Workflow Learning: The Four Fundamental Principles

By: Dr. Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher

The following is an excerpt from The Performance Matters Podcast Series, Episode 13.

Let’s jump right into Bob and Con’s discussion around workflow learning…

Bob: Today we’re going to take a strong run at what’s becoming a super-hot topic in our industry that is being currently called “workflow learning”. I think it’s really important to take the time to step back and be sure our industry has a clear understanding of this.

“Workflow learning,” isn’t just about making information available in the workflow. It’s enabling a learner to learn or be supported while doing their work.

eLearning, for instance, has thrown around the acronym JIT, or just-in-time learning.  We’ve agreed all along, eLearning does provide ease of use and is clearly a powerful economic model for not taking people out of the workflow for three to five days. But here’s the thing. You still have to step away from your work, in this case, cognitively. For example, you’re not leaving your seat but you’re not performing your work anymore. You’ve launched an LMS to consume.

True workflow learning is done in parallel, not to the side. It’s done while getting work done. It instructs, informs, and supports—three, frankly, different things, all while doing the job. Con, do you agree?

Con: This is a crucial distinction. There is a great deal of misunderstanding in our conversations around workflow learning because of it. Real workflow learning is learning while working. That’s genuine workflow learning. Many people, in their approach to workflow learning assume all learning in the workflow constitutes workflow learning. Micro-learning in the workflow can be a rudimentary form of workflow learning. But the real power of workflow learning is what you said. It’s enabling people to learn as they do their work so that they don’t have to stop work in order to learn. And that’s the distinction.

Bob: I really like this distinction. “Informing” and “supporting”, while performing work is a powerful way to learn.

Con: Oh, yeah! Because in traditional learning we have what we call “train”, and then the learner has to transfer it to their job. That is, contextualize it to their own work. When you have real workflow learning the transfer inherently occurs while learning. There’s no stopping work. There’s no real transfer stage. So, it’s faster and more economical in terms of the learning process. It’s absolutely more powerful—as long as it can be done safely.

Bob:  Con, you talk about context a number of times. It’s only since I’ve gotten into this deeper and have been involved in The 5 Moments, watching the methodology play out, that a huge “aha!” came to me. I realized, as an ID, how very little I knew about the workflow. I knew what the SME wanted me to teach. I knew what the SME wanted me to have people understand. I knew what software to use. But that’s not workflow. That’s what is inflicted on the workflow and has to be contextualized.

Con: I have yet to walk into an organization that truly understands their workflow. And that’s startling. Tragic, really. How does an organization really take control of how their people do their work if they are blind to just that—the workflow?

Traditional approaches in instructional design employ traditional job task analysis. But, unfortunately, this approach fails to organize those tasks into a workflow process. You have to map the workflow because this mapping is what creates the context that provides your learners with just-in-time access to just what they need, at the moment they need it, in order to be able to learn in the workflow.

Bob: So Con, “If it’s not embedded in the workflow, it doesn’t work.” Meaning, we have to be sure we understand the context of the work. That’s the workflow. But there’s also the physical context in which the learner can consume. If it’s a system, embed it.

Con: Yes. The only way I can learn as I do my work is if I have access to what I need, to do that learning, as I do my work.

Bob: It’s in this next principle where I think most of us go wrong. We embed well, we make things contextual, but then we pile on. There’s this misconception, in my opinion, about adults and adult learning. How could more not be better? They are adults—they can handle it—well, that’s wrong. A lot of the real need is driven by the context. If I’m in one of The Five Moments of Need—let’s say Solve—I am not in the mood for an asset that’s going to take me twenty minutes to Solve. This principle of Just Enough and The Right Kind of Just Enough is so important.

Con: That’s why we talk about “2 Clicks—10 Seconds.” The “2 Clicks” is getting to the needed information, while the “10 seconds” is the time it takes for me to translate that information into action. So we really do need to be able access just what I need, at my moment of need to help me get the job done—and in the process, learn by doing.

Bob: So let’s wrap up the four fundamental principles with one I know is near and dear to your heart—content management—aggregating content, currency, trustworthiness, maintenance. These principles are sort of foundationally building one on the other but in the end, if what I call up is wrong or if what I call up is old, I would never go back. Con, tell us a bit more about this discipline around currency and trustworthiness of content.

