2023 Learning & HR Trends: Where Workflow Learning Can Make a Difference

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled 2023 Learning & HR Trends: Where Workflow Learning Can Make a Difference. In it, Bob Mosher and Dr. Con Gottfredson discuss market research gathered by their colleague Brooke Thomas-Record and how workflow learning can help organizations meet current and ongoing challenges. 

Bob Mosher (BM): As we start 2023, we want to share some remarkable data gathering that a dear colleague of ours recently completed so that we can consider it in the context of the coming year. I think as learning professionals, we've got to strategically and intentionally think about where we're going and how we’re defining our priorities. So, I am so thrilled to be joined by two colleagues. Dr. Con Gottfredson, are you there? 

Con Gottfredson (CG): I am. It's great to be with you and I’m especially looking forward to our conversation today. 

BM: I am as well. We have been so fortunate at APPLY Synergies to have a remarkable lifelong friend in the industry, Brooke Thomas-Record, join us. As you'll hear in a moment, she brings remarkable insights about our industry into the work that we do. Brooke, welcome. 

Brooke Thomas-Record (BT): Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be part of this with you today and thank you for the warm welcome.

BM: Toward the end of 2022, Brooke did some wonderful work for us. I don't know about the rest of you, but I struggle keeping up with the many trends that are spread across multiple resources. Brooke took on the challenge of looking across several of those to really see where thought leaders, research folks, and voices in our industry were thinking about issues that our field is dealing with and where we are headed. So, we asked Brooke to host a conversation with us today, obviously in the context of 5 Moments of Need, performance, and workflow learning. Brooke, we’ll have you kick that off. Give us a little bit of background about what got you here and what you took on. I know there are four areas you want to highlight. Take it away, friend. 

BT: Sure! This is the culmination of some market research I was asked to do for which I used 10 different resources. I'll list them here so that everyone understands how this information has been sourced.

Everything you'll hear me say today is pulled from those resources. 

BM: Remarkable. So, kick us off. What are some key topics that you think are important as we start the year?

BT: I picked 4 to start so I will list all 4 and then we can dig into each of them:

  • Reskilling and upskilling. (It's probably not a surprise to most people that this was a big trend across all the resources I reviewed.) 
  • Improving the employee experience. 
  • Supporting internal mobility. (I think this is really tied into that employee experience element.)
  • Pivoting toward hybridization. (Although COVID showed up three years ago and work has changed quite a bit since then, this shift is continuing. I think companies are still figuring out the best ways to approach hybrid work.) 

BM: Totally agree.

BT: Trend number one—reskilling and upskilling. Here are some key data points, statistics, and points of interest from the various resources I read. 
  • Worldwide, nearly 9 out of 10 companies are currently facing a skills gap. The pandemic sped up digital transformation and the ever-enlarging skills gap. Some 87% of executives report existing skills gaps or expect to face gaps within the next 5 years. 
  • While companies might be tempted to trim training budgets amid the ongoing crisis, experience should show them that investing in retraining can pay off in the long run. 
  • It's becoming increasingly important for companies to deliver timely and effective employee training. Workers are eager to acquire new skills with as many as 70% being willing to leave their current position to work for a company that's more willing to invest in their training and education. 
  • L&D sees the growing skills gap and certainly recognizes that leadership is concerned. 
    • 46% of learning professionals say that the gap has widened at their organizations, a percentage that has increased since 2021. 
    • 49% say executives are concerned that employees don't have the right skills to execute business strategy. Again, that percentage has increased since 2021. 
  • 53% of executives in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends research expected that between half and all of their workforces would need to reskill by this year (2023) to provide capabilities needed now. A new study also by Deloitte estimates that 100 million global low wage workers will need to find a different occupation by 2030. At the same time, the demand for skilled workers is growing with 7 in 10 employers globally saying they're struggling to find workers with the right mix of technical skills and human capabilities. 
  • More than half of the low wage workers currently in declining occupations might need to shift to occupations in higher wage brackets that require different skills. In the US, 10% of workers in the onsite customer interaction arena (e.g., hospitality, restaurants, etc.) may need to retrain or gain additional skills or education to transition to more secure jobs by 2030.
  • Speedy and effective worker redeployment will be needed, for example, by recruiting and retraining based on skills and experience rather than academic degrees. Rapid changes in working practices and the jobs people do can be accomplished quickly. The key is to focus on the tasks and activities required rather than on whole jobs. Redesigning work in this way can streamline processes, increase efficiency, and enhance operational flexibility and agility. As companies look beyond the pandemic, they have an opportunity to reimagine work, their workforce, and their workplace by focusing on specific tasks and activities vs. entire jobs.
  • The change in labor demands over the next decade will require a major retraining effort as workers transition from jobs that entail mainly routine tasks that require basic cognitive skills like literacy and numeracy into work requiring more technological and social and emotional skills. But the scale of the retraining challenge goes beyond those workers who need to switch occupations, because even among workers who keep their jobs, the tasks they perform will shift.
    • For instance, delivery drivers now use GPS to calculate the fastest routes and use apps to provide real-time tracking, etc.
    • LinkedIn members’ skills for the same occupation changed by about 25% from 2015 to 2021. At at this pace, LinkedIn expects that member skills will change by about 40% by 2025. 
    • In the post COVID scenario, the greatest increase in demand is for technological skills like advanced IT skills, computer programming, engineering, and scientific research and development. In China, the demand for time spent on these skills may increase by 51% by 2030, reflecting that country's rapid move into advanced industries and digitization.
  • Demand is expected to increase for adaptability and continuous learning, reflecting the need for all workers to continuously learn new skills as technology evolves and continuously transforms jobs. This will change educators and employers as there's little consensus on how to teach social and emotional skills.
  • The changes brought by COVID opened the door for companies to play a larger role in retraining workers for new jobs and creating career pathways with upward mobility to ensure a supply of workers with the right skills.
  • L&D leaders report feeling concerned about continuous change and ambiguity. When asked what they want, they report a desire to enhance the capabilities of their teams and to upskill foundational developmental skills like coaching
  • Examples of behaviors associated with achievements in futureproofing by L&D teams include:
    • Managers recognizing the value of learning in the flow of work. For low performing companies, that recognition is only 9%, but in high performing companies, it's 62%. 
    • People understanding how their work is linked to the organization's performance. Again, in low performing companies, that's only 25%, but in high performing companies, it's 79%. 
    • The learning strategy allowing for changing business priorities. That is true in 25% of low performing companies and 93% of high performing companies
  • When we look at optimal educational journeys, we're increasingly seeing that they're led by individual students starting from the ground up with their motivation to learn on their own terms. Companies that want to deliver necessary skills to their workforce must respect that process and employ L&D solutions that empower learners to understand and integrate what they're taught—not just retain the bare minimum needed to pass the test.
  • In the 2022 L&D Global Sentiment Survey, the data shows a shift from 2021’s grand aspiration of reskilling and upskilling programs to the harsh reality of how difficult implementing those efforts really is as we emerge in our semi post-pandemic world. Still, 79% of learning professionals say it's less expensive to reskill a current employee than to hire a new one. And studies have found that retraining existing employees with proven track records is far more cost effective than hiring new people.
  • According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report, leadership and upskilling are the top 2 L&D priorities, followed by DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion). So, leadership and management training were in half of respondents’ top three choices, but 72% of learning professionals chose upskilling, reskilling, digital upskilling, and/or digital transformation as one of their top three priorities. So, 72% of learning professionals focused on skills. In Asia, upskilling/reskilling was rated the highest priority with 60% of learning professionals saying it's in their top three.
  • There is a 10% increase in large-scale upskilling or reskilling programs that were deployed in 2022 compared to 2021.
BT: After considering those key points, now we turn to some important challenges and areas of concern when it comes to the skilling arena.
  • Scale is a big challenge. According to McKinsey & Company, more than 100 million workers in the 8 countries they surveyed may need to switch occupations by 2030. Of the 17.1 million workers in the US who need to change jobs, almost 15 million might need to find work in different occupational categories. Given the concentration of job growth in high wage occupations and the declines in low wage occupations, the required scale and nature of workforce transitions will be quite difficult.
  • Only 15% of learning professionals say they have active upskilling and reskilling programs, and only 5% have made it to the stage where they're measuring and assessing results. The clear sense seems to be that L&D knows what to do, but is striving hard to obtain the resources, technologies, support, and/or engagement to make it happen. If there was a sense in 2021 that there was a lot of reskilling and upskilling work to be done, in 2022 that drive was somewhat tempered by scale alone.
  • Knowing if a program has made a demonstrable impact on employee performance and the business continues to be L&D’s greatest challenge because the industry is still lacking strategic metrics and relying too heavily on qualitative feedback.
  • Challenges specific to learning in the flow of work include:
    • Globally, 7 out of 10 L&D decision makers are prioritizing learning at the point of need, but learners are saying their learning experiences aren't practical enough. 
    • Although most learners are taking advantage of opportunities at work to help them do their jobs more effectively, it seems that L&D teams need to do a better job of understanding what learners need within the context of their roles.
    • Many L&D teams either don't have the resources to match learning strategies to specific roles, or they aren't invited to provide employees with crucial role-specific support and guidance. They just aren't given the opportunities they need to help people achieve more by learning in the flow of work. 
That wraps up our first trend of reskilling and upskilling. 

