“The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be”

By: Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

Yogi Berra got this right.  Events can change the future. We’re just experiencing that. Certainly, the future of organizational learning isn’t what it was three months ago.

Keith Keating's recent LinkedIn posting of the “15 Evolutions of Learning” suggests a current state that at first read appears to put us in a place where we ought to be.  It reflects a thoughtful analysis of trends emerging from traditional learning chatter. But Covid-19 has changed the future of what learning needs to be. It is forcing needed shifts in Keith’s “Now” list below.   I’ve provided brief descriptions of a “NEW FUTURE” state that modifies Keith’s list just a bit.

Today, more than any other time in the history of organizational learning, we need to recognize that performers need to know and do to perform effectively on the job.  When all is said and done, this is what organizations need from us: an adaptive workforce that is performing effectively all the time no matter where they are. This can only happen if employees have the knowledge they need as they perform in their flow of work at the moments of Apply, Solve, and Change.  What organizations don’t need are workers performing job tasks with limited supporting knowledge.  For example, it’s dangerous to perform a blood transfusion if the person performing that task doesn’t understand blood type compatibility.  Learning  “What to Know” and “How to Do” are both required to achieve effective knowledge enriched job performance.

Forty-five years ago, I watched, with interest, the battle between behavioral (instructional/teacher centered), cognitive (learner centered) and experiential (performance centered) theorists.  All three areas of research made sense to me.  They still do.  Real growth and development doesn’t happen unless the learner chooses to learn and there are many things we know, from cognitive research, that can facilitate how efficiently and effectively learners learn.  In addition, there are principles of instruction/training that absolutely facilitate efficient skill development. There are many things we know, from behavioral research, that can facilitate how efficiently and effectively we teach and train people.  Of course, in the case of experiential learning theory, the learning/training principles associated with cognitive and behavioral camps are useless unless all of it is orchestrated properly to enable effective job performance (where experience is primarily developed.)
What’s desperately needed today is an ecumenical approach that doesn’t pit teaching against learning.  What we do shouldn’t be centered on one side or the other.  Instead we need to effectively employ the fundamental principles of teaching and learning in our efforts to enable effective performance, collectively and individually in their flow of work.

In recent months, we have watched organizations move into triage mode shifting learning from Brick and Mortar to Virtual.  Although this rapid move is completely understandable, most organizations are awakening to the reality that all learning moved all online isn’t an effective approach.

Workflow learning is learning while working at the 5 moments of Need. It is made possible through the discipline and associated technologies of performance support. We recently spoke with a visionary leader who the past few years has developed his organizations capabilities to learn in the workflow.  His company had a department whose work stopped completely due to the Covid-19 outbreak.  Because he and his team had established a performance support infrastructure to enable learning in the workflow, he was able to completely pivot the work of that entire department into a different work-stream in a matter of days.

We have over 10 years of experience blending learning events (whether brick and mortar or virtual) with workflow learning.  The outcomes have always proven superior. It’s what’s needed today and going forward.

There is no way to accomplish all we need to accomplish in a timely manner with the limited resources allocated to Learning and Development. So when we step into the world of workflow learning we need to be prepared to collaborate with the full range of players in the business in order to get the job done and sustain and optimize our solutions long-term. This may include SMEs but is most certainly not limited to them. Business Matter Experts can include high performers who are actually doing the work, front-line managers, and anyone else who participates in the work that’s going on. This is a crucial shift that requires our partnering with the business in ways we haven’t traditionally done.

Never before has the need for employees who can adapt to change been more valued, and needed.  Today, a person’s competitive advantage isn’t defined only by formal credentials, or by informal skill inventories.  Both can actually be helpful.  But today, an employee’s value to the organization is also determined by personal learning agility—meaning the ability to adapt—to unlearn, relearn, and then perform effectively at or above the speed of change. 

Every experience of our life contributes to our learning.  When we perform successfully, fail at something, overcome a challenge, adapt to a new way of doing something, or seek additional understanding or knowledge, we are learning through experience.  Why, because we are integrating and encoding that experience into our remarkable receptacle called a brain
It isn’t enough to just capture content or knowledge. We need to capture experience in a way that allows transferal of that experience to other workers. Fortunately, workflow learning methodologies requires us to map the workflow where experience is best developed.  This mapping and the associated technology provides the infrastructure we need to then capture best practices and lessons learned from the most experienced performers and make that experience available to others at the moment of need.

