; Marsick & Volpe, 1999; Marsick & Watkins, 2001). In the information age, learning as a by-product of work has become increasingly prevalent (Lohman, 2005; Nieuwenhuis & Van Woerkom, 2007), and this has also helped informal learning to become the most common way of acquiring knowledge and skills in the workplace (Kim & McLean, 2014). Several studies have examined the share of informal learning in workplace learning, and although its predominance is clear, it is difficult to prove and quantify. “Some research suggests that 70% of learning (Leslie et al., 1998; cited in Kim & McLean, 2014), Marsick & Watkins (1990) suggest that 80% of it, and Sorohan (1993, cited in Kim & McLean, 2014) suggest even a higher proportion, 90% of it is realized as informal learning” (Stéber & Kereszty, 2015, p. 53).

In addition, the present of informal learning has been made more visible and perceptible by the spread of ICT, especially the rise of social media use (García Penalvo, Colomo-Palacios & Lytras, 2012; Thomas & Akdere, 2014). The study of social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) as a learning arena has also become a common research topic nowadays (Galanis, Mayol, Alier & García-Penalvo, 2016; Gleason, 2013; Greenhow & Lewin, 2015; Kárpáti, Szállas & Kuttner, 2012; Ravenscroft, Schmidt, Cook, & Bradley, 2012). Overall, the online learning environment, including social networking sites, video and presentation sharing platforms and online learning platforms, provide working adults with greater access to learning than traditional education, because they do not require to be present at the same time and place, they have greater freedom in choosing the pace of learning and are therefore more compatible with work and personal daily commitments (Gáthy-Stéber, 2018). From a different perspective, technology firms and their products play a key role in the operation of the world, so much so that surveillance capitalism takes place today, based on a business model that seeks to turn human lives into commercial profit (Zuboff, 2019).

An argument against work-related informal learning is that it is ad hoc, unintentional and embedded in activity. At the same time, it is important to know that informal workplace learning can be induced and supported, even as part of a pre-planned strategy. Such strategy considers the work to be done and the skills required to do the job, it provides a variety of tasks and ensures that work is organised with maximised learning opportunities for the employee in mind. The role of the employer is crucial in ensuring access to learning opportunities and positive learning experiences (Bancheva & Ivaniva, 2010). Informal learning in knowledge-intensive work activities can be stimulated in many ways, for example, by high exposure to changes in working methods and technologies used, or by frequent changes in the work-related demands of customers and managers. Extensive professional contacts also have a positive impact on informal learning, as they allow knowledge to be acquired. Supervisor feedback is also a crucial element of informal learning in knowledge-intensive work, as is managerial support (Skule, 2004, cited in Stéber & Kereszty, 2015).

In Hungary, employers are not at the forefront in the European Union in supporting workplace learning. According to a 2010 survey, on average two-thirds (66%) of employers with more than 10 employees in the 27 EU countries provided some kind of vocational training for their employees, and almost half (48%) of employees took part in some kind of training, for an average of 25 h. On average, these in-company training courses accounted for 0.8% of firms’ labour costs. Compared to the EU average, Hungary has one of the lowest average rates of training provision (49%) and ranks last in terms of workers’ participation in training (27%). The cost of training for businesses is only 1.3% of the cost of labour (KSH, 2012).

The share of enterprises providing training in the EU fell further to 44% in 2015. The decline affected traditional (course) training, support for other more flexible forms of training increased marginally, with more than a third of enterprises providing this. The most popular was participation in conferences and seminars, the second most popular was support for training in the direct workplace, work situation, but the proportion of the latter remains low despite a steady increase (KSH, 2016). According to Q1 2020 data, 32.3% of employed persons aged 15–64 participated in work-related training in the past 12 months. This is an increase of 5.3% compared to 2012 data. 24.3% of the participants in training spent 1–5 h, 25.1% 6–10 h and 50.5% more than 10 h in work-related training (KSH, 2020a). The 2020 data shows that 52.4% of respondents needed to develop the knowledge and skills they need to do their job, either independently or with the help of colleagues, and 50.9% of respondents did so. 75% of those who typically work from home, 74.7% of those who occasionally work from home and 49.3% of those who do not work from home have developed work-related knowledge and skills either independently or with the help of colleagues (KSH, 2020b). The data show that informal, independent or peer-assisted learning does not disadvantage occasional or typically home-based workers, in fact, were significantly more likely to engage in work-related learning activities than those who did not work from home.

Aim and methodology of the research

The aim of this study is to show that learning in the world of work is largely informal and to explore the patterns of this informal learning in one of the most knowledge-intensive industries in Hungary, the IT sector. The IT sector is a challenging field of research for work-related informal learning, where learning is faster, more flexible and the competencies of employees are linked to the technologies used, which are constantly changing, so it is difficult to determine future learning needs (Lemmetty & Collin, 2020).

The study is based on empirical research, using different research methodologies - questionnaires, learning activity diaries, case studies - to gain a deeper understanding of the learning processes at work, in particular, informal learning, which is difficult to identify and measure, and which is to a large extent embedded in work.

