To grow a company, management needs the training and development to expand the skills and abilities of its employees. According to research from the National Center for the Middle Market, 29 percent of top performing middle market companies emphasize training and education. That compares with 17 percent of slower-growth firms.

Although correlation is not necessarily causality, there is an obvious connection. As markets, economies, customers, and technologies change, companies must adapt strategies, tactics, and operations to seize opportunities and avoid danger. A significant part of that involves having employees with the right skills and abilities to help meet the challenges. The choices other than training and development would be to fall behind competitors or to hire new workers with the needed skills, which can be expensive and prove to be hard to find.

But close to three quarters of middle market companies surveyed by NCMM say that they face difficulties in pursuing the level of training they need. One significant problem is cost. Only 6 percent of middle market companies would invest extra money in formal training and development programs. The programs can also be too frozen in form and content for changing conditions.

There is, however, a solution. Research from Morgan McCall and the Center for Creative Leadership has identified that learning in an organization occurs in three ways: 70 percent through experience of difficult tasks, 20 percent from other people in the organization, and only 10 percent from courses and learning.

Research conducted by Jill Ellingson, Howard Klein, and Raymond Noe for NCMM suggests that middle market companies focus on informal learning that already can happen in the workplace, whether through collaboration with co-workers, getting help from supervisors or colleagues, or seeing how others do a job.

Unfortunately, informal learning does not necessarily happen in an optimum fashion. Employees see themselves as getting answers or swapping ideas, not learning. If they saw the true educational context, expansion of their own abilities, and value to the company, the employees might look to expand those experiences.

"They will conduct a kind of perpetual inner performance review, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses rather than waiting for a manager's annual judgment. And they will do all those good things in the context of a company's changing environment. So employees will equip themselves for the battle being fought today or to be fought tomorrow, rather than simply studying the lessons from battles past."

There are four actions companies can take to maximize this informal learning:

  • Hire people who are motivated, social, curious, and dedicated. Essentially, the company should seek self-motivated employees who accept responsibility for their own advancement and a desire to improve themselves. They also need to be social because, while self-study and analysis has its place, most informal learning takes place in the context of other people. Remember that supervisors and managers, too, must be willing to learn.
  • Self-guided development becomes part of the job. A company must help make self-guided development a part of the culture. Inform employees that such learning is part of expected performance, a subject to cover during performance reviews, and a way to enhance their position in the company.
  • Maximize learning by creating the circumstances in which it is likely to happen. Self-managing teams, open workspaces, and cross-functional training is a start, but go beyond by structuring jobs so employees have to interact and collaborate. Encourage people to work in teams with the authority to obtain the resources and expertise necessary and allow employees to form teams as they need them.
  • To fix the experiences, employees also need time for reflection. Employees must take stock of their current skills and educational efforts, determine what they need next, and create a plan to obtain it.

Informal self-education is a low-cost way for companies to encourage the training and development they need for employees. The results can help increase employee satisfaction, which indirectly helps the organization.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc., and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter. Circle him on Google+.