CG: Now, the question is how to take all of that and become actionable. I really think it starts with us asking, “What is a skill?” and then defining it. To upskill and reskill, to measure, and to adjust to change, we need to understand and define—as an industry—what a skill really is. The fact that skill gaps are being recognized is important, but how do we see and measure those gaps? This is one of the fundamental challenges that we face: knowing we've got to upskill and reskill, but what does that mean? We know from our work in workflow learning that at the heart of any skill is a job task. That job task must be infused with supporting knowledge that helps workers adapt, adjust, and generalize. And that task can be a soft skill: it can be a principle-based task or a procedural task, but at the heart of any skill is a task. We must understand that and then put in place a system that helps us tactically attack those skills and all those challenges that you've raised, Brooke.

BM: Yes. In your wrap-up at the end of that trend, Brooke, some things just screamed workflow learning to me. And that is my frustration! I’m sick of our industry nodding its head and having workflow learning on its radar. Let's put up or shut up. I'm being abrupt, but what upsets me is if you had a doctor who knew how to heal something, but didn't try to heal it, how irresponsible is that?! We're learning professionals. Workflow learning is not new. There are methodologies to do it. Let's make 2023 the year that we step up to these. 

I didn't hear a single challenge or concern you listed, Brooke, that I have not seen be solved by workflow learning in the years we've been doing it. Measurability? Yep. Time to competency? Yep. Filling skills gaps? I hate that term, by the way, because they should be called performance gaps. They’re not skills gaps. I have skills gaps in accounting, but I'm not an accountant, so I don't care. People have performance gaps and need skills to fill them. And so much vocabulary pivots on “training”. We've got to rethink our vocabulary. I think that will help us begin to rethink what we do and what we build. So much in what you shared was just screaming to me that we've got to realign ourselves around performance, get off the training bandwagon, and to Con’s point, redefine skills. Don't go down the road of competency modeling! Let's look at skills as being based on performance. “Lack of context” means we don't know the workflow. “Irrelevance of training” screams that we don't know the workflow. I mean, if you listen to what Brooke said, it's all in there. So, let's see if this year we can make that pivot.

CG: You know, behind all of this is an organization’s need to be able to adapt, to adjust for the workforce, to pivot to meet market changes, and so forth. As you said, Bob, we know through experience how to meet that need with true workflow learning, which is learning while someone is doing their work, and putting in place the infrastructure to do that. You must map the workflow to build a support system that helps people in their workflow at the job task level. A great example of this is The Hartford’s ability to pivot 2 divisions into work outside of their norms in a matter of weeks because an infrastructure was in place to support learning in the flow of work. It supports people as they perform. 

BM: Yes. Next point, Brooke.

BT: Trend number 2—improving the employee experience. 
  • In the Gartner 2023 HR priority survey, employee experience jumped from 6th place in 2021 to 3rd place in 2022. 
  • LinkedIn Learning is saying that learning leads the way through what they're calling the great reshuffle, which is defined as a period unlike anything in the history of work. Individuals are prioritizing flexibility and fulfillment, and their demands are steering organizations to reexamine business strategies, workforce models, values, and culture.
  • L&D leaders are responding to workers’ calls for growth and purpose while helping futureproof their organizations. Learning leaders are knocking down traditional silos to collaborate on a more holistic vision for HR. They're reaching for fresh solutions to tie skill building to career paths, internal mobility, and retention, while also bringing a new sense of care and humanity to employee wellbeing, diversity, and inclusion. Organizations that prize constant learning will, according to LinkedIn, lead the world as they build the new normal.
  • 81% of executives are changing their workplace policies to offer greater flexibility to their workforce.
  • Having opportunities to learn and grow is now the number one factor that people say defines an exceptional work environment or culture. In 2019, that was ranked ninth in LinkedIn’s survey, so that's a big change in just a few years.
  • Instead of committing to a day of training once a year, or even blocking off a little time each day for eLearning, employees far prefer to learn as they go, making the most of opportunities to speak with people and look things up for themselves. Most learners want to learn as they work, seeking solutions to issues organically at their points of need
  • 3 “blocks” that L&D can address to improve the learner experience:
    • Time crunch. Employees want to learn during work hours, and L&D cites time and resources as their biggest obstacles.
    • Relevance of both content and timing. 41% of learners say that content is too generic. Specifically, onboarding and manager training are identified as key arenas to make sure that the timing and relevance of learning are just right. 
    • Technical limitations. Nearly half of L&D professionals either don't know if their LMS can support integrations for targeted training in the workflow, or they're sure that it can't.
  • Care is moving to the center of conversations about reducing burnout and boosting wellbeing.
    • The most critical factor in a caring employee experience is each person's manager. To that end, almost 50% of learning professionals put increased attention on manager training and support this past year.
    • Employees who feel cared about are over 3 times more likely to say they're happy working for their company, and almost 4 times more likely to recommend working for their company.
    • At companies that struggle with manager care, employees are nearly 50% more likely to apply for a new job. Managers need supercharged soft skills to attract and retain talent
  • It's important to recognize that workers deliver more value when they're respected and invested in. If such investments include reskilling—tying back to our first trend—that will better prepare employers for the future as well
  • One way to show workers the value of their contributions is to emphasize outcomes and performance management since outcomes speak more directly to a worker’s contributions toward organizational objectives.
    • There's evidence that the shift toward outcome-based performance management is already underway. More than 65% of executives surveyed for the 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Special Report agreed that they believed metrics would need to shift to capturing outcomes rather than outputs in the next 5 years. In that same report, when executives were asked what workers will increasingly value in the next 5 years, 86% predicted that they would value a meaningful mission and an opportunity to make an impact on that mission. 
So those are the key points about improving the employee experience and now we go into the challenges and areas of concern. 
  • We talked about managers being critical, but they are also at really high risk of burnout. Data shows that many learning professionals are leaning in to activate the power of managers, but there's a word of caution because managers have shown higher burnout levels recently when compared with individual contributors. Over-relying on them is a potential problem.
    • 29% of learning professionals say they're delivering learning programs to managers about leading through change and change management. 
    • 29% of learning professionals say they're increasing the number of trainings and support for managers.
    • 33% of learning professionals say they're focusing on strengthening managers’ coaching skills. 
    • In Gartner's 2023 HR Priority Survey, leader and manager effectiveness jumped two spots from the prior year to reach the number one spot. The problem remains that we don't know what they really need, and they're burned out. Managers feel squeezed between senior leaders’ demands and expanded responsibilities. Burnout is real. 
  • CEOs care more about the workforce than ever. In terms of business priorities, it's risen from 5th in 2020 to 3rd today. For the first time ever, it's higher than financial concerns. So, it's good that the CEOs recognize the importance, but they're focused on it because they're worried. HR strategy needs to be better than ever and support the business strategy with a solid people strategy. Of course, everyone's managing multiple tradeoffs, like cost savings vs. business requirements, talent investments vs. employee needs, etc. 
That's trend number two in a nutshell.

CG: You know, Bob and Brooke, one of the first things we do when we walk into any organization is map the workflow and the work people do. Even though many organizations talk about performance and so forth, most haven't truly mapped that work. How do you manage work that you can't see, that you haven't mapped, and that you don't know? At the heart of workflow learning is this journey of mapping the workflow and then building an infrastructure that supports people as they perform their job tasks with all the resources they need. If you do that and you understand those job tasks in the context of where the critical impacts of failure lie, then it's a different ballgame for managers (e.g., managing work, measuring performance, guiding and directing workers, etc.). But at the heart of managing the work is understanding it and having an infrastructure to support it.

BM: If we want to enhance an employee's experience and all that you shared, Brooke, a bunch of things jumped out at me that I think, again, map to the shift we're pushing for here: opportunity to grow, continuous learning, learn as they go, organically adapting, content is too generic (to your point, Con, we lack context and we don't know the workflow). Technology is an issue. Your LMS can’t do it? Well, LMSs haven't done it for a while. A Digital Coach is what we've been talking about forever. 

The moons align so much for me in this category because, fundamentally, if you want someone who feels valued, someone who feels listened to, and someone who is aligned to the mission, self-efficacy steps up for me here. Feeling trusted steps up for me here. Feeling empowered and enabled steps up for me here. You want to take pressure off managers? Empower your employees so they need less managing. The danger is putting the onus on the manager to carry the brunt of this while the learner sits there waiting. 

So, 3 things jump out to me:
  • Outcomes. I love the emphasis on shifting to outcomes vs. output. Outcomes are measured through understanding workflow and designing workflow learning. 
  • Enabled learners come from learning in the workflow and being empowered with intentional tools, methodologies, and deliverables that let them feel trusted, valued, and empowered. 
  • Having enabled learners solves part of the manager problem, because it takes the emphasis off of the manager being the tip of the sword and focuses instead on the employee. 
Each of those points supports why we've got to go more in this workflow learning direction.