I used a three-pillared methodology for the empirical research. I conducted a questionnaire survey on workplace learning among employees in the IT sector (N = 162). As a case study, I examined three Hungarian IT companies using questionnaire data collection and semi-structured interviews. I also conducted a small-scale (N = 19) learning activity log survey, in which employees recorded and rated their work-related learning activities according to different criteria.

The questionnaire research was carried out with a self-made questionnaire. The sample was targeted at workers in the IT sector, one of the most knowledge-intensive industries. Participation was voluntary and anonymous, based on self-reporting, and the questionnaire was self-completed online. The questionnaire was completed by 104 employees and three IT companies, 23 from company A, 28 from company B and 7 from company C, making a total sample of 162. The instrument examined employment data, socio-demographic data and data essential to the research, learning and training at work in the past year, support for learning at work, self-directed, informal, autonomous learning, and the effectiveness of learning methods and tools. The gender breakdown of respondents to the questionnaire was 126 men (77.8%) and 36 women (22.2%). The average age of the sample is 33.77 years (standard deviation 7.62). Those with higher education were over-represented in the sample.

A case study can be a combination of different research methods (Golnhofer, 2001), therefore it can be used to study workplace learning and within it, informal learning activities in many ways. Participants in the research were able to apply voluntarily by invitation, or I sent random invitations to companies based on a database of professional organisations. In the case study, I used the same measurement tool for the questionnaire examination, which was the same as before as part of the large questionnaire research and the data collection procedure.

I conducted semi-structured interviews with managers and employees of the companies under study using the oral interview method, in which I examined the workplace learning of knowledge-intensive workers, their associated learning habits, their motivation, and the learning resources, tools, and their perceptions about learning. Another focus area in the management interviews was learning support and knowledge management. For the case studies, 171 interviews were conducted, of which 6 were with managers, 7 with employees who also have some level of management responsibility and 4 with employees. I evaluated the interviews qualitatively and also conducted a content analysis to identify, among other things, the interpretation of workplace learning, effective learning tools, and tools used for knowledge sharing.

I also conducted a small-item (n = 19) learning activity log survey among employees working in the IT sector in Hungary. This method is often used in psychological research, usually by the respondents, the people being observed, to make observations about themselves or people around them, but it has also been applied to research on the use of web 2.0 tools (Yong-Mi, Soo Young, Ji Yeon, & Beth, 2009). In the log study I developed, the participants observed and characterized their own activities related to work-based learning according to the given criteria (15 items) I consider the basic unit of the analysis, not the number of participants (19) but the number of activities recorded (n = 346). I based the creation of the content of the activity log on Thompson’s (2012) questionnaire and Livingstone’s (2001) research, supplemented with additional aspects. Participants kept a learning activity log for seven consecutive days (including working days and days off) in an online spreadsheet per six-hour unit and described and assessed their daily work-related learning or professional learning related activities according to some criteria. I evaluated the data along pre-defined categories already built into the log, using content analysis and statistical calculations in Excel (Gáthy-Stéber, 2018).

Results of the questionnaire survey

The questionnaire was completed by 162 people, of whom 104 were included in the sample independently of a case study, while 58 people were included in the sample by participating in the research as the subject of the case study of their workplace.

Based on the free text job titles, I identified 12 job categories. The majority of the sample were programmers, developers (48.1%, n = 78), middle and senior managers (11.7%, n = 19), project managers (11.7%, n = 19), technicians (8%, n = 13) and testers (6.8%, n = 11).

13% of the employees in the sample work in a company with less than 10 employees, 36.4% in a company with 10–49 employees, 27.8% in a company with 50–249 employees and 22.8% in a company with more than 250 employees.

According to respondents, their job is highly knowledge intensive, with a mean rating of 4.33 on a five-point scale (standard deviation: 0, 802). This perception is reinforced also by the high level of agreement with the statement that they learn every day at work (mean: 3.99, standard deviation: 0.965). 78.4% of respondents (n = 127) had participated in training, further training, education or knowledge-sharing opportunities organised or provided by their employer in the past year.

Of the respondents who participated in employer-provided training, further training, education, organised knowledge sharing in the past year, they participated in an internal experience sharing event (n = 119), an internal professional lecture (n = 118), an external professional lecture (n = 108), an internal training-like professional training (n = 105) and an external online training or course (e.g. Coursera, webinar, n = 104), least in those listed in others (n = 69), ICT training (n = 80), coaching process (n = 91), mentoring programme (n = 90), external course-based vocational training (n = 93) and language training.

Among the training and learning opportunities provided, the internal experience-sharing event (mean:4.01; standard deviation:1.04), the internal training event (mean:3.98; standard deviation:0.920), the external training event (mean: 3.98; standard deviation: 0.896), external training courses (mean: 3.95; standard deviation: 0.913) and participation in a mentoring programme (mean: 3.92; standard deviation: 1.173) were considered the most useful on five-point scale. It is worth noting that there was little difference in the perception of usefulness among the listed.

