The Three Beacons of Workflow Learning

By Conrad Gottfredson

There are over 50 different theoretical models we can look to as guides in the discipline of learning and instruction (see Instructional Design Theories.) I’ve taken deep dives into most of them and drawn upon many of them throughout my career. But when I look at them through the lens of the 5 Moments of Learning Need, Experiential Learning Theory has been especially helpful.

In February 2016 I posted a blog briefly describing this model (Experience is the Real Source of Learning and Development). It recognizes that real skill development occurs while performing work.  Learning may be initiated outside the flow of work, but until learners adapt what they were taught to their real-world environment and integrate all they have learned and experienced with their existing skill-sets, they haven’t truly learned. Until they actually apply what they have learned by adapting and integrating it into their own flow of work, learning outcomes from the “initiate” phase are temporary, fragmented, and unproven.

For many organizations, pushing learning in the workflow, where employees learn as they do their work, is uncharted.  In reality there is quicksand at every turn.  And, depending upon who an organization is listening to, the path to workflow learning can split and take many directions. Sadly, we’re seeing too many of those paths lead back to the same old things we’ve been doing “out of the workflow”, just rebranded and micronized.

Yet, if we can navigate the workflow learning path wisely, we can actually enable continuous performance improvement that is measurable and accelerated. This requires putting in place a performance support infrastructure that allows employees to initiate their own learning while they work in addition to pausing or stepping away from their work to begin to learn. 

Every organization needs to understand that they have these two options for initiating learning (in and out of the workflow.)  Both are vital if they want to optimize their learning investment. For over 20 years we have consistently found that, on the average, half the skills being taught outside the workflow could be safely initiated while people are actually performing the work of the organization.  (see A Case for Targeted Learning)  Think of the savings of lost work time and formal learning investment this could bring to organizations!  

In 2016 I posted another blog titled: Hopping On the Right Workflow Learning Bandwagon – 5 Guiding Principles.  (see: Hopping-on-the-Right-Workflow Learning Bandwagon - 5 Guiding Princi...)  I described 5 guiding principles in the blog the first of which is especially vital for any organization seeking to push learning fully into the workflow. Here’s that principle:

“Minimize time-away-from work.  An effective workflow Learning strategy must minimize the extent people have to stop working in order to learn.  Optimum learning occurs while people actually perform their work. This is a sweet spot for the discipline of performance support.  A properly designed EPSS can provide instant access to 5 Moments of Need support for every task people need to perform in their flow of work. Within 2-clicks and 10 seconds these performers can access a listing of the steps for a job task they don’t know how to perform.  With another click, they can access greater detail around those steps and follow them as they actually perform their work.  As they do this, they are most certainly learning in the best classroom—their own workflow.  The EPSS is their job-coach.  If by chance the steps aren’t sufficient, then another click provides access to the supporting knowledge they need to understand regarding that job task.  Or if they need access to reference resources like policy information, a decision support tool, etc. they can be access them with a single click within the context of the job task at hand.  And, if, by chance, there is time and need, they can access learning resources specific for that task.

In an EPSS all of these resources are intentionally orchestrated to facilitate successful job performance at the task level.  Every time people use an EPSS to support themselves in the work they do, they are learning in the workflow.  They are learning as they navigate through the rugged challenge of “Applying” what they have learned formally to the realities of their workflow.  They are also learning when they use the EPSS to follow the steps for a task they’ve never performed.  They are learning when they use the EPSS to Solve a problem that has cropped up.  They are learning as they use the EPSS to adapt to Change.  And, they can even use the EPSS to briefly pause their work to access micro-learning “Bursts” that target the same job task (thereby helping them learn something New or More about it.)       

This is a very different proposition than just making learning solutions available in the workflow.  We’ve been doing that for a long long time. Before we had 24/7 access to eLearning courses, we had video training; before that printed tutorials, and before that on-the-job training.  The challenge with these on-the-job learning solutions is that they often require people to stop working, move through a learning experience of some kind, and then resume work.  In this model, learners face the same challenge they do with classroom training.  Once they complete a self-learning module, they still have to figure out when and how to apply what they learned to their actual work.  Workflow learning shouldn’t be defined merely by where the learner is when she learns.  That is part of it. But it also needs to be defined by the degree she is able to learn while she performs her work.”

As you take the steps needed to be able to initiate learning out and in the workflow, you enable your organizations ability to reinforce competencies and values in the context of work.  Competencies and values aren’t operationalized through teaching alone. They only become operational when they are reinforced while employees perform the tactical work of the organization.  A performance support infrastructure makes this possible.  First it frees up the cognitive load required for performing the tactical work of the job (see When it Comes to Higher-order Thinking Performance Support is a No ...)

This provides employees the mental bandwidth needed to connect to broader behaviors and values as they perform their tactical work.  We recently watched a global procurer of gourmet coffee shut down all their stores for a day of training in response the public outrage associated with a few employees failing to live their values. That was a costly attempt to fix a problem that would never have occurred if they had in place a performance support infrastructure that also reminded performers of specific values in the context of performing their work.

It will never be enough to teach about competencies and values.  They must be reinforced in the context of work.  An EPSS can make those associations and be the means for that reinforcement.
As you move forward in your efforts to embrace workflow learning, you can safely navigate that uncharted path as long as you keep sight of these three realities:
  1. Real skill development occurs while performing work
  2. Continuous improvement begins and ends in the workflow
  3. Competencies and values must be reinforced in the context of work.
They are beacons to help you avoid the quicksand and sort through the many voices and views in this vital journey.

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