BT: Trend number 3—supporting internal mobility. This seems to be in line with improving the employee experience, so here are some key points. 
  • 54% of people surveyed for the LinkedIn Learning report agree that internal mobility has become a higher priority at their organization since COVID hit.
  • Career mobility and growth is a huge concern for the HR leaders who responded to the Gartner 2023 survey, and 44% don't believe they have compelling career paths. 
  • Employees who don't feel that their skills are being put to good use are 10 times more likely to look for a new job compared to those who do feel their skills are being put to good use. 
  • Cultivating a culture of internal mobility means giving employees access to on-the-job learning opportunities that can include mentorships, shadowing, new jobs, etc. And the benefits are increasingly obvious: retention, engagement, and agility, plus reduced costs and hiring time. 
  • Companies that excel at internal mobility can retain employees for an average of almost 5 1/2 years. That's nearly twice as long as companies that struggle with mobility, whose average retention span is just under 3 years. 
  • Most workers want to be empowered where it matters most, which is in the work that they do and advancing their careers. By providing internal mobility through opportunity marketplaces, employers may be able to satisfy workers’ desire for empowerment by putting them in control of their careers. 
A big challenge and area of concern is reflected in the fact that only 31% of one survey’s respondents said they feel their organization provides a great deal of support for learning new skills and expanding professional capabilities and goals. There seems to be a disconnect between what companies know they need to do and what's actually happening.

BM: Con, I think The Hartford is a good example of the power of mobility, be it laterally or in career advancement.

CG: Yes. When you map the workflow and you have a Digital Coach that's supporting performance, and you have that across all your work, the ability to move in whatever direction is needed increases exponentially. Also, when you're supporting tactical work, that allows individuals to be freed up from trying to remember how to do something or how to find something. They’re able to move to higher order thinking, innovation, and contribution. Workers today are so caught up and busy in trying to remember how to do the work, figuring out how to do the work, and finding the resources they need to do the work that they're unable to move to that higher order thinking and be free to contribute, to move, and to grow in necessary ways.

BM: Love that. One thing you said, Brooke, jumped out to me and that was “empowered in the work that they do”. You want to have somebody feel mobile, be allowed to be mobile, own their mobility, own career growth, and own their development. It all gets back to this repeated theme of enablement. Earlier you talked about the whole idea of feeling supported, but what followed is that L&D is thinking about giving workers coaches. I don't think that's an enablement/empowerment model; that's still a dependency model. Is the employee being empowered to own their mobility in that model? I'd argue maybe not. It gets back to understanding the workflow, the Digital Coach, and supporting workers to support themselves—not throwing more resources and managers at them. And back to your earlier point, Brooke, we can’t exhaust managers and ask them to solve this problem. 

Your last trend, my friend.

BT: Trend number 4—pivoting toward hybridization. Again, this isn't brand new, but I still think we're figuring it out. The shift and adjustment continue. Here are some interesting points:
  • Roughly 20% to 25% of the workforce in advanced economies could be as effective working remotely 3-5 days a week as working from an office. If remote work took hold at that level, 4 to 5 times as many people would work from home at least part of the time compared to before the pandemic, which would have a profound impact on all kinds of things like urban economies, transportation, consumer spending, etc. 
  • Hybrid remote work models apply mainly to computer-based office work because it's the arena with the lowest requirements for site dependent work. In this arena, 70% of time could be spent working remotely without losing effectiveness.
  • Remote work presents a potential opportunity to be a great equalizer. 
  • In one survey, only 27% of remote workers say that they feel less connected to coworkers since the pandemic began regarding producing quality work. 
  • A 2017 two-year study by Stanford University shows that, on average, remote workers are 13.5% more productive than their office-based counterparts, 9% more engaged in their jobs, and 50% less likely to quit. 
  • The recent American Opportunity survey by McKinsey & Company revealed that when given the option, the vast majority (87%) of employees across industries and job titles would choose to work remotely. 
Despite all that positivity, now we talk about the challenges and concerns:
  • 47% of HR leaders surveyed believe hybrid work worsens employees’ connection to culture, and just 1 in 4 employees today reports feeling connected to their culture. 
  • 54% of workers feel less connected than before to their organization when it comes to everyone working toward the same business goals. 
    • 65% of senior managers say they feel more connected to their company and aligned with common goals.
    • Only 42% of middle managers and individual contributors feel the same. Employees who are lower on the food chain find themselves consuming scraps of information delivered to them more slowly and sporadically than before. Especially in remote and hybrid situations, middle managers and individual contributors are unable to connect as quickly as they could in an office environment with the context, the nuances, and the clarity of work roles and goals coming down from senior managers.
  • Today, L&D leaders are reporting that attitudes towards learning are at their lowest point in 3 years. Employees aren't as engaged as they were during the height of the pandemic, and the appeal of digital learning is wearing off.
    BM: And therein lies the rub. How are we defining digital learning?

    CG: Traditional digital learning is deadly, right? As I listened to you share all of that, Brooke, what comes to mind is how do we manage a dispersed work team whose members are not together? How do we tie them together in that work? Again, it requires us to understand and map the workflow, and to have a system in place that supports that workflow. When you have that common workflow defined and you have a system in place supporting that work, then you're able to work together, because you know what that work is and you're able to act as a team. That's so vital. We are not going to be able to address this hybrid work environment without defining our workflows and putting in place a Digital Coach that supports that work.

    BM: The elephant in the room is that waiting for this to go away is wrong. COVID has birthed a new work culture that is the new normal. Now, it'll settle out to maybe 1-2 days in the office per week, but we're not going back to 5 days per week in the office. I think in many ways this was a sleeping giant. Our company itself has been remote since its inception and we've done fine. So, there have always been remote workers. This just accelerated and exacerbated the situation.

    Brooke, a couple things jumped out to me, like lackluster digital learning, which I also think encompasses virtual learning. I love the fact that this is still on the radar. Even though, to your point, it may have started 3 years ago, I think we're just getting our arms around what it really means. I think we triaged and patch-quilted it in the beginning. We weren't solving it then, but the dust has settled and now we're having to deal with it. We must go back to look at what we made. 

    Too often, we see statistics like what you shared about digital learning dying off and think, “Well, then digital learning is bad.” Maybe the kind of digital learning we have is bad, but digital learning could be stunning. Virtual instruction might be lackluster or unengaging, but we don't throw virtual learning out. Maybe we do it differently. I think that's the challenge of the day in 2023. How do we reinvent ourselves in our approach to these things? 

    Some think performance support is scrap information. So, don't make it scrap. Structure it well! If workflows have been redefined and workers feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, rapid workflow analysis will define the new workflows and enable consequent collaboration. Are workers missing access to resources because no one is sitting in a cubicle next to them anymore? Let's help redefine that access. The opportunity to revisit all of this in 2023 is stunning. The door is open, but will we walk through it? That is the question, because people will make it work with or without us. They just will. 

    I think your research is stunning, Brooke. The data is compelling. I think we're beyond the irrational nature of hybrid work, if that makes sense, so it's time to take this on in a rational and intentional way. But I would argue it's not a time to just boomerang back or assume the definition of insanity (i.e., doing the same thing repeatedly expecting to miraculously get a different result). We live in a brave new world, and it has shown us that there are cracks in the dam. We need a new way, and we know we have that new way.

    Brooke, brilliant. Really, such good stuff. My gosh, this could be the most data-heavy podcast we've ever done. I'm sure you're all going, “I’ve got to listen to that seven more times.” I've been taking notes myself, and I've heard the data before! What a powerful, substantiated, validated way to kick us off and show us the challenges ahead. But let's take them on now! Now that they’re apparent, what are we going to do about them? Thanks so much. Thanks, Con.

    CG: Thank you, Bob. Great work, Brooke.

    BT: Thanks to you both.

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    Performance Support: A Key Workflow Learning Element to Ensure Organizational Success

    by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE

    To survive and thrive in today’s unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving world, organizations must cultivate learning agility and be able to learn at or above the speed of change. They must continuously develop new skills to prepare for evolving competitive cycles—constantly retooling to maintain their edge. Companies lacking the capacity to anticipate and adapt ahead of change risk failure.

    With that in mind, consider your current talent management practices. What are you doing to develop dynamic learners: those who are rapid, adaptive, and collaborative in how they learn, unlearn, and relearn? To what degree does your organization encourage personal learning strategies that minimize the probability of skills becoming automated (deeply rooted) unless they are absolutely critical? How effectively do your employees learn on the fly? Are you supporting every moment of their learning needs? And when change appears out of nowhere, are your employees able to independently assess their current readiness to perform, identify what skills and knowledge they need to cast aside, and determine how to assertively adapt to the conditions around them? The heart of organizational effectiveness is the capacity of employees to learn at or above the speed of change. 

    Organizational learning agility won’t come to fruition unless talent management practices aggressively develop and sustain this kind of dynamic learning. The first step in doing so is to establish a performance support infrastructure that enables and sustains learning agility. It is through this infrastructure that dynamic learners can instantly access just what they need, in the form they need, to help them perform effectively at every changing moment.

    So, what is performance support? It is intuitive, tailored aid intentionally delivered to people at any of their 5 Moments of Need (see the figure below) to ensure the most effective performance on the job. 

    And what is a performance support infrastructure? It is an orchestrated set of technology enabled services that are Embedded in the workflow, and that provide Contextual access to Just Enough information to enable ongoing effective performance. 