Employers have a wide range of learning support schemes available to support employees’ learning. According to the responses, it can be stated, that more than 90% of employees (n = 156) have access to broadband internet at their workplace, which they can also use for learning, which is a basic infrastructure requirement in the IT industry, as well as the availability of ICT tools, and accordingly 72% of respondents (n = 117) are provided with a notebook not only for work but also for individual/personal use. 56% of respondents (n = 91) receive a smartphone, while 58.6% (n = 95) receive a mobile internet subscription from their employer. In addition to the asset conditions, most people are offered the opportunity to participate in team-building events (n = 137), professional training (n = 111), external knowledge-sharing events (n = 123) and internal experience-sharing events (n = 106). Of the options listed, employers are least likely to support workers’ learning through individual training allowances (n = 19), ICT training opportunities (n = 19) - which are likely to be less in demand in this industry - , external coaches (n = 21), support for higher education studies (n = 29) and the provision of a tablet (n = 10).

In addition to the provision of learning support tools, it is also interesting to look at how employees perceive their employer’s role in providing learning support. In response to the question “To what extent does your workplace support the professional development of its employees by providing training, learning opportunities or benefits?” respondents gave a slightly better than average or average rating on a five-point scale (mean: 3.6; standard deviation: 1.13), meaning that they feel their employer could do more to support their learning. On a scale of 5, respondents consider self-training and continuous learning to be almost completely necessary in their work (mean: 4.81; standard deviation: 0.46), based on this it is understandable, if they have higher demands for learning support.

The three tools most frequently used by IT workers for workplace learning are Google searches (mean frequency of use: 4.8; standard deviation: 0.5), talking to colleagues (mean: 4.34; standard deviation: 0.9) and reading professional blogs (mean: 3.94; standard deviation:1.1). Of the options given, professional blog or tutorial writing is the least common (mean: 2.2; standard deviation: 1.4), this is different from the other options, because the activity is not only a content consumer but also a content producer, so it is more powerful in summarising and synthesising knowledge. The least frequently used tools include content consumption tools, such as using presentation sharing platforms (mean: 2.25; standard deviation: 1.3) and reading paper based professional publications (mean: 2.34; standard deviation: 1.3) (Table 1).

In addition to tools, I also measured the prevalence of a number of other workplace learning opportunities in the questionnaire.

Of these, the most common forms of on-the-job learning for respondents are internal professional presentations (mean:3.1; standard deviation:1.2), internal experience-sharing events (mean:2.8; standard deviation:1.2), internal training-like professional education (mean:2.57; standard deviation:1.3) and professional mentoring (mean:2.5; standard deviation:1.4) (Table 2). The other options all have a lower frequency and are at the lower end of the scale. The previous table included tools that are typically used for self-directed, informal learning, but only three of them were in the lower half of the five-point scale measuring frequency of use.

In addition to the availability and frequency of using the learning tools and opportunities, an important aspect is the extent to which employees perceive these learning tools and opportunities to be effective, I assume a strong correlation between these two aspects.

Of the items listed, employees considered learning by doing (mean:4.66; standard deviation:0.74), learning from colleagues on the job such as shadowing or pair work (mean:4.25; standard deviation:1.03) and talking to colleagues (mean:4.20; standard deviation:0.96) to be the most effective in terms of learning. Based on the results, internal (mean:3.0; standard deviation:1.26) and external training (mean:3.04; standard deviation:1.30) to increase personal effectiveness, reading professional books and journals in paper format (mean:3.06; standard deviation:1.35), using the internal intranet (mean:3.20; standard deviation:1.28) and writing blogs and tutorials (mean:3.21; standard deviation:1.41) were considered least effective. It is worth noting, however, that the items considered least effective are also in the middle of the scale (Table 3).

Results of activity logging1

The number of participants in the activity logging was 19 (N = 19), of which 18 were male (95%) and 1 (5%) female. The average age of participants was 28.39 years (standard deviation: 2.55). 18 of them work in the capital Budapest and 1 works in a home office abroad. The majority of the respondents in the activity log, 11 as software engineers and programmers, 2 as senior and middle managers, 2 as IT technicians, 2 as IT consultants and 1 as designer or R in the IT industry. Participants rated their job as knowledge intensive on a scale of 4.42 (standard deviation: 0.51) out of 5, and self-training as important for their job on average 4.63 (standard deviation: 0.6).

The basic unit of activity logging was not the number of completers, but the number of items in the completed activity logs. In total, 346 learning activities were recorded by respondents. The average number of learning events related to work and professional development recorded by a respondent in a week is 17.3 (standard deviation 5.28). Most learning activities were recorded between 6 and 12 am (n = 154) and between 12 and 18 pm (n = 130). After 6 pm, far fewer (n = 61) learning activities were recorded in the logs. The duration of the recorded learning activities was most often between 10 and 30 min and rarely exceeded two h. Only two of the learning activities (0.6%) were related to formal training/education. Participants registered 99 items for learning activities related to daily routine and work, professional skills, and 112 items for activities related to work, professional skills and leisure interests. Of the learning activities administered, most were related only to work and professional skills (n = 129), accounting for 37.3% of all recorded learning activities (Table 4).

