Practical Experience vs. Formal Study? Reframed for Today’s Workplace

'Knowledge' highlighted, under 'Training'

After hearing the topic of practice vs. study come up more than once in the past few days, I feel compelled to weigh in on the subject. In the first instance it came up casually over dinner. A friend of a friend– a highly successful head of a global business for a fortune 500 company – was challenged when he attempted to move internationally for his company. When the new country’s authorities discovered that he lacked a university education, they questioned his visa application. In the second instance, the subject came up when I read a blog post entitled “3 Things I Value More Than Your Formal Qualifications.”

These days, most of us receive confusing mixed messages about the extent to which formal education vs. practical experience is valued in the workplace. As I have coached and provided career advice to executives over the years, they often grapple with the dilemma of how to value formal qualifications versus on-the-job learning. Of course, there’s no easy answer – every job and industry requires and values a different balance. Below are five considerations for reframing this dilemma for decision-making in your own career, and for your organization more broadly.

Career Paths are Changing
Everyone has an opinion on this dilemma. “It’s not what you know,” people often say, “it’s what you are able to do with that knowledge.” Then there is a tendency to answer the question more directly. Some of the common ones I hear include, “an MBA is worth the investment, a Masters in not,” or “a PhD has no value in the practical world,” or “you need at least a Bachelors Degree to be taken seriously.”

So which of these answers is the right one? There are as many right answers as there are professionals. When it comes to learning in the 21st century, it is about what is right for you. Certainly there are professions requiring specific qualifications – a medical doctor needs a medical degree, a financial advisor needs professional licenses. But beyond this, the question becomes, where do you best learn? In the post-industrial age, norms are being broken of the pre-determined career path. As one executive shared, “…when I started my career twenty-five years ago, I was given a choice in my department of a management track or a non-management one… now I see infinite options.”

With so many different career options, it is logical that there will in turn be many different education options of how to get there. And these need not be pre-determined by others, but by each professional for himself.

Education is Wherever Learning Takes Place
The entire notion that one can be fully “educated” by the time they leave school or university is becoming obsolete. It is known, through research and practical experience, that learning extends throughout one’s life and career. Indeed, the Adult Learning and Leadership field, such as Columbia’s Adult Learning and Leadership program, focuses on fostering learning in organizations that extends beyond formal study. Much research has been done to advance how organizations can effectively create environments that foster Informal and Incidental Learning [1], so that learning occurs in a way that is integrated with work on-the-job.

Does this make formal learning obsolete? Absolutely not. This brings us to the next point.

Formal Education and On-the-Job Learning Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Formal and on-the job learning, of course, are not mutually exclusive. If you chose to combine formal education with practical experience as you develop as a professional, each form of development can complement and reinforce the other, as a synergy, rather than necessitating that one type of development overshadow the other. The goal is to find ways to apply your learning, regardless of the form the learning took place.

Educational Diversity is Part of an Inclusive Workplace
So where does this leave us with the question that we started with – what is more important, formal education or on-the-job learning? The answer, in my mind, is that we need to ask a different question. Rather than comparing the two, as if there were a single right answer, let’s embrace the fact that we are in a highly complex, diverse, and exciting world, where we need all types of people, with all types of educational backgrounds in our workplaces. Instead, lets ask what are the problems that need to be solved in our organization/ industry, and how can we best leverage the diverse learning experiences of our employees to solve these problems? When framed this way, it becomes less important where the learning occurred, and opens up possibilities of how best to tap into the broad range of knowledge, skills and experience that people in our organizations possess.

Imagine if blog posts like this one did provide a conclusive and formulaic answer to prescribe the correct balance of on-the-job vs. formal learning. Then we could create a world of cookie-cutter professionals, where each of us would sit around the table in our respective departments, with credentials and learning experiences that mirrored our own. How boring would that be?

Educational Diversity & Innovation
Not only would it be boring if we all had identical learning experiences, but it likely would also lack innovation and positive outcomes. Scott Page, in his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, highlights in what circumstances diversity of thinking correlates with better outcomes in organizations [2]. In a New York Times interview, Page states, “People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call ‘tools’. The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.”[3]

So let’s embrace the fact that our workplaces have different people with different educational backgrounds who have learned what they know in different ways. This leads to different ways of thinking, of seeing the world, and offers opportunities for innovation. As we focus on building inclusive workplaces – let’s value the diversity of educational backgrounds and experiences in our organizations. Stepping out of the debate on which type of learning is better – formal versus on-the-job – frees us up to focus on the more important questions related to workplace learning, such as how to leverage the learning and experience of our workforce to solve organizational problems, and to continue to advance our organizations well into the future.


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[1] Marsick, V.J., & Watkins, K.E. (2001). Informal and Incidental Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Vol. 89, pp. 25–34.

[2] Page, Scott E. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Dreifus, C. (2000, January 8). A Conversation with Scott E. Page; In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity. Retrieved from

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