    Performance support is Embedded based on two principles: 1) the proximity (two clicks) and 2) the immediacy (ten seconds) in which dynamic learners can physically and digitally access what they need to perform effectively. Time to effective performance hinges on the degree to which performance support is embedded in the workflow. 

    Contextual access also impacts speed to effective performance. Dynamic learners require access to the same information via different circumstances or settings. For example, a primary context in which dynamic learners need performance support is within a specific workflow process. The most logical way for them to access what they need is according to that process. But at another time, they may need to access the same information according to their specific job role, a point in a timeline, or a specific area of the business. 

    Once dynamic learners get to the information they need to perform, they must be able to immediately interpret and apply that information to their performance moment of need. They don’t have the luxury of time to wander through multiple web pages or plough through an eLearning module to find just what they need. This approach doesn’t work at the moment of Apply. Effective performance support must provide dynamic learners Just Enough of what they need to immediately perform. 

    Traditionally, that is not how organizations have approached training. Instead, we often design, build, deliver, manage, and maintain courseware. We make it available 24x7 via eLearning, mobile learning, and virtual and traditional classroom instruction. We chase every opportunity we can find to enhance this courseware with emerging capabilities like gamification, collaboration, and communities of practice. We blend it, personalize it, and attempt to measure it. Sadly, in most cases, these remarkable courses are a waste of time. The employees we train falter and often fail to perform effectively. And this leaves us asking, “Why?” Here are some fundamental reasons for this failure:

    Not enough time and too much to learn

    In years past, there was enough time for employees to stop their work and attend training events to learn how to perform their jobs effectively. But that dedicated time no longer exists. While the scope of what people need to learn to keep current in their jobs has increased, the time allocated to learn it has decreased. This presents a particular challenge with live classroom instruction where there is too much content and not enough classroom time. Trainers are often pushed to skip or rush through content to cover as much as possible. 

    The good news is that although some skills merit the investment of formal learning, others don’t. They can be safely performed with the right “on-the-job” support—in the workflow. 

    Retention death spiral (the Forgetting Curve)

    How much people learn while participating in any formal learning opportunity varies, but whatever they learn rapidly evaporates following that learning or eLearning event. The rate of forgetting depends on whether the instruction was superficial or methodologically sound, as well as the complexity of the knowledge and skills. The reality is that forgetting happens, and most of the time it happens quickly. Effective performance support can interrupt this forgetting and shorten the time it takes from the start of a course to successful on-the-job performance. 

    Limited transfer at the moment of Apply

    Learning transfer is tested once learners return to the workflow and attempt to apply what they learned. The realities of real-world application are seldom simulated sufficiently in a formal learning environment (i.e., outside the workflow in a classroom or through a computer). Simply put, the moment of Apply presents challenges that limit formal learning transfer unless it is adequately supported during and after the learning event via a performance support solution. 

    Lack of skill integration between formal learning and the moment of Apply 

    One of the flaws in most formal learning approaches is that learners master unique skills and concepts but fail to effectively integrate them all together. Real competency in the workplace requires efficient integration of all the moving parts, and on-the-job performance is often collaborative. Efficient, collaborative skill integration doesn’t just happen. It needs support at the moment of Apply. This support must intuitively map to each unique role in the workflow process and directly support areas where collaboration is needed. Performance support is the most effective means for doing this.

    Failure to support unlearning to relearn 

    When skills are performed repeatedly, they tend to become deeply rooted in people’s skill sets. They become automated (performed without conscious thought). Once skills are ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations, replacing outdated practices with new ways of performing and thinking becomes one of the most significant learning challenges an organization will face. Performance support is key to meeting this challenge. 

    The bottom line? Organizations need a performance support strategy that accommodates all 5 Moments of Need and enables us to push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow. Enabling effective performance at the moments of Apply, Solve, and Change must be at the heart of all we do. 

    Indeed, a performance-first focus is critical for any organization’s success. Twenty-five years ago, performance support pioneer Gloria Gery rightly challenged how most organizations were addressing their corporate learning needs. She boldly pointed out that they were failing to intentionally address their “performance zone”. Here’s how she defined that zone:

    "The performance zone is the metaphorical area in which things come together. It is the place where people get it, where the right things happen, where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situation. It is the place where employees put together all the individual dance steps that they have mastered. The dance, the dancers, and the music are one.”

    The performance zone exists within the workflow whenever employees need to apply what they have learned, solve a problem, or unlearn and then relearn something because matters have changed. 

    We’ve spent billions on learning management systems and even more on eLearning. But what benefit is all this investment if employees ultimately fail in the performance zone? Do you have a defendable technology infrastructure in place to sustain effective performance? Or does your current approach assume that learners will have the time and capacity to figure out—on their own—how to apply what they have learned in the classroom to what they do in their workflow? 

    Gery believed that “As the number, complexity, and interrelationships between the various threads of expertise increase, the chances of operating within the performance zone decrease, unless, of course, something is done to guarantee it.”

    Today, we are certainly operating in an environment that threatens our capacity to be effective within the performance zone without something to help “guarantee it.” Learners want just enough, when they need it, in the form they prefer to address their specific learning need. They want to learn in the performance zone. 

    Gery concluded that an EPSS (Digital Coach) was the best way for organizations to “guarantee” effective performance. She defined it as an “orchestrated set of technology enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”

    Bear in mind these critical distinctions: 
    • There are different types of vehicles for delivering performance support (e.g., job aids, websites, Digital Coaches). 
    • These vehicles differ in capability and quality of production.
    • As a result, they vary in their capacity to deliver effective performance in the performance zone.
    In all her groundbreaking work, Gery settled on an EPSS (Digital Coach) as the embodiment of what she proposes performance support can and needs to be for organizations. She set aside other performance support renditions, like job aids and traditional help, because although they provide some degree of performance support, they don’t provide all the “technology-enabled services” required of a fully loaded performance support solution. 

    As you consider your upcoming needs for learning technology, don’t stop short of the performance zone. Just as you wouldn’t consider developing eLearning without authoring software, you need EPSS (Digital Coach) solutions that will enable effective performance at every changing moment of need.

    In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “First gradually, and then suddenly.” This is a consistent pattern for companies that lack the ability to learn at or above the speed of change. Managing talent is all about delivering effective performance at every changing moment. The people we are charged to train and support deserve immediate, intuitive, tailored aid that is orchestrated to ensure the most effective personal and collective performance during all 5 Moments of Need. Anything less puts a company at risk.

    Subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

    Visit our website for additional resources: Certificate courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paper.

    Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

    Be part of the Workflow Learning & Performance Alliance. 

    Copyright © 2023 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
    All Rights Reserved.

    Extending Learning into the Workflow

    by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE 

    Everyone in the Training and Development profession needs to answer this vital question: “learning is the means to what end?” My colleague Bob Mosher and I answered this question early on in our careers and that answer changed our future. It pushed us to rethink our solutions to extend the reach of learning into the workflow. 

    For us, the intent of all organizational learning is to enable and sustain effective job performance in ever-changing work environments in a way that accelerates growth, amplifies productivity, and minimizes interruption of the work employees are hired to do.

    Obviously, for job performance to be effective it must be efficient, safe (both physically and emotionally), and in harmony with the values and mission of the organization. 

    This shift to focusing first on enabling effective job performance—ahead of formal training considerations—occurred in 1984. Its immediate impact was the realization that when it comes to learning, there are 5 Moments of Need.

    Recognizing these 5 Moments of Need required us to start addressing the realities people face following training—when they meet the challenging moments of Apply, Solve, and Change. A traditional training mindset focuses primarily on the moments of learning New and More, which leaves learners to their own efforts when navigating the critical moments of Apply, Solve, and Change. 

    The fundamental reality is that all 5 of these moments occur in the flow of organizational work. Performance support pioneer Gloria Gery called this the “performance zone.” It was Gery who first sorted out the means for intentionally supporting “unconscious learning” to enable effective job performance in the workflow. She called it an EPSS (Electronic Performance Support System) and described its capabilities this way: “an orchestrated set of technology enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.” 

    Today, any time these capabilities are orchestrated in a way that meets all 5 Moments of Need, regardless of the technology being used, we call that a Digital Coach. When it comes to enabling effective job performance, a Digital Coach is the game changer. 

    Real Learning Happens in the Workflow with the Help of a Digital Coach 

    Collectively, we have almost 90 years of experience rolling up our sleeves and working side by side with Training and Development teams. Central to this work has been helping these teams shift their traditional learning paradigms from a training-only approach to one that addresses the 5 Moments of Need—as they occur during the three stages of the journey to job skill productivity.

    The first phase, Train (shown in green), represents the formal side of learning (New and More). It initiates the learning process. But deeper and more impactful learning occurs during the Transfer and Sustain phases. The decline in the curve following training is known as the Ebbinghaus Curve and is due to memory transience (see Hermann Ebbinghaus research here). That is, whatever a person learns during a training event begins to rapidly decline once the event ends. Providing learners with a properly designed Digital Coach is the most cost-effective way to prevent this loss of learning gains. 