In the learning activity blogs, I also looked at the factors that determine whether workers consider their activity to be work-based learning or work-related learning. In the majority of cases (n = 162) the learning activity was not linked to a specific event, but when it was, it was typically a formal meeting (n = 38) or an informal encounter (n = 38). This suggests that neither events, and thus neither formal nor informal settings, play a role in what employees consider to be workplace learning activities.

The situation is similar for learning resources, it does not depend on the learning resources used whether workers consider the activity as learning.

Only in the case of internet news portals is there a clear perception that their use is not learning (not considered learning: n = 25). The use of online professional forums also resulted in 20 out of 25 items being rated as learning, but 4 as not learning. For the other resource uses, even the use of the social networking site (n = 24) was rated as learning by employees.

Among the triggers for learning activities, in the case of normal daily activities, it is not clear whether these activities are treated as learning by workers. The respondents rated the activity as learning on 45 of the 93 occasions, as not learning on 37 occasions and as not able to rate it on 11 occasions. This suggests that not only researchers but also employees have difficulties in identifying learning embedded in daily work activities. The perception of activities without a specific reason (n = 49) was less divisive, with 26 identified as learning activities and only 2 not, for the remaining 21 activities workers could not decide whether they were considering it as learning or not. It is interesting to observe how the perception of the activity as learning varies according to the type of activity recorded. The two most informal learning activities, talking and reading, are the most divisive in terms of whether they are considered learning activities by respondents. Talking as an activity was recorded a total of 94 times, of which 53 times it was thought of as a learning activity by employees. For the most frequently recorded activity, reading, respondents were clearly able to judge whether they had learned from the activity, with only 5 out of 103 occasions not being able to judge it. Reading was also the activity with the highest rate of assessment of recorded activity as not learning (n = 29).

In more than two thirds of the activities (n = 256), workers valued the activities they recorded as learning, regardless of the sector of activity. Between those activities that they could not decide (n = 26) and those that they did not rate as learning (n = 35) and were mostly activities related to daily routine and work. This is a good representation of the integration of informal learning into everyday work and the difficulty of recognising and interpreting it.

According to the activity logs, location does not play a significant role in the perception of the learning activity. Most of the workplace learning activities took place at the workplace (n = 212), of which 33 respondents could not say whether they had learned from the activity, for recorded activities carried out at home (n = 86), this was the case in 5 cases. Overall, respondents rated more than two thirds of all recorded activities as learning, regardless of the location of the activity.

In 109 cases, the learning activities did not have a specific learning resource. Electronic documents (e.g. online tutorials) and professional blogs (n = 32) were the most frequently cited sources (n = 41). Internet news portals (n = 27), social networking sites (n = 25) and professional online forums (n = 24) were also frequently used by respondents. The lowest prevalence of online courses (n = 1), video-sharing portals (n = 1) and professional journals and magazines were found among the learning resources in the learning activity logs.

Most of the time (n = 71) respondents did not indicate anything as a source of learning related only to work, professional knowledge, while electronic documents (e.g. tutorial, n = 22) were the most frequently used source. The most common source of learning related to daily routines and also to work and professional skills was either not using sources (n = 19) or, if they did, it was internet news portals (n = 19). For learning related to work, professional skills and leisure interests, the most frequently cited sources were social networking sites (n = 25), professional blogs (n = 21) and online professional forums (n = 19).

Learning related to work and professional skills, according to the activity logs, most often was realized through conversation (n = 46) or interaction with an expert (n = 31), while learning related to both daily routine and work/professional skills was most often achieved through reading (n = 38), with a high proportion of the latter also involving talking (n = 35) as a learning activity. The mode of learning, which is also related to work, professional skills and leisure interests, shows a different pattern, as it is most often reported to happen through internet use (n = 43) and reading (n = 37). Talking as a way of learning related to work and leisure interests was mentioned 11 times in the activity logs. Self-directed learning was the most frequently recorded activity related to work and leisure interests (n = 11) (Table 5).

Among the resources used in learning activities, employees believe that the most useful sources of knowledge are paper based documents (n = 4, mean:5.00) and online video sharing sites (n = 1, mean:5.00). This result should be treated with cautions, as the number of items in the variables is very different, so it did not make sense to perform an analysis of variance, so only means and variances can be considered, also as in the case of the perception of the usefulness of knowledge acquired by different learning activities. By type of activity, the usefulness of knowledge gained through media consumption (n = 1, mean:5.00) and writing (e.g. blog, n = 2, mean:4.50) was found to be the highest. Knowledge gained through interaction with an expert (n = 36, mean:4.31), practical experience (n = 19, mean:4.21) and self-directed learning (n = 21, mean:4.05) were also considered effective by employees.

Learning at work and its informal patterns emerged quite clearly from the analysis of learning activity logs. The results confirmed that informal learning is mostly embedded in work and daily activities (talking, reading, surfing the internet) and is less prevalent in workers’ daily lives as self-directed learning.

