Much learning at work is not recognised because it happens informally as part of everyday experience, says the Learning and Skills Development Agency which carried out the research.
Colleges, independent training providers and workplace supervisers need to try harder to tap into informal staff networks and day-to-day activities at work, says a report of the research. Little thought is given to finding out how workers can share experience and knowledge. Often, staff with few qualifications had much to offer by way of training and advice.
Researchers looked at the practices in eight occupational areas from painting and decorating to health care and the manufacture of computer games. The investigation focused on small and medium enterprises which account for 98 per cent of companies and employ 60 per cent of the workforce.
The key message of the report, Learning Without Lessons, is for colleges and training organisations to fine-tune their courses, tailoring them to meet the needs of companies and individuals.
The implications of the research, funded by the Learning and Skills Council, are so far-reaching that it has been incorporated into the Employer Training Pilots. The pilots, to be rolled out next year, are a cornerstone of government policy aimed at raising skills levels in industry.
Stressing the need for training providers to offer more bespoke courses, David Greer, LSC skills director for employers, said: "A one-size-fits-all approach to training is unlikely to meet the needs of any organisation. The LSC's experience echoes LSDA's finding that small and medium enterprises appreciate a more flexible and tailored approach."
The failure to exploit the benefits of informal learning at work are not only restricted to basic skills. Over-emphasis on formal training occurs at every level "especially management training", says the report.
While people can gain a lot of knowledge from general principles, transferring these to the workplace can prove difficult. The LSDA calls for the development of a range of new approaches to training, including mentoring, coaching and advisory support.
Maria Hughes research manager at LSDA, said: "All workers, regardless of level and qualifications, have knowledge and skills they can share. This suggests that there is a need to target resources to support a wide range of employees who have some responsibility for learning in their companies to become better trainers."
A common approach to company training is to do the formal learning before the business starts. But the research, carried out with the support of the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative, found that the most effective learning often came from watching demonstrations, reading books and trade magazines and discussions with colleagues.
Learning without lessons - supporting learning in small businesses, by Lisa Doyle and Maria Hughes is available from the LSDA, www.LSDA.org.uk