    The second phase, Transfer (shown in blue), occurs in the workflow. Here, workers must reinforce what they have learned during training, translate it to their specific work environments, and integrate all they have learned with their previous experience and knowledge. This is no small learning feat. No one should be left on their own to navigate these rough waters. 

    Without 2-click, 10-second access to the Digital Coach capabilities described above, this Transfer phase takes too much time in which learners:
    • Lose confidence and motivation.  
    • Fall prey to the forgetting curve and often fail quietly.
    • Become overwhelmed in their thinking processes.
    • Develop dependence on other workers.
    • Develop inefficient work habits.
    Learners need to experience immediate success and move rapidly through this Transfer phase to transition from whatever level of skill mastery they have achieved to the beginning stages of job competence. As they do this, they are most certainly learning in the workflow while working. 

    The third phase, Sustain (shown with blue stripes), is where professional growth occurs. Here, when aided by a Digital Coach, workers grow through experience as they adapt their existing skill sets in response to the dynamic nature of real-world work (Apply). They accelerate their growth each time they resolve issues (Solve) and develop their adaptive capacity as they unlearn to relearn (Change). Also, there are times in the workflow when people need to close a personal skill gap (New or More) in response to a pressing work assignment. Within the Digital Coach, as they quickly access the task step guidance for performing that skill (within 2 clicks/10 seconds) and use that guidance to close their skill gap, they are amplifying their work productivity. Since they are doing all of this while working, they are minimizing interruption of the work they are hired to do. 

    What’s important to note is that most organizations begin and end in the Training phase, but there is much more to what learning is and needs to be than what is currently occurring in that phase.

    Most workers today have developed proficiency in an array of job skills that are integrated into broader skill sets and stored in their long-term memory. Over time, in the Sustain phase, they enrich those skills with experience every time they perform them in their work environment. Since most job skills are unlikely to recur in the exact same form and work context, workers develop what we call “expertise.” This expertise provides them greater ability to generalize that experience into successful on-the-job performance in more complex and challenging work situations.

    Real learning is a continuous process that develops expertise through ongoing effective job performance in ever-changing work environments. This level of learning requires blending formal and workflow learning practices.

    What is the Optimum Blend of Formal and Workflow Learning?

    Enabling and sustaining effective job performance requires an understanding of its fundamental components. At a tactical level, the basic unit of all job performance is a task. A task can be principle-based (heuristic) and/or procedural-based (algorithmic). 

    A job skill is the ability to effectively perform a specific task supported by the knowledge needed to make decisions, resolve challenges, and adjust performance of the task in real time within the workflow. 

    A skill set is the ability to effectively perform a workflow set of 5-9 related tasks—again, with the requisite knowledge needed to make decisions, resolve challenges, and adjust performance in real time within the workflow. The tasks in each skill set comprise a core workflow process. 

    The fundamental cost justification for pulling employees away from their work in order to learn is the impact that failure to perform would have on the organization and people. Job skills with a low critical impact of failure can be learned exclusively in the workflow—while people do their work, using the Digital Coach. But when the impact of failure is significant to catastrophic, there is a compelling case for workers to stop their work to safely learn. Here, a Digital Coach can provide a safety net as learners move from necessary training to the Transfer and Sustain phases of their journey to job productivity.

    Achieving Measurable Business Impact

    Extending learning into the workflow allows us to directly measure the impact of our learning and performance support efforts. A Digital Coach makes this possible because it is embedded directly into the workflow and is built intentionally to support performance in the flow of work. As workers use it to support their work, we can gather real-time data to confirm business impact, such as: 
    • Halved time to competency and a diminished productivity gap between less experienced employees and high performers.
    • Reduced waste related to work stoppage, support costs, transaction costs, and delayed learning opportunities.
    • Decreased critical error rates.
    • Increased workplace trust, confidence, self-efficacy, and effectiveness.
    • Closed skill gaps (done in real time, while working).
    • Increased work proficiency.
    • Reduced time to changed performance.
    Here are a couple examples of organizations that have extended their reach into the workflow by employing the power of Digital Coaches:
    • A global consulting firm transformed its onboarding program into a blended formal and workflow learning solution. Its traditional training approach required 30 days of intensive onboarding with significant oversight of new hires. On average, it took 18 months for them to become proficient in their work. By implementing a blended training and workflow learning solution, powered by a Digital Coach, their classroom training time was reduced to 20 days and their time to proficiency was reduced to 5 months. In addition, as new hires demonstrated significantly greater productivity, they moved through the three phases of Train, Transfer, and Sustain with less oversight. 
    • A global manufacturing organization piloted a workflow learning solution at one of its plants, resulting in 20% faster change-over time of machines and 3% improved operational effectiveness (on 50 million bottles, which meant 1.5 million additional bottles and 8% less unplanned downtime). Now, the company is in the process of rolling out the Digital Coach to plants worldwide.
    These are just two of many organizations that have had the foresight to intentionally pursue the power and potential of workflow learning to complement their formal training programs. In the last 10 years, we have observed a global shift from a training-only approach to one that addresses all that is required to meet the organizational requirements for real learning. Now, we are at a tipping point. We have the strategic, tactical, and technical know-how and industry experience to extend learning into the workflow. We can enable and sustain effective job performance in ever-changing work environments in a way that accelerates growth, amplifies productivity, and minimizes interruption of the work employees are hired to do. 

    Subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

    Visit our website for additional resources: Certificate courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paper.

    Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

    Be part of the Workflow Learning & Performance Alliance. 

    Copyright © 2023 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
    All Rights Reserved.

    Are We Really "Skilling Up" Our Employees?

    This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Are We Really ‘Skilling Up’ Our Employees?” In it, Bob Mosher shares his perspectives on popular skill initiatives and offers guidance to ensure we’re not making past mistakes.

    Bob Mosher: We're exploring a topic that is of high interest in our industry, and it’s been at the top of our minds because it makes us a little anxious. It's this whole “skilling” idea. 

    We recently went to a large conference and asked the several hundred people in the room how many were involved or would be involved in a skilling initiative. Ninety percent of the room raised their hand to indicate they were involved in what our industry is calling reskilling or upskilling. We want to run at that because what makes us a little anxious is that we've been down this road before. I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember “competency modeling”, something our industry tried to do a while back. I want to be careful to say that these initiatives are not bad. Their success depends on how we approach them and how we design for them, plus the outcomes by which we’re judged. 

    I think many would argue that the whole competency modeling effort was kind of a failure, because it really didn't get uptake despite the millions of dollars invested in competency modeling programs, consulting, and initiatives. We don't know if organizations ever got the uplift around what true competencies could have meant. Frankly, I don't even know if we define them well. Now that we have this focus on skilling, do we truly know what we're getting into, or are we going to repeat mistakes of the past? Did we take competencies far enough? I was involved in many competency efforts and saw that, as an industry (myself included), we failed to take competencies deep enough into context. If I’ve learned anything through my efforts in workflow learning, it’s that it is all about the workflow. With competency modeling, we never went beyond general, broad lists of competencies based on roles. But roles are defined by workflows, and until you bring that context into the content, efforts around competencies, skilling, reskilling, upskilling, etc. are likely to fail. 

    Let's dial it back a bit and start with a definition. I am a huge fan of vocabulary, because our industry has gone awry at times when failing to clearly define things. We toss around terms, we start trends, we begin initiatives. For example, don't get me started on “micro-learning”. It's a term I bash all the time. I don’t bash micro-learning as an initiative, but I honestly don't think we know what it is. I think if you put ten learning professionals in ten different rooms and ask them to define micro-learning, they will give you eight different definitions. I’m not blaming micro-learning, but I am putting some of the blame and responsibility back on us for not clearly defining terms. So, what do we mean by “skill”? When we say we're going to bring skill initiatives into our organization, what do we mean? What is a skill? 

    For that definition, I went to the place that I thought would be most helpful: the good old dictionary. Here is what I found for skill: “the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance”. Note the word “performance”. In other words, to understand something is not a skill. Instead, a skill is when knowledge is effectively and readily used to execute performance. In our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, a skill is a task. A skill is something people perform. Skills are judged by performance vs. knowledge. Do people have to know things to perform? Of course. We call those things Supporting Knowledge. But the reality is, I've seen some outlines of skill initiatives and, unfortunately, we're mixing it up again. We're putting knowledge-based elements in our skilling (aka performance-based) outlines. So, we must be sure when we do skill analysis, or what we would argue is “workflow analysis”, that we pivot on execution, performance, and the use of knowledge. When someone performs a skill in their job, it is observable because it is executed and performed. And skills are absolutely supported by knowledge, and we will still teach, train, and make knowledge available. But knowing information is not a skill. 

    Here's the question, friends. Will we get down to the task level when we define skills? Effective instruction doesn't happen until it reaches the workflow and is defined by tasks performed in the workflow. Here is an example of what’s making me anxious about some of the skill initiative outlines I've seen. Picture the term “sales rep” written on a whiteboard and below it is a list of all the skills—mistakenly, some of these are actually knowledge—that a sales rep performs. That list is not enough, because two things will happen. Number one, the descriptions of what sales reps perform are way too broad; therefore, we teach them to cast too wide of a net. They have to “sell”, or they have to “close a deal”. Well, wait a minute. “Close a deal” is a broad concept. Is that a skill? Or are there skills (aka tasks) within the process of closing a deal that we should define? Number two, if we don't take those skills beyond a list of things that SMEs tell us are important, if we don't contextualize them into a workflow, we will never reach transfer when we try to teach and support these different skills. Why? Because we won't get specific enough to the workflow itself. We must consider the workflow. We must get down to workflow analysis of the skills/tasks that are performed, and support those with Supporting Knowledge. 

