How Workflow Learning Can Power the Classroom

By Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

I spent six years of my life in post-graduate study emerging with a Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology and Technology.  I’ve devoted 35 years since, enriching that degree with real-world experience in the arena of organizational learning and workplace performance.  At the heart of all I’ve learned in these 38 years are two realities
  • Methodology powers learning
  • Real-learning happens while working

Methodology Powers Learning
Learning is a partnership between the learner and the methods we employ to help learners optimally develop, maintain, and expand upon the knowledge and skills they need to perform effectively on-the-job.

The following table shows six fundamental instructional approaches we know, through applied research, facilitate learning.  Whenever these methods are orchestrated properly, learners stand a much better chance of learning than when we fail to employ these methods properly or at all.

Instructional Methods Learning
Deliver Content Capture and contextualize the content to specific on-the-job performance
Provide Examples Translate examples into contextualized understanding and response
Practice Internalize understanding
Generalize skills
Internalize skills
Contextualize skills
Integrate skill-sets
Integrate Review Master and Automate skills and knowledge
Check for Mastery Verify understanding and mastery
Identify areas for improvement
Give Feedback Assess and alter current skills and knowledge

To the right of each method in the table is a partial description of the learning side of instruction.  Most certainly, this learning side is no small fete.  The entire basis for Instructional Systems Design (ISD) is the assurance that the methods on the left facilitate the learning processes on the right.  Compelling research confirms that this is the case.  Methodology can and does make a difference in the speed and degree to which people learn.

There was a time when we had the time to build and implement instructionally sound learning solutions.  These solutions fully employed these instructional methods to help learners master what they needed to learn.

This isn’t the case today.  The extent of what people need to learn has expanded and the time we have to help them learn has diminished—dramatically.  The result?  Although some L&D groups may still attempt to design solutions that call for full instructional treatment, in actual practice, methodology is mostly abandoned.  The pressing demands of time limits instruction to lengthy presentations supported by slides with infrequent questions and a few occasional activities.  Most often lost in this compressed time frame are rich integrated practice exercises accompanied by meaningful feedback.  Feedback, by the way, is one of the most uniquely powerful gifts a trainer brings to learning. It’s the force multiplier of learning and is the single most powerful instructional method for accelerating learning.   

The good news in all of this is there is a way to add back time for methodology without adding more time to training. The solution is “Workflow Learning.” Workflow learning occurs while people actually perform their work.

Real Learning Happens in the Flow of Work
Recently our youngest son drove one of our cars through a large body of water that had accumulated in a parking lot following a massive rainstorm.  As the cold water flushed up and around the heated engine, it stopped – for good.

We paid to have Jason receive the best driver’s education possible.  He sat through all the classes.  Scored well on the tests and did well in his “on-road” driving exercises.  He qualified for his “Learner’s Permit.” This allowed him to continue learning to drive while in the flow of traffic.  The permit required that he always be accompanied by an experienced driver to provide on-the-road coaching.

Jason’s mother started as his driving coach. But, recognizing that her feedback was primarily panic prompted, she quickly reassigned the job to me.  I vividly remember riding with tongue biting silence as Jason transitioned from what he had learned in the classroom to actually becoming a competent driver.  The classroom with its “on-the-road” driving activities was a good start in his learning process.  But that’s all it was.  His “real learning” to drive happened over time while in the flow of traffic (i.e., the Flow of Work.)

This doesn’t mean he didn’t need the class.  He did.  Competent performance, on-the-job, can certainly start with formal learning. But, deeply rooted, connected learning requires ongoing application in the flow of work.  It’s here where all the nuances of the real-world hone, reinforce, expand upon, adjust, internalize, integrate (I could go on) what was and wasn’t learned during “training.”

Also, people are most receptive to learning while in the workflow.  They have clear context and compelling need.  What they don’t generally have is someone to safely coach them through job-tasks (which is especially vital when the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic.)  Here’s why organizations need Embedded Performance Support Solutions (EPSSs.) And, in addition to supporting performers in the workflow, these “EPSSs" can help restore the time required to recharge the classroom with the right mix of methodology.

An EPSS provides 2-click/ 10 second “task-level” access to all the resources an employee needs to perform effectively on-the-job.  We use a rating scale, similar to the following, to identify the tasks that people can safely learn while in the flow of their work (using an EPSS.)  At whatever moment in time they need to perform any task rated a 4 or lower, they can simply use the EPSS to “coach” them as they perform the task.  If they make a mistake, that’s ok.  They’ll learn from it while in the context of their workflow.  And will more readily remember it because it happened in the context of their work.  Failure, when the consequences are low, can be a most effective teacher (unless the consequences of failure are high.)

By shifting all the skills and knowledge we can safely into the flow of work, to be learned while people are doing their work, we regain classroom time for methodology.  This makes sense, because the skills, left for the classroom, are rated 5 through 7.  They are those that not only require the right mix of methodology, but also justify the investment in that methodology.  And if, by some chance, a business leader wants to reduce the training time for these skills, you can just ask, “Which of these ‘high risk’ skills do you want to leave to chance?”

I don’t know if Jason’s instructor warned him about driving through massive water puddles. If so, Jason clearly forgot or didn’t pay attention.  Forgetting happens following every learning event, no matter the methodology.  This is why an EPSS is such a vital component in the learning blend.  For the classroom to have full power, it must extend its reach into the workflow. This can happen by pushing reinforcement of that learning into the flow of work employing an EPSS to “coach” people at every ongoing moment of learning need. This “Digital Coach” (i.e., EPSS) provides just-in-time performance support for every job task including those critical impact of failure skills you’ve targeted with effective methodology on the formal side of learning— just in case learners forget, didn’t pay attention, things change, or something goes wrong.

On the average, half of the skills covered in traditional formal learning can be safely pushed in their entirety into the workflow. There, performers learn those skills with the help of a “Digital Coach,” as they do their work. This is real workflow learning—learning while working. As we extend our reach into the workflow with the power and gifts of a “Digital Coach” we can free up time on the formal side for methodology. What a great thing! Anything less than this is a waste.

More resources on The 5 Moments of Need.

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