Challenges of Virtual Internships - Informal learning & accessing tacit knowledge

Challenges of Virtual Internships - Informal learning & accessing tacit knowledge

Closely linked to enabling relationships and building networks, the challenge of informal learning and accessing tacit knowledge emerged as a key overarching challenge for virtual internship programmes. Learning from others, learning with others, seeking knowledge held by others, learning by doing, asking questions, practicing with others, are all examples of informal learning behaviours[1]. The foundation of the learning facilitated by these behaviours is tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the ‘know-how’, the experienced based knowledge and insight held in individual employee’s brains. By virtue of this knowledge residing in individuals rather than written down, it is difficult to share and indeed best shared through socialisation.

Virtual programmes provide less opportunity to do this and lesser quality opportunities for interns to build networks, socialise, source knowledgeable others, and engage in either ad-hoc or deep back-and-forth conversations. This challenge is therefore related to the previous challenge, in that improving processes regarding social relationships and networks would also improve opportunities for tacit knowledge sharing and informal learning.

Indeed, there is increasing recognition that the majority of learning in the workplace occurs through experience and informally, with estimates ranging from 70-90% occurring this way. This is because 90% of the knowledge on which performance in real-world settings is based is tacit knowledge i.e. embedded in people's heads[2]. This challenge was outlined by one of our interviewees:

“[A lack of informal learning] is probably where the key barriers still arise basically because again, that engagement is not in-person. And when it comes to internship experiences, one of the key pieces around it is that they really do learn by seeing and learn by…shadowing others and that is ultimately non-existent in remote environments. You see your team for 20 minutes and then you're back looking at Microsoft Teams and there's just not that spontaneous human centric learning experience that you're going to be getting. So we really try and understand how can we create that remotely and so with that collaboration, making sure that people managers are as transparent as possible with their interns in terms of goals, expectations, what you need to do, who you need to discuss with in order to be able to work with other people on your team, build up a relationship professionally, and then also in elements personally too and making sure that they're really there to guide them in the right direction”.


The most common strategies we identified to supplement learning involved attempting to plug gaps in the virtual internship programme in terms of lost opportunities through virtual learning. A number of organisations did this using more formal learning programmes via platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, other platforms, or in-house learning management systems.  However, there are limitations to online technology for learning, capturing, and sharing tacit knowledge. Indeed, research evidence finds that while employees who engage in formal training average 23% higher performance than those who don’t engage with training, those who engage in informal learning behaviours display a 32% higher performance.[3]

A small number of organisations attempted to replicate work shadowing as a means of sharing tacit knowledge through screen sharing and walking through the tasks. This was mostly used for specialist tasks such as coding, auditing, or engineering tasks. Key to enabling this was identifying where it would be effective and ensuring co-workers or leaders prompted such interactions. Additionally, encouraging interns to ask for assistance when required is key.

One professional services organisation had put in place a number of initiatives to replicate opportunities for more tacit knowledge sharing. Each day began with what they termed a stand-up call where teams, including interns, met briefly to share what they were working on that day.



Audit rooms

A professional services organisation attempted to recreate the office environment through what they called audit rooms. At a set time on a daily basis teams all joined a Microsoft Teams call for a set period. Cameras were generally off, and microphones muted. However, the room provided an opportunity for team members to simply ask questions and discuss issues with colleagues as the need arose during the flow of their work in a similar way to the office environment. The audit rooms also helped to build team cohesion.

In a small number of organisations which already had a hybrid element to their internship programmes, we heard about the value of co-location in terms of tacit knowledge sharing. In one organisation where interns spent some time on-site due to the nature of the work being done, there was a sense that tacit knowledge sharing, and informal learning was better facilitated. This is likely to be a key part of hybrid programmes when organisations more generally shift to such models.

The nature of work undertaken by interns also appeared to impact on tacit knowledge sharing. The opportunity to work on large project teams or engage with external clients, aided in building diverse networks and accessing others’ tacit knowledge.

This was an area where examples of solutions to the challenge were fewer, so we have particularly drawn on academic research to suggest some potential solutions. Given that interns’ engagement with project teams is one of the most tangible means through which they can access other’s tacit knowledge, either when co-located or virtual, insights from research evidence on virtual team working [4] can improve virtual team working practices and thus tacit knowledge sharing and relationship development. Equally scientific evidence on tacit knowledge transfer [5] and informal learning behaviour [3] is informative.



Informal learning & accessing tacit knowledge

Actions to take to improve the virtual internship experience and outcomes in terms of virtual teamworking, tacit knowledge transfer and informal learning behaviour include (See Appendix E for further detail):

  1. Focus on building relationships and cohesiveness in the team early on. This could include:
    • Early face-to-face sessions. At the time of writing this was not possible. In hybrid scenarios this is a key starting point.
    • Team building techniques and team training focused mostly on team working, relationships, social protocols, team social support, managing interpersonal team conflict, building trust, and clarifying roles.
  2. Dedicate time at the beginning and end of meetings to engage in more informal conversations and to discuss process elements related to the project/task in hand.
  3. Use guided debriefing sessions. These should focus on:
    • Learnings and improvement not evaluation or judgement.
    • Activities or events over results or performance.
    • Integrate multiple sources of evidence such as multiple participants, organisational data, or scientific evidence
  4. Consider the work environment in which interns work and pay attention to:
    • Increasing interaction and reciprocity with all term members
    • Encourage the intern to seek tacit knowledge
    • Encourage the intern to question
    • Encourage the intern to share their tacit knowledge.
    • Involve relevant managers in enabling these work conditions and others including avoiding blame.
  5. Include evaluation of learning and transfer of learning to the job in the programme evaluation to identify which virtual/hybrid programme design elements are effective in sharing tacit knowledge.


[1] Cerasoli, C.P., Alliger, G., Donsbach, J.S. et al. (2018) Antecedents and Outcomes of Informal Learning Behaviours: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Business Psychology, 33, pp. 203-230.

[2] Gubbins, C., & Dooley, L., (2021), Delineating the tacit knowledge-seeking phase of knowledge sharing: The influence of relational social capital components, Human Resource Development Quarterly

[3] Cerasoli, C.P., Alliger, G., Donsbach, J.S. et al. (2018) Antecedents and Outcomes of Informal Learning Behaviours: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Business Psychology, 33, pp. 203-230.

[4] Centre for Evidence Based Management (2020), Attributes of Effective Virtual Teams: Rapid Evidence Assessment of Scientific Literature Technical Report, CIPD.

[5] Rashman, L, Withers, E & Hartley, J 2009, 'Organizational learning and knowledge in public service organizations: A systematic review of the literature', International Journal of Management Reviews, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 463-494.


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