    What is our end goal of getting to the point where we as an industry can define a skill so that it is performed well and we understand the observable nature of it, so that we can judge whether someone has that skill? When you sit down to discuss skill programs with those you serve, consider two words: “skilled” and “skillful”. These might sound like I'm splitting hairs, but I'm really not, because I think they beget different outcomes. These words will allow us and challenge us to create two very different deliverables. I understand the “up” and “re” parts—upskill and reskill—but to what end? Do we want people to be “skilled”, or do we want them to be "skillful”? I'm not just throwing around different words. I looked them up and “skilled”, by definition, is having acquired mastery of a skill in something. Mastery. If you know our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, if you've seen Train/Transfer/Sustain, mastery is not competency. Mastery alone is not application. Moments one and two (Learn New and Learn More) support someone as they become skilled. We're not saying that's not important. Moments one and two are parts of the 5 Moments of Need. You must be skilled to become skillful. So, here is the definition of skillful: possessed of or displaying skill, accomplished with skills. You see the difference? Skilled is having acquired mastery of a skill; skillful is possessed of or displaying a skill and accomplishing something with that skill. I don't think that can be more perfectly laid out. Skilled is moments one and two only.

    In college, I became skilled in accounting. I got an A in the course. I showed mastery. I might have even demonstrated some skills in the course. But I can't do your taxes. Why? Because I never took my accounting knowledge and the degree to which I was skilled in it to become or, more importantly, remain skillful as accounting changed. You see some parallels here? Skilled equates to moments one and two—mastery. Skillful equates to the other moments of Apply, Change, and Solve, moving out to where we apply skills. So, why am I splitting hairs? Because we must be mindful when we sit down with those we serve as we design these skill solutions. Notice I didn’t say “courses” because it's not just courses. It's all about the Digital Coach/Performance Support. It's all about performing in the workflow. But here's my concern. Again, I've seen outlines around this, and we are already backing ourselves into the skilled corner. And there is going to be plenty of skilled content out there. But unless we as an industry and those we serve move into skillful—the transfer of, the display of, the performance of, and remaining current in a skill—we will stop at skilled. We will give pre-tests and post-tests. We’ll identify skills gaps and ask questions like, “Do people know a skill before they start the course? Do they display it or not after they finish the course?” And we're going to be in the exact same situation we've been in forever. We will not cross that powerful line into application and the workflow.

    This is a brilliant opportunity for us to use this new trend to set a new bar in the way we design things. A lot of people ask us about the journey to being allowed to use the 5 Moments of Need framework and introducing a Digital Coach. Well, the door has been opened by this whole skill initiative because it's new. Organizations are waiting for us to help define it for them and to build solutions for it. Get in the deep end with this one to drive and direct the dialogue! Challenge those who want you to build reskilling or upskilling programs and ask these questions: “To what end? When we're done with it, what will success look like? Will we have skilled people who have acquired mastery of a skill, or will we have and sustain skillful performers who possess or display a skill and accomplish things with that skill?” I think it's a stunning opportunity. 

    But there is a lot of quicksand out there, and we've been down this road before. We must be very careful not to repeat past mistakes. We need to walk through this open door and really introduce these powerful ways of approaching new solutions. Methodology begets solutions, right? So, if we're going to shift and take people beyond skilled to skillful, we need a design methodology. ADDIE is not going to get the job done, and in our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, we have EnABLE. That is our methodology that Dr. Con Gottfredson has spent 50 years of his life perfecting, so that we can ensure a workflow learning, task-based, skillful delivery. As an industry, we've got to adopt new methodology. Now, what comes with that? Tools. We are an industry of tools. We are familiar with things like the LMS, eLearning, the LXP, Zoom, and MS Teams. Those are some hammers in our toolkit that help us build things. If we're going to change our methodology to EnABLE, or another workflow-focused approach, we must also use our tools differently. Better yet, we need to understand what they do. Tools must be well designed and orchestrated. 

    A lot of you know the term “blended learning”. You've heard us pick on it before. Back in the 90’s when it first came about, did we ever truly make or design blended learning? Once I considered it through the lens of the 5 Moments of Need, when I was in the thick of a blended learning initiative, I realized I had not made blended learning. Instead, I had made blended training. There's a difference! I had used tools for moments one and two (Learn New and Learn More)—eLearning, coaching, the classroom (all highly effective when used appropriately)—to design blended training. I did not use them or go beyond them to create blended learning.  

    The exciting thing about the world we're in today is that our toolkit is more sophisticated than ever. At the same time, it can get complicated. Remember, methodology begets technology. In and of itself, technology has never resulted in anything new or different—at least not in my career. In fact, when I've taken a tools-first approach, it has always died on the vine. Anybody remember the failed virtual world called Second Life? I'm not going to blame a hammer for failing to drive a nail. I'm going to blame the carpenter for not correctly swinging the hammer. So, I don't blame Second Life for how it petered out. What I blame is our approach to it, our design of it, and the methodology we applied to it. In my opinion, that's where that promising virtual world failed. 

    Now that we're talking about skills, there are tons of available tools and more opportunities for us to use them, blend them, and orchestrate them wisely. As your colleague, I'll share what I currently see when it comes to tools being leveraged for skills. I’m not saying my view is right or wrong, and you should make your own list. Understand the relationship of the hammer to the nail and the saw to the board. Know when to use which tool and the results you will achieve with each. For me, on the skilled (aka mastery) side, I think the LMS, eLearning, virtual platforms, the classroom, content repositories like SharePoint and others, and even VR and AR platforms are effective. I only listed a handful and there are certainly more remarkably powerful tools that, when used well and focused correctly, can best help with getting people skilled. Remember, skilled means having acquired mastery of a skill. But when we move into people being skillful, meaning they possess or display a skill and accomplish things with that skill, I think we have a whole different set of tools to target. You know our bias—a Digital Coach/EPSS—because we've seen it work brilliantly and achieve high impact and high ROI, resulting in skillful workers. 

    A Digital Coach/EPSS must lead the way. It must be the tip of the sword. Like the LMS, eLearning, and maybe the classroom all form the tip of the sword on the skilled side (at least in a digital domain), we would argue that the Digital Coach/EPSS is the tip of the sword on the skillful side, as well as tools like knowledge management platforms and collaborative platforms for coaching and mentoring. We would argue that the LXP clearly falls in this area, although with my bias I think the jury's still out on the LXP and if anyone is really using it well. But back to my Second Life example, I'm not blaming the LXP at all. The implementations I have seen—again, this is my view of the world—are underwhelming. That’s not because of the tool; it’s because of the design. But I think the LXP shows tremendous power and potential on the skillful side. Chatbots and AI engines: these tools are incredibly powerful on the skillful side. So, the blend or orchestration on the skilled side can include the LMS, eLearning, virtual, content repositories, VR/AR, etc. On the skillful side, particularly in the machine learning world, there is lots to do and talk about! But in our current state, I see the Digital Coach/EPSS leading the way, and roles for knowledge management platforms, collaborative platforms, the LXP, chatbots, and AI engines. These kinds of things help us blend learning. 

    I'm not saying that's the definitive list. My point is to go back to where this started. If we're going to meet these skill initiatives, we have to know some things, like what do we mean by a skill? Do we do a good job of analyzing skills? When it comes to workflow analysis, task analysis, and critical skills analysis (all things you've heard us talk about in the world of this domain) do we design them well? Do we move away from ADDIE and into a different world that lets us truly design for a workflow-based, 5 Moments of Need solution? And lastly, how do we use the tools in our toolkit? All those things I mentioned above must come ahead of the tool. If you don't do all those things, tools get applied poorly and incorrectly. So, once we've done all the analysis and applied the methodology, after we've defined skills in both the skilled and skillful workflow domains, do we successfully orchestrate and blend tools based on understanding the outcomes of skilled vs. skillful? 

    Friends, this is such an important dialogue. We've got to get this right or some scary or dangerous things can happen to those we support. That's where we must learn from our past. We must understand what's in front of us, what works best, and do what's right in these initiatives. We are the learning professionals. We have to drive this dialogue. Just like I would expect a doctor to drive a medical discussion, learning professionals need to drive a learning discussion. And defining skilling is a key conversation for us to direct right now. 

    Listen to this podcast!

    Subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

    Visit our website or additional resources: workshops and courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paper.

    Attend the 5 MoN Summit, starting this month!

    Copyright © 2023 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
    All Rights Reserved.

    Supporting Business Transformation with the 5 Moments of Need

    This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Supporting Business Transformation with the 5 Moments of Need”. In it, Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, PhD, RwE interview John Townsend, the Vice President and Head of Business Transformation for FuturePlan by Ascensus, about his lessons learned and guidance for L&D professionals who are working to transform their own organizations.

