When Should Organizations Use Informal Field-Based Learning?

Topic(s): organizational development, performance, training
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Informal Field-Based Learning and Work Design
Authors: M. A. Wolfson, J. E. Mathieu, S.I. Tannenbaum, M. T. Maynard.
Reviewed by: Janie Durham

Most researchers, as well as practitioners in charge of training programs, can agree that serious training and development programs cost serious money. So naturally, it is important that there are returns on those financial investments. However, most funds go towards formal classroom learning, and in this report, the authors (Wolfson, Mathieu, Tannenbaum, & Maynard, 2019) give another option that might pay even more dividends in professional development: informal field-based learning.

Sometimes called just informal learning, informal field-based learning includes action, experiential, and self-directed learning. In other words, informal learning includes experiencing something new, taking a different approach to doing a task, and a reflection piece in which feedback is sought and the experience is discussed—all of which is very different than structured learning, which takes place in a formal classroom.


The researchers noted that most literature on work design leaves out the importance of designing work with built-in opportunities for learning. Researchers identified three work design features that could influence informal field-based learning: (1) when the work requires continuous learning and the application of new, relevant information, (2) when the work requires that an individual has greater latitude and opportunities to make decisions and solve problems, and (3) work with a great deal of time pressure—for example, situational constraints that might keep an individual too busy to engage in learning behaviors. To conduct their research, a sample of 378 health care employees in 47 different jobs was used.


It just makes sense that jobs requiring a constant influx of new knowledge and skills as the employee progresses would require more training and learning in general. That is precisely what researchers discovered in their report. Individuals in jobs that required new and relevant knowledge and skills showed performance improvements when they engaged in informal field-based learning.


Researchers expected that employees making decisions and solving problems would have performance improvements when engaged in informal field-based learning. However, the results indicated that informal field-based learning was not as valuable to jobs that required a multitude of decision-making and problem-solving and could even be troublesome. It seemed that the lower the amount of decision-making and problem-solving there was in the job, the more useful informal field-based learning was. The subsequent discussion focused on the fact that the researchers used hospital jobs in their study, and many of these roles deal with critical medical issues. In these situations, it might be more beneficial to focus on established procedures than to create new ways to do work.


At first, researchers hypothesized that time pressure would have a negative relationship with informal field-based learning behaviors, which means that more time pressure would be associated with less field-based learning behavior. Although they were mostly correct, they were still surprised to find that there was an instance when time pressure helped informal field-based learning—when the employees had a focus on being promoted, and therefore were more engaged in feedback and reflection. Even with pressures on their time, promotion-focused individuals engaged in more informal-field based learning.


Informal-field based learning is a low-cost alternative to formal classroom training, but an organization needs to really think about whether the type of work their employees do will allow them to benefit from it. Based on this research report, informal-field based learning is beneficial when the employee needs to consistently learn new things, when there is little-to-no pressure to make decisions or solve problems, and there are few constraints on the employee’s time, unless that employee is particularly interested in receiving feedback. In these instances, it would definitely be beneficial to design jobs that are rife with learning opportunities.


Wolfson, M. A., Mathieu, J. E., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Maynard, M. T. (2019). Informal field-based learning and work design. Journal of Applied Psychology, Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000408