When it comes to Navigating the Workflow, Context Trumps Content

By Bob Mosher

Personalized learning, Workflow Learning, 5 Moments of Need, 70:20:10, Informal Learning,,, call it what you want, moving learning away from events and into everyday work is one of the hottest topics in our industry right now.  I speak to at least 3~5 learning leaders a week who are struggling with making the “transformation” (another HOT topic) from a training department/university model to a performance centric/workflow-oriented design shop.  The journey is NOT an easy one.  There’s a lot of history and, frankly, baggage to get past here.  When you’ve been designing for “training” first, shifting that focus is very hard.  But until we do, the transformation we want just isn’t going to happen.

While I was observing a learning leader trying to pitch this reorientation to their key stakeholders and decided to do a little informal research of my own.  I noticed that he kept saying the words “course” and “curriculum”, so I started counting.  Let’s just say I stopped at around 20 within the first 10 minutes of his pitch. “Well, that’s just semantics” you say?  Nope, it’s a mindset!  In the “old” days, content was king.  Our orientation out of the shoot was to first build a course or, later, e-learning.  All of our initial analysis and design was oriented toward that even before we met with our “SME’s”.
This new transformation starts with a reorientation around the outcome and related deliverables.  Workflow learning assets are typically not training assets, although training assets are often in the blend or mix. The most powerful assets often take the form of performance support assets such as checklists, decision trees, videos, learning bursts, social platforms and LOTS and LOTS of user-generate content. Those are the tools of the trade when it comes to designing for this brave new world.

But how to you fundamentally make the shift?  It starts with switching from a content first mindset to one of context, and there are two types of context we need to better understand.  The first is the workflow itself, which by definition is the context in which our learners work every day.   It amazes me how little we truly understand about the actual job tasks our learners perform on a daily basis.  The workflow is made up of processes, tasks, and the knowledge that supports the performance of those tasks, in that order!  If you watch how training is traditionally designed, it doesn’t map to this sequence very well.  This approach starts us on a journey toward the wrong outcomes and deliverables.  We need to start with the performance outcome and context first and work back into that.

Now, even when the workflow is identified, and even design for, missing the second type of context can also get us into trouble.  Let me share a quick story to try and demonstrate where we typically go wrong.  I was recently asked to evaluate a workflow portal a company had designed.  They had done a great job with their workflow analysis and, according to the learners, had clearly outlined the job context they worked in every day.  Once the portal was launched, although utilization spiked in the beginning, it quickly began to drop off over time.  When they a deeper look into why, they discovered that the learning and support assets that had made available within their workflow design were overwhelming, seen as random, and inconsistently designed across the portal.

This particular learning team had been pulled into the “if you build it they will come (and consume)” phenomenon.  Even though the workflow mapping aligned, once the learner tried to access the best type of learning and support asset based on their performance need, the choices were not contextually presented in a way which made the most effective opinion apparent.  Learning and support assets have a contextual component as well.  Even though the asset is “correct”, meaning the information or instruction can be found somewhere within them, the way in which the asset supports the need is what makes or breaks their effectiveness.  Some assets are informational, others are instructional.  One may take 15 minutest to watch or read, while another is a quick 30 second interaction.  One may go into great detail, when only a high-level overview is needed.  The list goes on and on. Each of these contexts matter and can make an asset helpful and effective, or it can make it overwhelming and confusing.

When we move learning and support into the workflow, the context at every level is king!  A poorly designed job-aid can trump a perfectly written lesson if it fits the context and need at the time.  Mastering these new design principles, and the methodologies that support them, are often the tipping point in making these overall transitions a success.  It’s up to us to make the mind-set shift both as learning leaders, and as the ones supporting our teams who produce the deliverables.  Let’s change the vocabulary of learning.  Let’s set “courses” and “curriculum” on the shelf for a while and start talking in the language of the context of the work to be done!

More resources on The 5 Moments of Need.

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