    Bob Mosher (BM): We are honored to be joined by John Townsend, the Vice President and Head of Business Transformation for FuturePlan by Ascensus. John is one of our heroes in the business and a dear friend who's done remarkable work. John, welcome. 

    John Townsend (JT): Thanks, Bob and Con. It's always an honor to spend time with you, and thanks so much for all you’ve contributed to my capabilities and my success. It’s just an honor to be part of this program and chat with you today. So, thank you. 

    BM: Those are kind words! It's a mutual admiration. 

    Conrad Gottfredson (CG): The thing that's been wonderful about our association with you, John, is you came to us from a very different viewpoint. We started working with you as a representative of your business vs. its learning group. It has been a wonderful experience to have your business perspective as we've worked on some significant projects with you. 

    BM: And this is a perspective L&D needs. That's one reason why we invited you here and are so excited about this conversation. Tell us about your journey and why you have a passion for this thing called business transformation. 

    JT: I wanted to be a teacher from the earliest part of my career. When I went to college, I worked as a tutor, etc. And then as I got into business, I found I was training. I had a gift for communicating and training and helping people align with processes and procedures. So, I did a lot of that early in my career. As I grew in my leadership roles throughout several organizations (all in financial services), I even had a stint where I led an L&D department. So, training and performance are near and dear to my heart, and I see them as inextricably connected. You can't have training without performance, and you can’t have performance without training. But the magic and what I've really appreciated about working with you and Con and the team at APPLY Synergies is the perspective of, “Well, that's great in concept, but how do you apply that? How do you get the application of that?” Because from a business perspective, that's all that matters. 

    I started running large-scale operations in contact centers where we had a lot of turnover. I kept thinking about what I could do to address that, because eight weeks in a training room is costly and doesn't guarantee that the person who sits there comes out the other side ready to perform. So, we spent a lot of time in my former organizations trying to fill that gap by building layers of content. Business tends to see everything as a training problem, but training is just one component of performance. There's also support, management, and all sorts of things that go into that. There's also experience complexity: the more you perform a task over time, the less ambiguity exists around that task and the more confident you become. So, all those things are in my background. 

    Here at Ascensus FuturePlan, we've had a wonderful opportunity to grow through a lot of acquisitions, so we have a lot of different cultures, teams, and mindsets all coming together at once. In my new role as Head of Business Transformation, I get to take a step back and look at the confluence and how people, process, and technology all come together. Of course, underneath all of that is learning and performance support. It all comes together for me, and it all needs to be part of that solution set to get the value and the results that you want. 

    CG: John, we hear the word “transformation” a lot. As Head of Business Transformation, what does the word transformation and the area of business transformation mean to you—from an organizational perspective? 

    JT: Simply put, it's mindset. We do change really well in business. In fact, we do it too well sometimes, and to our detriment. We change, change, change—but change doesn't mean transformation. That is something that happens from within. It's a mindset shift. In the field of learning and development, mindset is important too: introducing a new concept, a new strategy, and/or a new way of doing work is important. But what we found is that despite spending a lot of time developing great technology, writing rigorous business processing, and doing a lot of training, those things alone don't make people transform. 

    In my mind, from a business perspective, it’s not only about having great training and great performance support processes and systems. You also really need to focus on the human aspect, because at the end of the day, the one constant in any change is the person, the human, the actor. Having the business focus on helping people transform and feel comfortable—while reducing their ambiguity and increasing their understanding of why and how what they’re doing connects to the bigger picture, especially as change is happening faster and more dramatically—is really, really important. To me, transformation is mindset, and you don't transform your business until you've hit that last button. It's the hardest and most elusive to reach. When we ask why most change initiatives fail, research shows us it’s because you can do everything right, but if you don't transform the human actor in that sequence, you're never going to get the throughput you deserve. It takes a lot of work from an organizational perspective to make that happen. 

    CG: A good friend of ours, Tim Clark, once told me, “Leaders aren't hired to maintain the status quo. Leaders are hired and put in place to make things better.” At the heart of that is a human being. We've got to learn how to lift them up and help them find internal motivation to change. 

    BM: John, you've always been a remarkable champion of the 5 Moments of Need (5 MoN). For me, that resonates so well with your idea of the complete learner who is addressing all 5 Moments. When it comes to these transformations, how has 5 MoN fit into this shift in your role that you’ve just described for us? 

    JT: First of all, I'm making sure that as we move forward, we are leveraging the knowledge and capabilities that the 5 MoN framework provides us. It's changed how I look at things. Again, I was part of the problem. As a business owner, I just kept thinking everything was a training problem. Bob, you talk about “train, transfer, sustain” (and grow), which is really what the business needs. The trainer or the instructional designer could do a wonderful job of doing everything right, but there's still frustration because the business isn't seeing performance. There's that critical moment of Apply. Learning New and Learning More—we got those covered really well, and we cover what to do when things change and when someone gets stuck. But where it really comes together from a businessperson’s perspective is at the moment of Apply. Things are changing so rapidly now in every business line! I don't care who you are, the old model of training and marinating, and then moving into production and then coming back for more training doesn't really exist anymore. You have to learn by doing, and we need support for that. 

    Having a 5 MoN approach recognizes that the learner turns into a performer the second they're done with their learning exercise, and that’s when they need to transfer their learning. That's scary. All change, no matter how large or small, is a stress factor for anybody. Reducing that ambiguity and unfamiliarity as quickly as you can and supporting people to get to that point of optimization is really how to get your best business results. If you don't understand that and you miss that critical part—if you only do the training and measure the output, but you don't stop and think about the throughput—you’re missing out. You need to support people so that new knowledge and new ways of doing things are no longer ambiguous, hard, or uncertain. There needs to be a very deliberate approach to solving for that and 5 MoN has helped us see it that way, frame our perspective that way, and then take action as a business to do it that way.   

    CG: John, if you were to give counsel to learning leaders and learning professionals on how they could become critical to the business and seen as strategic partners in the business, what advice would you give them? 

    JT: I'll use a golf analogy for just a little bit. You’ve got to walk the course backwards. You’ve got to start from the green where the pin is and then you see things differently as you walk backwards. By that, I mean the business has always focused on the outcome and not the journey to get there. It sees training as the tee box where they're going to start, and then something magical is going to happen in the middle, and then they're going to get on the green and the ball is going to be in the hole. But you can't see that until you walk the course backwards. 

    What I would tell our learning development partners is what I've learned the hard way: L&D needs to be present as business is coming up with strategy, ideas, and KPIs. Understand the KPIs. What are you trying to achieve? Why are you trying to achieve that? How does that align with your strategic mission and goals? We spend a lot of time focusing on that alignment, but if the learning partner doesn't have that perspective, their tee shot is going to be errant and off course. So, you start there and then you bring them back for questioning about how changing a business process, introducing a new concept, or upskilling the workforce faster is going to tie directly to the desired business outcomes. It may sometimes feel like a very obvious answer, but by asking those questions, you start walking backwards. Then, you realize that what you need from a training perspective is to create the foundation. How do you then create the learning support and harness your managers, your coaches, your knowledge, resources, and artifacts? Because we can get you out to a tee box, but that doesn’t mean we're helping you get all the way through to the end. L&D professionals often don't quite have that assertive perspective, and you need to, because otherwise the business will not see it. You have to almost be the guides that help the business walk that course backwards. I think if you can master that skill set as an L&D professional, you're going to feel better about the work that you do, and I think you're going to provide much better results for your business partners. 

    BM: It's such a brilliant metaphor. So many L&D professionals see themselves as handcuffed when it comes to their reach and impact. It’s that tee box idea that once they leave my domain (e.g., my classroom or my LMS), they're out of my control. We also get whacked about a lack of business acumen. We don't know the business or how to walk back from what gets a CFO and a CEO up every day (i.e., the business outcome beyond the corporate goals that are stated every year). If you want to run this metaphor out, there are 18 holes on a golf course. You don't just go, “Oh, we're playing Pinehurst tomorrow.” You go, “We're playing Pinehurst five and I want to go with eight teams like this and seven teams like that. Plus, there's a hazard on 16.” That gives you insight into going back to the tee box and starting like you never have before. 

    JT: And L&D isn't just producing content. Because we're learning professionals, we understand how the human brain takes in and applies information. That practice also applies to your business, including teaching leaders how to think and act differently. I know that may seem like a daunting task, but I think you’ll benefit from having those conversations and dialogues. We've got a phenomenal learning support partner now and she already naturally gravitates to this process. Before, we’d say, “Chris, we need training designed.” She’d say, “Before I even have a conversation with you, tell us what you are trying to achieve. What does success look like? If at the end of this you execute, is it six months from now? Is it three weeks from now? Is it tomorrow?” She already naturally (thankfully) has that approach, and our organization thankfully supports that process. 

    Have that conversation, whether it’s your lead learning professional, your chief learning officer, or whomever. Make sure that you're setting those expectations with your business partners. Say, “In order for us to serve you better, we're going to do things a little bit differently. We're going to start with the end in mind. We're going to ask you a lot of questions, because when we do, we're going to find those traps and those hazards that we want to avoid, and we’ll help you design a better learning program. But more importantly, we're going to help you use learning as the launchpad—as a tee box if you will—to achieve the desired goals and results.” I don't think that happens if you just sit in your silos and work. 