Results of the case study

The three companies examined in the case study are small and medium-sized enterprises, two are domestically owned IT companies, while the third is a domestic subsidiary of a large international company. In the case of all three companies, the specificities of the IT sector are noticeable in both labour market and economic terms, with small differences but similar attitudes towards the issue of supporting learning at work, with similar patterns and similar learning patterns of their employees, most of which are informal.

Company “A” is a software development company with Hungarian ownership in Budapest, founded in 2009, with 35–50 employees. Its main profile is cloud-based custom software development in addition to reselling cloud-based services from one of the well-known cloud providers.

Company “B” is the Hungarian development center of one of the world’s leading communication software and services companies, with a history of more than 20 years. The number of employees is 60–70.

Company “C” was founded by Hungarian owners in 2007, the company deals with IT system operation among small and medium-sized companies in Hungary. Their office is located in the agglomeration area of the capital, but in the agglomeration, The number of employees is around 15.

The companies surveyed face very similar problems also in supporting employee learning, professional development and knowledge sharing within the organisation. The amount of time that can be spent on learning and knowledge sharing, which has to be taken away from production time, is a constant challenge, but managers are aware that supporting their development is essential for both competitiveness and employee retention.

Besides the time spent, the direct financial cost of training and learning support is also a problem in many cases, on the one hand, the extent of this has to be calculated in advance in the annual budget, and on the other hand, based on their experience, the return on investment of paid courses and conferences is questionable in terms of their usefulness.

The knowledge-intensive IT industry, as the results of the survey and the interviews showed, is predominantly staffed by those, who take self-learning for granted and are motivated to learn. Nevertheless, in two organisations, low motivation levels were still identified as a difficulty of learning at work, despite the fact that only a minority of employees were affected. Low motivation for work-related learning is even more of a problem in firms where there is less awareness or systematic attention is paid to supporting employee learning and knowledge management.

For two companies, the lack of sufficient quantity and quality of resources for learning support and knowledge management is a serious problem and is also the cause of most of the difficulties, as they do not have a dedicated human resources employee. In a company where HR is in place and dedicated resources are dealing with employee development and knowledge management, the results are noticeable, which is also reflected in employee responses to the questionnaire and interviews. The tools and resources used for learning do not differ substantially between companies, with all three organisations relying heavily on experiential learning and experience sharing.

None of the organisations surveyed used a specific motivational or incentive tool for learning because, in their experience, opportunities for professional development and recognition within the community are sufficient for the time being. Based on the results of the questionnaire survey and the interviews, this is a valid finding, because the results of the surveys show that employees are motivated to learn by challenging tasks, opportunities for development and support for innovative ideas. Management at all three companies are aware of this and are consciously trying to use it to their advantage.

The results show that employees expect their employer to support their professional development and learning, but they also train themselves through self-directed learning, most of them not only for their job but also relating to their hobbies. Based on the evaluation of the questionnaire research and the interviews, self-directed, informal learning at work is considered effective by the employees of the surveyed companies, while the most effective forms of learning support are “free use” learning time, challenging work tasks and the support of a professional mentor or coach.

In all three organisations, using the internet, talking to colleagues or reading online professional blogs are the most frequently used sources of learning. Both private and professional social networking sites are used for learning and knowledge sharing, but the frequency is lower, while in two of the surveyed firms an online community group was created for knowledge sharing.

Employees in the three companies have similar views on the effectiveness of learning opportunities and tools. In each organisation, talking to colleagues and learning from colleagues on the job is considered most effective, alongside reading online professional blogs and online professional forums.

Overall, of the case studies, the perception of the learning support activities of company A is the most positive, as well as regarding the results of several variables examined. This may be explained by the fact that this company is the only one of the three that has dedicated resources for employee development and knowledge management regarding the organisational level. The other two companies surveyed are also aware of the need to devote resources to these are. They know that in the knowledge-intensive IT industry, employers need to support the learning and professional development of their employees in a way that is as innovative and responsive to their individual needs as possible if they are to remain competitive both professionally and in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. For the time being, workers expect this attitude and do not abuse it, they just take advantage of the learning opportunities, which highly motivated workers in the knowledge-intensive sector need to maintain and increase their satisfaction.

Discussion

The main finding of the research is that the number of learning opportunities available in workplace learning is positively correlated with perceptions of the effectiveness of informal learning. There is a significant correlation between the number of learning opportunities available and the daily learning routine and habits of employees (Spearman correlation calculation rho = 0.237, p = 0.002), so the more learning opportunities available, the more likely workers are to feel that they learn on the job every day (Tables 6 and 7)

The questionnaire survey revealed that the mean of informal learning opportunities in supporting workers’ learning is significantly higher than that of formal opportunities. It is found that the prevalence of informal learning activities is much higher in workplace learning than formal learning opportunities, or non-formal, but rather more formal learning opportunities (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1.

Frequency of tools used in workplace learning

ToolsNminmaxμσ
Google search162154.820.55
Wikipedia usage161153.601.26
Professional blogs reading162153.941.10
Professional blog or tutorial writing152152.221.41
Online professional literature reading161153.801.20
Videos watching (YouTube, Ustream, etc.)161153.371.26
Social networking site (professional groups, etc.)159152.651.40
Reading paper based professional publications156152.341.33
Talking with colleagues159154.340.90
Presentation sharing platforms157152.251.28
Intranet, company wiki153153.141.39
Table 2.

