A Case for Targeted Learning

By Conrad Gottfredson

I was recently helping an organization develop a graphic that represented all the components of their learning ecosystem.  In the graphic I distinguished the formal learning section with the heading “stop work to learn.” A member of the client team took exception with the label.  “We can’t describe what we do like that,” he said. “Our business leaders won’t like it.” He insisted we change the label to “Formal Learning” to soften this reality. This was and always has been a mistake. We need to boldly face and justify the business realities of what we do.  And the reality of most of what we do under the banner of formal learning requires employees to stop their work to learn. There are most certainly skills that merit this investment, but not all of them.  Throughout the last 30 years, it’s been our experience that, on the average, half the skills in an organization’s training curricula could be pushed out of the formal side of learning (where employees have to stop their work to learn) into the workflow to be learned while they perform their work.    

The discipline of performance support enables our ability to do this.  I’m not describing micro-learning here, where employees pause their work momentarily to complete a brief “learnlet,” or “learning burst.” That’s a small part of workflow learning. In 1990, Gloria Gery introduced the power of an EPSS as a tool that can enable learning while employees do their work. Here’s what that looks like:

An employee is in the workflow and her job requires her to complete a task she’s never performed before and has had no training in to do it.  Within two-clicks she accesses the quick-steps for the task.  She begins following those steps to perform the task. Step 3 seems a bit complex so she clicks on that step to access greater detail.  On Step 4 she needs to make a decision based upon company policy. She clicks on the policy link which opens the corporate policy guide to the specific paragraph she needs to review. Once she completes all the steps she clicks on a link that opens up a checklist for her to review to make certain she has completed the task appropriately.

The example above is most certainly a workflow learning experience. This capacity to push learning entirely into the workflow reducing the time employees need to stop their work to learn is transformational. It is in every organization’s best interest for us to do this to the extent we can do so safely.

Whenever we pull an employee away from work to learn, we have the responsibility to ensure that it is well worth that investment. There are, most certainly, job tasks where that is the case.    We have developed rating scales like the following to help us determine which tasks and their associated supporting knowledge justify work stoppage in order to learn.  We employ credible SMEs from the business side to make these ratings.

Recently I discussed, with a group of ISDs how these critical impact of failure ratings can help identify skills that can be exclusively learned while employees perform their jobs.  They were so shrouded in a learning mindset that it kept them from grasping how this can be done.  “What about context?” they asked.  “You can’t teach one task in isolation of its other tasks. You need to teach them in context of each other.”  I agree. But that doesn’t mean we need to spend formal learning time teaching those other tasks.  We can use “context maps” like the following to help learners understand how any given task fits relative to other tasks in the overall workflow process.

Context maps allow targeted learning—where employees learn specific tasks, where the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic. They also develop an understanding of the workflow process and how the tasks work together in any given process.  All of this is facilitated by a workflow map and an associated EPSS.  Learners become familiar with the EPSS as they practice the critical impact tasks, gaining confidence and contextual understanding with each practice activity they complete using the EPSS.   Sill integration occurs in the workflow when employees use the EPSS to complete the tasks together using the EPSS.

Now, clearly, good judgement needs to prevail here.  But that judgement needs to be tempered with understanding of organizational costs associated with stopping work to learn.  If you’re still skeptical after reading this blog, then please know that this isn’t theory – targeted learning is a proven practice that allows us to bring greater efficiency and integrity into the learning and performance solutions we develop. 

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