Most approaches to blended learning remain tightly tethered to a formal learning experience facilitated with multiple formal learning modalities (e.g., blending eLearning, OTJ Coaching, video learning, Instructor-led training (virtual or face-to-face), etc.. A true blend of learning must take into consideration the entire learning process across all 5 Moments of Need.  For example, a complete learning solution must support learners as they transition from the initial stage of learning New and/or More to the Moments of Apply and often Solve as they begin to transfer what they have learned in their flow of work. Furthermore, as learners become more proficient in applying the knowledge and skills they learned during training to the work they perform, there are often times when performers must change how they go about their work.  In those instances, they need to unlearn and relearn while performing work in the workflow. 

So, the real blend must include provision for supporting performance and learning in the flow of work while working.   

It isn’t and shouldn’t be about Push or Pull.  Both are needed.  I’m a huge proponent of adaptive learning (which is a push.)  And, the smarter our solutions become the greater opportunity we have to deliver informed push. But at the Moments of Apply and Solve, especially, performers need the capability to pull what they need, within 2clicks, 10 seconds. 

A properly designed EPSS is a digital coach that is available all the time wherever technology can go. This certainly doesn’t rule out managers providing coaching. But frankly, a digital coach is often more reliable and more up to date as well as more present. Besides we need self-reliant performers in the workflow. And we know that in today’s world, we can’t guarantee that a manager can be present, every time a worker needs coaching.

A mentor provides life and work guidance; opens up opportunity and makes growth and development resources available.  Mentors inspire, lift and motivate. They clear the path for fueling employee engagement.  Managers are in the best place to do this kind of mentoring.  This is something that managers can do that technology can’t duplicate very well, if at all.  

In ever changing work environments, scheduled learning certainly isn’t responsive enough.  A personal disposition towards lifelong learning is a great step forward, but can carry with it lethargic learning practices.  What’s needed is a daily commitment to dynamic learning.

At any moment, organizations must be ready to respond to a crisis or threat of any magnitude.  In 2008 Timothy R. Clark and I authored a research report addressing this very need.  In that report, Tim provided the following questions to help employees and their leaders determine the degree that they were dynamic learners.
  1. To what degree do I look to myself rather than the machinery of the organization to govern my growth and development path?
  2. To what degree do I have a personal growth and development plan?
  3. To what degree do I aggressively embrace feedback?
  4. How collaborative am I in my approach to learning?
  5. How proactive am I in how I learn?
  6. How fast am I at unlearning?
  7. How comfortable am I with failure?
  8. To what degree do I use failure as an opportunity to learn?
  9. How confident am I in the very act of not knowing?
  10. To what degree do I believe that the biggest job risk I can take is to cease to grow?

There’s certainly required learning.  I’m all for desired learning.  But at the Moments of Apply and Change, especially, there is “needed” learning to fill the learning gap that has suddenly surfaced in the flow of work. This is what Learning at the Moment of Need is all about. 

We’ve always advocated a performance rather than training focus.  But, it’s always been performance in the context of the workflow.  It’s possible to focus on performance and miss the workflow.  I’ve seen many great performance based courses that fail to align to how learners need to perform in their flow of work. We know that results in a disconnect when learners attempt to transfer what they learned to their actual jobs.

Outcomes actually might work here as long as those outcomes deliver business impact. Traditional learning has struggled to directly connect to business impact.  But, the moment we step into the workflow with a performance support infrastructure, we have in place the ability to measure impact targets such as:


A focus on consumption is definitely short-sighted when it comes to developing, expanding, and reinforcing the growth and development of people. Engagement is a much wiser focus, with this caution.  Traditional approaches to employee engagement generally involve an industrial model of dependency where organization assumes primary responsibility for fueling employee engagement. 

We are living in a time of disruption and discontinuity.  This absolutely requires an engaged workforce where employees own their own engagement; where their engagement generates from the inside out. This alters the role of the organization.  The organization must empower employees to fuel their own engagement by removing all barriers that can interfere with this ownership.  (See https://www.amazon.com/Employee-Engagement-Mindset-Potential-Everyone/dp/0071788298 )

Real learning is anything we do to develop, expand, or reinforce our growth and development in any and all aspects of our life no matter where it occurs.

There’s nothing wrong with event-based learning as long as it’s instructionally justified. And, we have been embedding learning in the workflow for many years.  We’re seeing wonderful tools that provide tailored rapid access to the full range of learning deliverable.  What’s unique about true workflow learning is that learning occurs while employees are actually performing the work of the organization.  This workflow performance learning is the missing capability required for these changing and challenging times.  It’s not a replacement for all the others options we have at our finger-tips, but as a key blending partner with all event-based and workflow embedded modalities.

I hope these NEW FUTURE comments will open the door to the rich and necessary discussion. We need to fearlessly take on this vital journey. We must boldly and thoughtfully move forward.

For more resources, attend our upcoming virtual/in-person Summit, visit our website, and join the conversation.

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