Con: This is the elephant in the room—keeping solutions current. When you step into the workflow, there is no room for people to be accessing information that is inaccurate. We’ve got to take steps to keep the solution meaningful, vibrant, and up-to-date. The good news is that performance support methodology and technology can enable that in ways that we haven’t been able to historically. We have to bring to this world of workflow learning strong content management practices. We can’t ignore it.
We have to step in and partner with the business in that journey, or we will fail. Workflow learning takes us into the world of the organization, and its business, and we have to have practices that let us partner with the business in keeping things current, vibrant and meaningful.

Bob: So, friends, I want to conclude with one last thought, or myth, if you will. “We have workflow learning because we have this really remarkable coaching program.” Disclaimer, we are not knocking coaching programs. But, in the context of what we just got through discussing, that is not what a coaching program does.

Con: Correct. A coach isn’t always around when I experience my moment of learning need. The cost of coaching is so high—I’m tying down another human being to be there to coach me. Then coaches, depending on the day, can be very good or they can just take me to a place that I hadn’t ought to go! Sure, coaching is a very powerful thing, but you can’t scale it to meet all the needs that people have in terms of workflow learning. It’s “just not gonna happen.”

Bob: This discussion is one we have to continue. It’s fundamental to going forward in the Five Moments and effectively doing it.

Listen to the full episode.

Train Transfer Sustain | Moving Past the Training Event

By Dr. Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher
You’ve trained them. Now what? They go back to their desks, immediately apply what they learned, and voila—increased performance. Not quite.
There’s more to it than just the training event. In fact, there are two additional phases in the learning ecosystem that must be addressed to achieve learning success.
Train. Transfer. Sustain.

Think of your learners as ‘performers’, now set them on their journey with the overall destination being competency.
To become competent in our ever-evolving business landscape, performers must clearly master things. You have to train people up to a point of mastery. You definitely do not want a pilot flying a plane without first mastering the lift and landing.
One of the challenges of the journey to mastery is that learners achieve a level of mastery at different rates. So, in any given event, in any given period of time, you have a range of mastery levels that happen and are happening.
Then, within this range, we also have the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. This is where performers, once back to work, begin to forget, at a very rapid rate, whatever it is they have mastered and learned in their event-based experience.
So how does one ever get to their destination—competency? It’s one thing to master something, it’s another to be competent at it. Take for example a story Bob tells on this topic, he received an A+ in accounting while in undergrad, but there was no way he was prepared to actually do your taxes. Mastery did not transfer to competency.
The journey does not end at mastery; your performer must get to some level of competence. This stage is a crucial one as it is where all the different “mastered” pieces are integrated together to form a whole. And they are integrated through our experience as we apply those mastery items to our job, all while adjusting and adapting them.  
Transfer is a challenge for performers as they refer back to the training event where “they practiced in class” “were given real-life scenarios” “put in a hands-on lab that simulated the workflow…”, trying to make sense of it all.
But, at the end of the day these are all still practice situations—not the actual workflow.
To further complicate things, not every performer’s workflow is the same as the next, and your workflow today is different than tomorrow. So, making that journey of taking whatever it is that is mastered, integrating it with one’s existing skillset, and becoming competent, more skilled, more able to do what is needed to do on the job is no small feat!
And to complicate things, what is current ‘now’ may not be current an hour from now. So, it’s not only how a performer transfers to competency, but how do they remain competent? To become a better performer over time—that’s the Sustain stage.
And the driver of that stage—the element of change.
When we do things over and over again, we master things. We become competent. Then it changes. That challenge of overriding old skill sets with new skill sets is the greatest learning challenge that there is. You really can’t train your way out of it. No organization can afford to do that.
So, to unlearn and to relearn that is the real challenge.
The need for Train, Transfer, and Sustain has been around forever. People have always had to leave an event and be on their own with their newfound skills and knowledge. We haven’t, and aren’t, giving people the tools to truly navigate the transfer and sustain stages.
But with the 5 Moments of Need Methodology, we do.
And we do so by focusing on the Moment of Apply and building solutions and tools to support people at the Moments of Apply, Change, and Solve. Then, their digital coach if you will, is with them at the critical stages of Transfer and Sustain.
We can intentionally make a difference and it changes everything. It brings greater efficiency to every part of that journey through Train Transfer and Sustain.
The journey’s destination is again, competency and the time to competency. With the Five Moments of Need approach, and Train Transfer Sustain as your deliverable, we see time to competency reduced considerably due to what is enabled beyond the Training stage.  
This blog was excerpted from Episode 3 of our Performance Matter Podcast.
To learn more about the Moments of Apply, Change, and Solve visit our resources page.

