Stop Feeding People with a Firehose: A Workflow Learning Chat with Guy Wallace

This blog is excerpted from episode 37 of the Performance Matters Podcast where Bob Mosher and Guy Wallace, president of EPPIC Inc., talk workflow learning, why it’s a must, and how to get our industry really onboard. 

Bob Mosher (BM): This particular series is one of my favorites, Strategy Matters. And that’s a perfect lead-in to our amazing person we have with us today, a hero of mine, a real visionary in my opinion, a pioneer in our industry—always has pushed the envelope—a real disrupter, which are my favorite kind. Welcome—Guy Wallace.

Why don’t you start Guy by giving us a bit around your L&D journey.

Guy Wallace (GW): A fortunate series of lucky things happened to me. My first job out of college was at a small training and development organization for Wix Lumber up in Saginaw, Michigan. The ten-person department that I joined had Geary Rummler’s brother-in-law employed so I immediately was indoctrinated into a performance orientation ala the now late Geary Rummler.

On Day 1 I was shown the articles of his and Gilbert’s about “guidance.” So, the early name for “job aids” and performance support and all that. This was a newsletter of theirs from 1970. So that’s been around for a long time. I was also given a Bob Mager book to read and I went home and read that the first night. I was so excited about that I bought four copies, sent them out to my best friends from college who mailed me back and said, “What the heck is that all about? That’s crazy. Why did you send this to me?”

But I was so enthused about all this, so I got oriented to Rummler and Gilbert and Mager and then soon thereafter, the work of Joe Harless. I really kind of got this performance orientation. I joined the local chapter in Detroit, 95 miles away from Saginaw, of NSPI—now ISPI—and I went to the conference the next April in 1980. And I met all these people. And so I was really kind of brought up, if you will, with my radio-TV-film degree, coming in the side door to training and development and got this performance orientation where we did our analysis using a derivative of a derivative of a Rummler methodology, as I was told back in those days, before I really knew what any of that meant.

After eighteen months I joined Motorola and I got to work with Geary Rummler on a couple of dozen projects over the eighteen months I was there. I then left Motorola and joined Ray Svenson’s small consulting firm. Did that for fifteen years. Then we broke up the business. And I started another business and then in 2004 I went solo doing basically the same kinds of things that I had been doing throughout my career, which is centered on performance-based curriculum architecture design using a facilitated group process, bringing together master performers and other subject matter experts and developing what later became known as Learning paths or Training and Development paths that were performance oriented. And I’ve done 76 of those over my career, mostly for Fortune 500 companies, you know, critical job titles and critical business processes and all of that.

BM: That’s a remarkable pedigree—I mean, incredible names, defendable research. What you have proven in your life and the resume you just rattled off, is that workflow learning is not new. It’s supported by remarkable work and has produced remarkable results.

Why are we sitting here in 2020 and what’s old is new again?

GW: You know, I think a lot of it has to do with that most of us are accidental trainers, instructional designers and developers. We don’t have a firm grounding in the research. And I don’t. I can’t cite the research. But I can generally tell you what it suggests we should do and not do. And that’s because of the people that were mentors to me and many, many others.

Most of the content that I have assessed in forty years of doing this is topic oriented. Just like the education institution that didn’t know what job you were going to have when you got out, didn’t know what tasks you were going to perform to produce what outputs—what Gilbert called “worthy outputs.”

People have adopted an education model where it’s like, “We’re going to give you all of these reasonable sounding topics. They all have face validity. And they may even have some performance validity. But no one goes that last mile to “Here’s how you apply that in the workflow.” I’ve been amazed about that.

I remember, back in the early ‘80s, looking at people’s task analyses and they would be random lists of tasks, it seemed. There was no rhyme nor reason to what order they were in. They could have been alphabetically organized.

I can just imagine a client looking at that, nodding their head up and down and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, — people do those tasks” and signing off on it. And then getting something back that didn’t actually address how those tasks manifested themselves in producing outputs of value that were valuable to the downstream customer who was going to use an output as an input and all of that. And the question is “Why?”

So, my key mentor,Geary Rummler wrote a thing in 1969, a forward to a book and he titled it, “We can’t get there from here!”

And it was all about that instructional technologists way back then needed to take on a performance technology approach. And too often we generate instructional content that isn’t going to improve performance. It sounds reasonable, it looks reasonable, but it actually doesn’t get you—the performer, the learner—to practice authentic kinds of tasks producing authentic kinds of outputs, dealing with the variations in work performance, in processes, in the context. We just miss the boat entirely. We come up with reasonable sounding things that our clients would have to nod their heads in agreement that, “Yeah, that’s part of it. Yes.”

But we don’t go that last mile to authentic performance and I don’t know why that persists.

BM: But it’s the beginning of an iterative journey in improving. That’s what I love about embedding things in the workflow and working with them through performance support. Because the nature of that tool is that it’s not a waterfall design approach. It’s not a deliverable of a class on June 9th. It’s the beginning of embedding something that’s helpful with what we know.

GW: Yes, it’s more than just the one event. I mean, we might have a training session or learning experience. But we’re not going to take somebody from not knowing anything about anything to having perfect mastery of something in a short time frame. We’re just not.

So, what do we do in pre-event, event, post-event—these spaced learning kinds of things? What kinds of resources do we give people? Because too often we expect them to memorize everything we put into some sort of class, whether it’s face to face or virtual, and people just cannot. A lesson I got from Neil Rackham back in 1981 when he was doing stuff at Motorola with us was that we need to do a lot less in our training sessions. We need to cover less.

And we need more and more time on the practice and feedback element of that because we “feed people with the firehouse” and they can’t retain it all. We expect too much. We’re not spreading it out, we’re not enabling their performance. One of my things is that our default, when I first started with the concept of guidance, was to do a job aid, a stand-alone job aid.

But our clients always resisted that. They hated that notion.

So we quit having the argument. We just embedded job aids in training and got it to the audience that way. And said, “Share this with your neighbors when you get back to the job site.” I think one issue is that our profession, the L&D profession, too often goes after low stakes performance, medium stakes performance, and doesn’t reserve their efforts for high stakes performance. We should leave more to informal learning and then find ways to enable that in the workplace. If it’s worthy addressing, would a stand-alone job aid do? Would a stand-alone performance support do? Or do you need to embed it in training as some interim kind of thing? If you think about the airline pilot checking the underbelly of the aircraft, they’re using a checklist. You know they’ve been trained on how to use that checklist and exactly what to look for. The checklist is there to make sure they don’t forget something.

Then we should reserve training for when we need people to truly memorize something because the workplace, the workflow context, demands that they have that on immediate recall. There’s no chance, no time for them to look something up. They’ve got to just know it.

But if it’s something that happens every quarter or something like that, you’re going to need to reference something because you can’t remember what they taught you three, six months ago. You just can’t.

Listen to the full episode to hear more of Guy’s experience with workflow learning and his advice to learning leaders on shifting to a performance first mindset.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up-to-date on all the latest conversations and guests in The 5 Moments space.


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