Opportunities of workplace learning frequency

Opportunities of workplace learningNminmaxμσ
Internal course-based vocational training142152.251.16
External course-based vocational training144151.990.99
Internal training-like professional education148152.571.27
External training-like professional education147152.121.16
Internal professional lecture153153.141.21
External professional lecture152152.391.22
Internal training to increase personal effectiveness142152.051.11
External training to increase personal effectiveness142151.741.08
Internal online course (company e-learning)140152.391.37
External online course (Coursera, webinar)150152.401.34
Language course144152.361.44
Conference150152.431.23
ICT training126151.781.12
Internal experience-sharing events146152.801.24
External experience-sharing events144152.471.28
Professional mentoring141152.521.43
Coaching137152.081.29

The content analysis of the case study interviews revealed which learning support tools are used and which learning support activities are carried out by domestic IT companies. In the interviews, online courses (13), the time available for learning (12), the use of online professional resources (blog, forum, etc.) (11), conference attendance (9), mentoring (8) and peer support and joint problem solving (8) were most often mentioned.

Table 3.

Usefulness of tools and opportunities of workplace learning

ToolsNminmaxμσ
Internal course-based vocational training133153.361.16
External course-based vocational training137153.651.14
Internal training136153.601.08
External training139153.711.12
Internal training to increase personal effectiveness122153.001.27
External training to increase personal effectiveness120153.041.31
Internal professional lecture149153.571.16
External professional lecture139153.661.13
Internal experience-sharing events143153.771.13
External experience-sharing events134153.471.12
Conference137153.291.26
Online courses, trainings (Coursera; Edx, webinar, etc.)142153.591.14
Learning from online tutorials148153.991.04
Participate in online professional communities128153.391.26
Social networking sites for knowledge sharing and learning133153.281.22
Using internal intranet, wiki142153.201.29
YouTube, education videos watching151153.631.18
Reading online professional forums151153.891.06
Reading professional blogs149153.901.03
Professional blog or tutorial writing117153.211.42
Reading paper based professional publications142153.061.35
Professional mentoring118153.661.24
Coaching115153.371.42
Talking to colleagues154154.200.97
Learning from colleagues on the job (pair work, shadowing)149154.251.03
Learning by doing150154.660.75

According to the activity logs, work-related learning was most often achieved through reading electronic documents (e.g. online tutorials), professional blogs, social networking sites and professional online forums among the respondents. The most common learning activities logged by employees were reading (103), talking (94) and surfing the internet (64).

Both the case study questionnaire research and the content analysis of the semi-structured interviews confirm that informal learning accounts for the largest share of the learning patterns of knowledge-intensive industry workers. In 12 out of the 17 interviews recorded, interviewees listed explicitly informal learning activities as an effective way of learning. For the previous question, which looked at the learning support tools provided by employers, they were based entirely on informal, self-directed learning by employees, and the data from the analysis of activity logs confirmed this. Learning was most often done informally by using an internet search engine and browsing the web, talking to colleagues, reading professional blogs and literature, and using Wikipedia (a collaborative knowledge repository).

Table 4.

Connection of recorded learning activities to the sphere of activity

Sphere of activityFrequency%
Connection only to work, professional skills12937.3
Connection to formal training/education20.6
Connection to work, professional skills and leisure interests11232.4
Connection to daily routine and work, professional skills9928.6
Others41.2
SUM346100.0
Table 5.

The type of learning activities according to each sphere of activity

Sphere of activity
Type of activityConnection only to work, professional skillsConnection to formal training/educationConnection to work, professional skills and leisure interestsConnection to daily routine and work, professional skillsOthersSUM
Interaction with an expert31122036
Practical experience12051220
Self-directed learning41115021
Observation302005
Conversation4601135294
Reading28037380103
Media consumption001001
Using internet504316064
Writing (blogs)000202
SUM1292112994346
Table 6.

Examining the correlation between everyday learning and the available learning tools

Spearman's rho (everyday learning)
ρσN
Everyday learning1.000162
Google search0.0810.307162
Wikipedia usage0.0140.864161
Professional blogs reading0.0230.774162
Professional blog or tutorial writing0.170*0.036152
Online professional literature reading0.0180.819161
Videos watching (YouTube, Ustream, etc.)0.201*0.010161
Social networking site (professional groups, etc.)0.213**0.007159
Reading paper based professional publications−0.0330.687156
Talking with colleagues0.170*0.032159
Presentation sharing platforms0.0980.221157
Intranet, corporate wiki0.0930.254153
Table 7.