Saving the Classroom

By Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

In this vital work we call training, we design, build, deliver, manage, and maintain courseware. We make it available 24/7 via eLearning, mobile learning, virtual, and traditional classroom instruction. We chase every opportunity we can find to enhance this courseware with ever 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 we build and implement end up yielding limited business impact. The learners we train too often falter and even fail to perform effectively on- the -job. Most of our failure is masked by highly motivated people who eventually figure it all out. And, luckily, we don’t really see it because of the significant distance between our learning events and the time and places where our learners actually attempt to apply it.

None of this is intentional or derelict. There are good reasons why these consequences have happened historically.  But there is no good reason why it is continuing to happen. New methodology-enabled by emerging technologies can and is breathing life into organizational learning and its impact on the business. Technology is transforming learning professionals into strategic partners with the business. It’s virtually eliminating the fundamental threats that have kept training from reaching its full potential in organizations. Here’s how that’s happening.

Threat #1:  Too much to train and not enough time

There was a time when there was enough time to learn what needs to be learned.  In our world of rapid change, we no longer have the luxury of enough time to learn. 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 especially with live classroom instruction. There is too much content and not enough classroom time, a situation which often pushes trainers to skip content or rush the learner in an attempt to cover it all.

See if this real-world example sounds familiar. A Learning and Development (L&D) group recently celebrated the reduction of a 5-day course to 3 days with what appeared to them to be no loss in learning outcomes. But here’s what really happened. Analysis of the course revealed that the instructional integrity of the course didn’t change—hence no loss in learning since there were few if any outcomes planned in the first place. In both the 5-day and 3-day versions of the course, learners were exposed to 1.8 slides per minute. These slides were content intensive, requiring instructors to devote 80% of the instructional time just presenting the content. Here’s what the allocation of instructional time looked like:

with the content to facilitate learning
how to Performing the Actual Skills
the Skills with Direct Feedback
Reviewing/ Reinforcing
what was Learned

This is anything but an effective allocation of instructional time. In the contribution hierarchy of skill development, presenting is at the bottom of the list. Yet, as can be seen in this example, presenting is displacing the other vital contributors. 

Here’s how technology can help bring greater instructional balance to the allocation of learning time. Gloria Gery, in 1991, introduced a new learning modality designed for the workflow called an Electronic Performance Support System (EPPS). She defined the EPSS as a technology-enabled tool that “provides 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.”
We are now seeing an emergence of EPSS technologies and associated methodologies that are proving astonishingly effective in lifting the content presentation burden from trainers. This frees up instructional time for more effective learning experiences within the classroom. In this “flipped” classroom, instructors bring the EPSS into the classroom and use it as the primary means for learners to access the information they need in support of practice activities with highly interactive discussions around those activities.

In the “flipped” approach, participants learn primarily by “doing and discussing” rather than mostly “listening.” The table below shows the times and percentages of the 2-day EPSS course compared with the previous 5- and 3-day versions of the course. 

5 Day Course
3 Day Course
2-day EPSS-supported Course
1000 + slides
600 slides
75 slides
33 slides per hour (1.8 per minute)
9.6 minutes per slide
Present Content
Practice with Feedback
Notice how much more time is spent reviewing and discussing the content on each slide.

Here is more good news. Although some skills merit the investment of formal learning, others don’t. These skills can be safely learned in the workflow with “2-click—ten second” access to the required information in the EPSS.

Because the EPSS can travel with learners directly into the workflow, not all content requires attention during the formal learning experience. Prioritizing classroom content to just the essentials allows significant reduction of the “time away from work to learn.”  Hence, in the example shown above, the 3-day course was reduced to 2 days by completely flipping the learning methodology within the classroom.

Threat #2:  Too Disconnected from the Actual Workflow.
Transforming the classroom into a learning experience dominated by practice does not guarantee effective learning. Practice delivers value to the degree it realistically addresses what people need to know and do in their workflow. Herein lies a second great threat to training effectiveness. Practice in the classroom too often lacks workflow fidelity, where what we train people to do is what they actually do in their work.  This is due, in part, to a flaw in traditional ISD methodology. In an effort to write learning objectives that can be measured during training, those objectives, for the most part, fail to describe what performers really need to do in their work. Take a look at the following list of verbs often used in writing learning objectives:

These verbs are far removed from describing what learners need to actually do in the workflow.