    BM: Let's peel this onion. I love where you're going. You are such a brilliant practitioner and one of the more pragmatic leaders with whom we've had the good fortune to work. Share your best practices around your transformation journey. What does this mean to businesses now? What are some roadblocks to anticipate and what are your lessons learned? 

    JT: We learn through a lot of failure, right? Oftentimes, failure is the greatest teacher. From my experience. I can share two things that I've really been focused on. One is that you've got to be a really good storyteller. There's a great book that I'll reference by Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It’s about how you make “sticky” ideas and I've leveraged that content for several years. I think the book has been out for about a decade. It talks about how everyone at all levels is bombarded with inputs and stimulus from 9,000 directions. There's noise in our personal lives. There's noise in our corporate lives. There's a lot of noise everywhere, and you have to confront that. You need to acknowledge that. Doing more of the same thing and communicating the way that you've always communicated is only going to be noise. I've tried to use a lot of the practices that I've I learned from that book. For example, how do you frame ideas? How do you approach stakeholders and give them “elevator pitch” kinds of bullet points as things that will become sticky ideas? Then, as they're being bombarded with lots of different things, they have a very simple way to come back to your message. Like, “Oh, John. What are we talking about with transforming the annual administration process? You said that there were three steps, right? Input, output, throughput…”and I'm making this up, but it gives them a trigger and something to stick to. My COO has a lot of responsibilities. There's lots of information passing across his desk, so I found that one of my chief obligations to move and transform business is to help create sticky ideas. That takes a lot of thought and practice. So that's one lesson learned. 

    The second is that I draw a lot of pictures. I've gotten really, really good at PowerPoint. I write a document first because that's my background (I write things out), but then I have to translate that thought into pictures. You have to show people what you mean because people are coming at your ideas, your concepts, and your change initiatives with a lot of different stakeholder needs. Some want data, so I've got to have a spreadsheet version ready to go for them. Some want to see the big picture, so I've got to have a visual ready for them. And some (very few) are the introverts, like me, that want to deeply read, consider, and think through a document. So, you have to consider your audience. 

    To sum up, 1) focus on “ideas made to stick” and how you frame them, and 2) understand your medium for conveying those ideas and really understand your stakeholders. I will even ask stakeholders things like, “It seems to me, Bob, that you're a visual learner. Would you prefer if I present things to you in this fashion?” I think the more I've asked those questions, the greater success I've had with breaking down barriers. I'm doing it right now. Literally, before we started this conversation, I was in the middle of translating an Excel document with rows of data into a Word document and into a PowerPoint. It takes time, but I think if you do that on the front end, it will save you so much swirl and so much churn on the back end. I think it's a great investment of time. Those would be my two points. 

    CG: John, I remember when you flew out to Sundance in Utah, and you and I rolled up our sleeves to figure out how to communicate to the leadership of your company in a manner that would help them envision a new way of doing things (and actually fund that new approach). This is the great challenge, right? You're talking about stakeholders and communicating to stakeholders. The leaders of an organization are the ones that control the priorities and the funding of those priorities. So, in addition to that guidance you just gave us, what is it that key leaders in organizations are looking for? What trips their acceptance and gains their approval? You've walked that journey. Your transformation and your ability to move and transform an organization is really tied to getting the approval and the support of leaders. Any advice there? 

    JT: Thanks, Con. Again, I don’t think I wouldn't have gotten there without the collaboration with you and Bob over the years to help me understand the impact of performance support and envisioning new ways of working, so thank you for that. 

    What I see is that today's CEO, CFO, COO, and all C-suite executives are bombarded with pressures that are ten times what they were even a decade ago and certainly more than they were twenty years ago. I think understanding their “why’s” is the most important thing. How are they going to defend a decision to spend “X” number of dollars here versus there, and what is the risk? This is what they're thinking all the time: “I have choices. I have a limited budget, and I've got to produce certain outcomes from that. Where's the next best spend on my dollar?” We know that’s what they're thinking, and that's probably not changed too much, except I think the tolerances for failure or are much tighter than they ever used to be in corporate America (and probably around the world as well). 

    Secondly, they’re thinking, “How do I defend the decision?” Because they don't know that an investment in “A” or “B” is going to produce value until they can look back on it and see what happened. So, they think, “How do I defend this decision? Why would I trust this guy, John, who's telling me he's got the greatest thing since sliced bread?” I understand that challenge. I don't take that personally and wonder why they don’t believe me. I see that as an opportunity to say, “Alright, I understand what the executive’s needs are. I know that she's going to need to know this and be able to defend her decision. I need to help give her the inputs that she needs to mount that defense.” 

    For me, in terms of learning support at a high level, how many people do we have in our organization? Today, my organization's overall count is over 5,000 people. We sit in two different countries. We are an assimilation of lots of different cultures that have come together pretty rapidly to drive towards a single point of view. That's a lot of change in the system. That's a lot of reconnecting. That's a lot of transformation. What is the cost of them being stuck as performers? How do we help them if we just have a ten percent improvement over that? If you look at your salary run rate, that's “X” amount of dollars. Doesn't it therefore seem logical that if we can help them perform better, reduce their training time—their offline, non-productive time—and get them into the work stream where they’re being productive and confident with less burnout, less attrition, and better client satisfaction, that those benefits make the case for an executive’s support? Those are some of the things that I've tried to build into my narratives and storyline to help them say, “Okay, you've got a reasonable objective cost model.” I don't try to overcook the books and say, “If you give me this, I'm going to produce this in return.” But there's also a really solid argument for why this is a thoughtful and objective decisioning process that lets them get comfortable with the decision. 

    When you as a learning professional or a businessperson are bringing an idea to leaders, I think it's often seen as being your idea. Then it becomes about how much they trust you or how well they know you. That’s really not what it's about. It's about the conveyance of the idea, whether it's me sending the idea, or Bob or Con sending the idea, or anybody sending the idea. What is the story? Let's strip away the relationship side and look at the factual arguments. If you can make a strong business case for how it's going to help drive your objectives and you can also demonstrate that your approach for getting to that decision or getting to that perspective was thoughtful, objective, and complete, I think you go a long way into gaining executive support and the resources you need to transform your business. 

    BM: You know, every time we reengage with you, my friend, we're reminded why you're so successful and a wonderful leader. You have the humility that I think L&D professionals need to have to do what we do well; yet you are a student of the trade, and you back up your work with really remarkable, sound advice. Let's put a bow around all this. What are three things an L&D team and leaders need to start thinking about or understanding if they want to be part of “transformation” or digital transformation? We attach this buzzword “transformation” to everything nowadays! As you've said so eloquently in this podcast, L&D should be at the center of that but so often it’s not. What advice would you give for folks to better align with that? 

    JT: First, thank you for your very kind remarks. It's always a pleasure and I've gained so much from working with APPLY Synergies. Coming up with three things is kind of tough, but I think one is that the business is not going to understand in general how to partner with the L&D community, especially considering where it's going (e.g., APPLY Synergies is on the cutting/leading edge of realizing that traditional models are outdated and is coming up with new ways of working). So, number one is that you have to be your own best advocate. You have to get comfortable with that and have in-person conversations, if possible. Grab lunch and talk about it! You need to engage others and get in the room. 

    Two is that you need to start asking questions like we talked about before with our golf course metaphor. You've got to start at the end with the end in mind and get really good about asking questions around objectives, goals, and what this looks like when it's done. Ask how it looks after workers come out of training. We can train them on whatever the business wants, but after they come out of training, what does that look like? How are we going to monitor and measure things? What kinds of feedback go into the system? You need to get good at being almost a consultant as opposed to just a content developer. 

    Lastly, number three is that in this distributed environment, where so many of us are not collocated and learning is occurring in multiple mediums and across streams, make sure that there is a transformation check-in process with learners. In other words, “We've presented the content. We've walked you through it. You've done side by sides. You've done whatever it is to get your level of proficiency.” Make sure you also stop and ask, “How does that feel?” I think that should absolutely be the domain of the business, but I think learning professionals would do a lot to ask emotionally intelligent questions, which are not about whether learners liked the training or if it was effective. These questions need to be more on the emotionally intelligent side of how learners feel about their experience and their confidence. We want people articulating that. 

    If learning professionals do those three things I listed, I think you’ll find the L&D community will have much better success. You'll find some resistance along the way but have faith and be persistent. Great organizations will come to embrace and see the value and the benefits of having L&D and Performance embedded in their work streams all the way through from beginning to end. It doesn't stop at the beginning. It really carries all the way through the performance at the end. 

    BM: Courageous learners. That’s what we need to create these days, isn't it? We can't thank you enough for your authenticity and your willingness to take time out of a very busy schedule to share your remarkable experiences over the years. It's been a blessing to work with you along the way and we look forward to where that goes. For our listeners, who I know will replay this one over and over, we can't thank you enough. 

    JT: It's been my pleasure, and mutual respect and admiration for both of you and for the great work that APPLY Synergies does. Thanks again and I look forward to connecting with you soon. 

    CG: Thanks, John.

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