Examining the correlation between everyday learning and the available learning opportunities

Spearman's rho (everyday learning)
ρσN
Everyday learning1.000162
Internal course-based vocational training0.1130.179142
External course-based vocational training0.198*0.017144
Internal training-like professional education0.1060.201148
External training-like professional education0.1520.066147
Internal professional lecture0.0940.247153
External professional lecture0.194*0.017152
Internal training to increase personal effectiveness0.1290.127142
External training to increase personal effectiveness0.1230.146142
Internal online course (company e-learning)0.233**0.006140
External online course (Coursera, webinar)0.178*0.029150
Language course0.0500.549144
Conference0.251**0.002150
ICT training0.257**0.004126
Internal experience-sharing events0.256**0.002146
External experience-sharing events0.1440.086144
Professional mentoring0.263**0.002141
Coaching0.297**<0.001137
Table 8.

Relationship between perceptions of the effectiveness of forms of learning based on experience sharing and a willingness to share newly acquired knowledge with colleagues

How much would it motivate you to attend conferences, training or education on the condition that you need to share the knowledge you have gained there with your colleagues?Spearman's rho (everyday learning)
ΡσN
Learning opportunities based on sharing and/or processing personal experiences of self or othersInternal professional presentation0.269**0.001149
Internal experience sharing event0.239**0.004143
External experience sharing event0.298**<0.001134
Participating in online professional communities0.203*0.021128
Reading online professional forum0.0420.629133
Using internal intranet and wiki0.0440.606142
Reading online professionals forums0.204*0.012151
Reading professional blog0.210*0.010149
Writing a professional blog or tutorial0.224*0.015117
Professional mentoring0.265**0.004118
Coaching0.222*0.017115
Talking to colleagues0.160*0.048154
Learning from colleagues on the job (pair work, shadowing)0.1390.090149
Learning opportunities not based on sharing and/or processing personal experiences of self or othersInternal course-based vocational training0.1370.115133
External course-based vocational training0.208*0.015137
Internal training0.277**0.001136
External training0.210*0.013139
Internal training to increase personal effectiveness0.1160.204122
External training to increase personal effectiveness0.0700.447120
External professional lecture0.272**0.001139
Conference0.271**0.001137
Online courses, trainings (Coursera, Edx, webinar)0.174*0.039142
Learning from online tutorials0.0430.600148
Reading paper based professional publications−0.0080.929142
Learning by doing−0.0210.795150
Internal course-based vocational training0.1370.115133

One might assume that in employer practice, informal learning plays a smaller role in supporting workplace learning than formal learning. However, the result of the questionnaire survey shows a significant difference between the mean of informal learning opportunities (mean = 0.52, standard deviation 0.22) and formal learning opportunities (mean = 0.32, standard deviation 0.23): the result of the matched sample t-test t = −12.14, p < 0.0001. However, the difference is contrary to the hypothesis, i.e. the average of informal learning opportunities in the IT sector is significantly higher than the average of formal opportunities in workplace learning.

From the semi-structured interviews, there is a strong perception regarding both the management and employee side that informal learning is considered more effective, and that employers consciously try to encourage and support it. Workers need and seek these informal learning opportunities at work.

Data from the questionnaire survey show a correlation between the knowledge intensity of the job and the perception of the effectiveness of informal learning at work: rho = 0.29, p < 0.001. The result is significant, i.e. the more knowledge-intensive the job, the more effective the informal learning is for the employee, both at work and in his/her leisure time.

Out of the 17 interviews conducted, all interviewees considered their jobs to be knowledge intensive, 12 of them considered informal learning to be highly effective, and 2 workers spoke about the ineffectiveness of formal education, suggesting that informal and non-formal learning is considered more effective than formal. The above suggests that the knowledge intensity of the job is positively related to perceptions of the effectiveness of informal learning.

Knowledge-intensive workers perceive informal learning to be more effective, which we know is most often linked to work activity or the experiential environment. Learning activities to process and share own experience emerged in the semi-structured interviews as a tool for effective learning support. These learning activities were also mentioned in high numbers as learning opportunities provided by employers and as a means of supporting professional development and knowledge sharing. Both workers and managers prefer experiential learning to theoretical knowledge, and some also said that it is more exciting to learn by experience, to try new things, than to read textbooks. There is a positive correlation between the extent to which employees perceive learning through experience-sharing to be effective and their willingness to share their knowledge with colleagues. Among the 14 learning opportunities based on sharing and/or processing personal experiences of self or others, 10 items showed correlation (Spearman), namely internal professional presentation (rho = 0.27, p = 0.001), internal experience sharing event (rho = 0.24, p = 0.004), external experience sharing event (rho = 0.30, p < 0.001), active participation in online professional communities (rho = 0.20, p = 0.01), reading online professional forum (rho = 0.20, p = 0.01), reading professional blog (rho = 0.21, p = 0.01), writing a professional blog or tutorial (rho = 0.22, p = 0.02), professional mentoring (rho = 0.27, p = 0.004), coaching (rho = 0.33, p = 0.02) and talking to colleagues (rho = 0.16, p = 0.05). Only 5 of the 12 learning opportunities not based on sharing and processing show a correlation (Table 8).

The interviews provide an excellent illustration of the difficulties of identifying and observing informal learning related to work. The more reflective interviewees were more likely to identify informal learning activities embedded in their work or other daily activities, while the majority of employees typically identified non-formal learning activities as informal as well. Overall, it can be concluded that from the workers’ point of view, there is no substantive difference between informal and non-formal learning, as opposed to formal and non-formal learning, necessarily including also informal learning.