Consider the thousand-slide course referenced earlier in this article. In the effort to reduce the course to three days, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) offered up 221 learning objectives. Only 40 of the 221 (18%) learning objectives targeted actual job tasks. And, those 40 objectives directly related to only 14 of the 59 (24%) actual tasks that learners needed to be able to perform in the workplace. The learning objectives approach failed to identify Fifteen other tasks, that would result in critical to catastrophic impact if ignored.

The SMEs also identified 181 objective statements that only addressed 27 (15%) of the 69 actual concepts that learners needed to understand in order to make correct decisions. These 181 objective statements focused on differentiating, identifying, distinguishing, listing, describing, summarizing, understanding, and explaining. These are cognitive objectives, not behavioral objectives. They may be measurable, but they are most certainly disconnected from much of what learners need to know to perform effectively in the workflow.

There’s much more to this disconnection than Bloom’s Taxonomy, however. The distance from the classroom (virtual or not) to effective on-the-job performance is vast. In formal training, we pull people away from their work and to the best of our ability create an environment that mimics the real world. Then we attempt to train them. But at the moment when the training/learning experience ends, whatever they have learned enters the “forgetting death spiral” which is the third threat.

Threat #3:  Too much forgetting, too fast

Learners vary in how much they learn while participating in any formal learning course. Whatever they learn, though, rapidly evaporates following the learning event. The rate of evaporation depends upon whether the instruction was superficial or methodologically sound and upon the complexity of the knowledge and skills.10 In short, forgetting happens and most of the time it happens quickly. The following graphic shows how, at the end of training, memory immediately begins to deteriorate and within a few hours, much of what was “learned” is gone.
Our learning solutions need to counter this reality and intentionally assist learners as they transition from learning to performance on the job. Leaving the situation to chance is both risky and costly.

A task-based EPSS can interrupt the forgetting curve and bridge the gap between the training event and the workflow, shortening the time from the start of a course to successful on the job performance.

While formal training is an important part of any learning and performance support strategy, if that is all you provide, then it is more difficult for performers to transfer what they have learned to their jobs. It is not enough to only provide formal training for performers. Formal training does not take place in the context in which performers will use the skills they are learning. Without on-the-job performance support, it will take performers longer to transfer what they have learned to their jobs and they may not remember all of the pieces of specific tasks they need to perform.

At each stage, performers need different types and levels of support. Understanding the different stages of the complete learning journey is critical to designing a learning and performance support strategy that not only meets the needs of all performers but also addresses strategic needs of the organization. Intentionally addressing all three stages of Train, Transfer, and Sustain frees performers from the burden of remembering and remaining current. It reduces time they take to step away from their work to learn, solve problems, and assist others. In its place performers can focus their efforts on the actual work of the organization—continuous improvement and collaborative innovation.
The following table shows what a complete learning and performance solution needs to include:

This stage needs an orchestrated learning experience that specifically targets job-critical knowledge and skills.
This stage needs a “familiar” performance-support solution that provides immediate (e.g., 2-click, 10 second) access to the tasks and related concepts identified in the Job Task Analysis.
This stage needs immediate access to integrated performance support solutions that provide immediate access to cascading levels of support (see the PS Pyramid below.) These integrated solutions need to provide targeted access to updated knowledge and skill requirements at the moment of Apply.
Core components include:
o   A real-time virtual, in-person, and/or self-instructional course.
o   The appropriate learning support components (e.g., participant guide, slides, activities.)
o   The performance-support solution that learners will rely upon as they enter the other two stages.
Core component:
o   The performance-support solution that learners learned to use in the “Train” stage.

Core components include:
o   Job-tailored, integrated performance-support solutions with full-pyramid support. (See below.)

Threat #4: Unrelenting change 
Skills, when performed over and over, tend to become automated—deeply rooted in people’s skills sets and performed without conscious thought.  Once skills have become ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations in this way, replacing out-of-date practices with new ways of performing and thinking becomes one of the most significant learning challenges an organization can face.

Currently, most organizations are doing all they can to overcome unrelenting change. But what’s missing is technology-enabled Performance Support. Only with an EPSS can we hope to keep constantly changing information current and accessible to our performers.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies: “First gradually, and then suddenly.” 

This will be the case for much of what we call formal learning today unless we push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow and provide people with the technological tools and preparation they need to successfully perform at the Moments of Apply, Change, and Solve. This strategy must be at the heart of all we do and should always have been the case. The people we are charged to train and support deserve “immediate, intuitive, tailored aid” that is intentionally orchestrated by technology to “ensure the most effective personal and collective performance.”

More 5 Moments of Need Resources.