When I was developing networked and computer-based learning in the 1980s, the writing was already on the wall, that self-directed learning will become a mainstay at the workplace. And today, in the 21st century, that is still true.

As human resource development (HRD) professionals, I must confess I too would be tempted to prefer structured learning where I can easily get something designed, developed, tested in the workplace, and audited. Such programs are more easily “sold” to corporate management, with finite timelines and measureables that leaders can easily understand.

However, the modern workplace demands much more unstructured learning. Many companies are now no longer passive and reactive to the rapidly changing global economies and the market conditions, and prefer to take more active roles in not just adapting to such economic and market forces, but to attempt to stay ahead of the curve. This means that some structured learning programs face immediate obsolescence as soon as they are developed. Corporate knowledge has evolved to a real-time beast that does not stop, but keeps changing, sometimes drastically.

The emerging generation of workers these days have shorter attention spans, and are not afraid to speak up and walk out. They would often attempt to multi-task (or more correctly, rapid sequential processing of segments of tasks), toying with their smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers. Structured learning programs in corporate classrooms would often bore such workers, and yield less than desired learning results, compared to workers of yesteryears.

What would be unstructured learning methods at the workplace?

Social networking is a current paradigm that most modern workers adapt quickly and readily to. Unstructured learning can be adapted to be informal and real-time, tapping on microblogs, and social media networks such as Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, or even video-based platforms such as YouTube. The method to deliver learning should be bite-sized, entertaining, and intriguing, to engage the younger workers. The younger workers are also much more vocal, and such informal social network learning platforms should allow comments, which in turn are informal learning tools.

Other on-demand learning tools would include the more established platforms such as video and audio podcasting, probably within the corporate networks. Another common platform are webinars, which may combine recorded audios, videos, presentation slides, and annotations.

When workers progress in their responsibilities and seniority, unstructured learning can also come in the form of mentoring by established and respected internal and external experts.

Classroom-based learning require many employees and managers sitting in the same room at the same time, which can be resource-intensive, and challenging in today’s fast-moving workplace. Unstructured learning can quickly adapt to individualized and self-directed learning, which are increasingly the best ways for the mobile and emerging workforce to learn from.