Conclusion

The results of the research demonstrate that the role of informal learning is crucial for work-related learning in the knowledge-intensive IT industry, where the share of knowledge-intensive jobs is also high. The ability to learn on one’s own is typically a basic expectation of the employer, but the opportunity to learn is also a key requirement for the employee. The effectiveness and support for informal learning in the sector under study differs from the general national view, as even the recognition of informally acquired knowledge is often difficult, but the companies surveyed are already consciously building on informal learning. The results are representative of the fact that, irrespective of the sector, we can nowadays talk about much more possibilities in the context of workplace learning than limiting it to corporate training and education. The conclusions of the research are thought-provoking in terms of the potential that organisations may be depriving themselves of if they do not address informal learning. The integration of consciously supported and encouraged informal learning into corporate training and development practices is more rewarding for organisations in terms of competitiveness, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, as informal learning, embedded in daily work activities happens anyway, but its frequency and quality could be influenced. The results of the research are earlier, but because of the changes in the way of working brought about by the pandemic, they could be decisive for the spread of a more flexible approach to learning support among human resource professionals. “It will become paramount for HRD2 professionals to support their leaders to explore and establish most relevant, cost-effective, and wide-range technological innovations to support employee’s learning and networking needs” (Dirani at al., 2020, p. 388). The results help to promote the recognition of informal and non-formal learning as equal learning in the world of work, not only in selection processes but also in training and development. The importance of the presence and role of informal learning has become unquestionable, research findings and recent changes in the global labour market have made it clear that a broader understanding of work-related learning has become a necessity, which has presented new challenges to company managers and training and development professionals alike.

Acknowledgement

The study is based on the partial results of the author’s doctoral dissertation defended in 2018.

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1

The recording period of the activity logs took place between 31.07.2017 and 20.08.2017. During this period, respondents had the choice of seven consecutive days on which to complete the learning activity logs.

2

HRD: Human Resource Development.

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Senior Editors

Founding Editor: Tamás Kozma (Debrecen University)

Editor-in-ChiefAnikó Fehérvári (ELTE Eötvös Loránd University)

Assistant Editor: Eszter Bükki (ELTE Eötvös Loránd University)

Associate editors: 
Karolina Eszter Kovács (Debrecen University)
Valéria Markos (Debrecen University)
Zsolt Kristóf (Debrecen University)

 

Editorial Board

  • Tamas Bereczkei (University of Pécs)
  • Mark Bray (University of Hong Kong)
  • John Brennan (London School of Economics)
  • Carmel Cefai (University of Malta)
  • Laszlo Csernoch (University of Debrecen)
  • Katalin R Forray (HERA Hungarian Educational Research Association)
  • Zsolt Demetrovics (Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest)
  • Csaba Jancsak (University of Szeged)
  • Gabor Halasz (Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest)
  • Stephen Heyneman (Vanderbilt University, Nashville)
  • Katalin Keri (University of Pecs)
  • Marek Kwiek (Poznan University)
  • Joanna Madalinska-Michalak (University of Warszawa)
  • John Morgan (Cardiff University)
  • Roberto Moscati (University of Milan-Bicocca)
  • Guy Neave (Twente University, Enschede)
  • Andrea Ohidy (University of Freiburg)
  • Bela Pukanszky (University of Szeged)
  • Gabriella Pusztai (University of Debrecen)
  • Peter Toth (HERA Hungarian Educational Research Association)
  • Juergen Schriewer (Humboldt University, Berlin)
  • Ulrich Teichler (University of Kassel)
  • Voldemar Tomusk (Estonian Academy of Sciences, Tallin)
  • Horst Weishaupt (DIPF German Institute for International Educational Research, Frankfurt a.M)
  • Pavel Zgaga (University of Ljubljana)

 

Address of editorial office

Dr. Anikó Fehérvári
Institute of Education, ELTE Eötvös Loránd University
Address: 23-27. Kazinczy út 1075 Budapest, Hungary
E-mail: herj@ppk.elte.hu

ERIC

DOAJ

ERIH PLUS

2020  
CrossRef Documents 36
WoS Cites 10
Wos H-index 3
Days from submission to acceptance 127
Days from acceptance to publication 142
Acceptance Rate 53%

2019  
WoS
Cites
22
CrossRef
Documents
48

 

Hungarian Educational Research Journal
Publication Model Gold Open Access
Submission Fee none
Article Processing Charge none
Subscription Information Gold Open Access

Hungarian Educational Research Journal
Language English
Size B5
Year of
Foundation
2011
Volumes
per Year
1
Issues
per Year
4
Founder Magyar Nevelés- és Oktatáskutatók Egyesülete – Hungarian Educational Research Association
Founder's
Address
H-4010 Debrecen, Hungary Pf 17
Publisher Akadémiai Kiadó
Publisher's
Address
H-1117 Budapest, Hungary 1516 Budapest, PO Box 245.
Responsible
Publisher
Chief Executive Officer, Akadémiai Kiadó
ISSN 2064-2199 (Online)

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