What is a Digital Coach?

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “What is a Digital Coach…and Why You Really Want to Know!” in which Bob Mosher, Dr. Conrad Gottfredson, and Senior Designer & Analyst Sue Reber define a true Digital Coach and explain its purpose and functionality. 

Bob Mosher (BM): Today, I am joined by two of my heroes in life—my wonderful colleagues that I'm blessed to work with on a daily basis—Dr. Con Gottfredson and Sue Reber. They're both brilliant learning designers, particularly in the field of 5 Moments of Need (5 MoN). Obviously, we know Con's pedigree as the pioneer of 5 MoN, and Sue is just a remarkable Senior Designer and Analyst in this area.

Today’s conversation is an interesting one, and it is sparked by something I posted on LinkedIn. Many of you know that I have a pet peeve around vocabulary, and I had brought up this idea of a Digital Coach relative to 5 MoN and relative to workflow learning. I got a little pushback on the brand, but more importantly, I got some pushback along the lines of, “What is this thing? Why is it so important? Don't we do it already with SharePoint?” A whole bunch of things came up. So, we decided to take a deeper dive with these two experts, Con and Sue, into exactly why we have found in our work—relative to 5 MoN and workflow learning—that a Digital Coach is really a differentiator and a critical pivot in both the implementation and design of effective workflow learning.

Let’s talk about branding for a second. We often talk about Gloria Geary, who in 1991 published Electronic Performance Support Systems, which is a remarkable, landmark book in our opinion. By all means, look it up and read it. In it, she references performance support and, obviously, the book is called Electronic Performance Support Systems (or EPSS), which has been a brand in our industry forever. We are sensitive to that. But this whole idea about calling it a Digital Coach: if you two wouldn’t mind, why and where did it come from? Why in this case might a rebrand be warranted? And how has it helped in what we've seen in our work with our clients?

Con Gottfredson (CG): As you know, Bob and Sue, we've been talking about an EPSS and how it is a vital tool in the performance support arsenal and the discipline of performance support. The challenge has been that the lines of business have really struggled to grasp something called an EPSS. And so, we've worked to try to find a way where people who are not grounded in Gloria's work and don’t have a history in learning could really relate to what an EPSS does. The term Digital Coach has surfaced and worked for us. We see other labels that organizations use, but that notion of a Digital Coach seems to have worked a lot better for us in describing what we want to do with this very powerful tool. 

Sue Reber (SR): I think one of the difficulties is that in business there are all kinds of acronyms all over the place. EPSS might have started out okay, but then there was “embedded (vs. electronic) performance support systems” and it just all became very confusing. So, I feel like changing it up and calling it a Digital Coach helps really focus on its purpose and almost brings up a picture of what it is. It’s not just another acronym that I have to try to keep track of.

BM: I think it speaks to a principle of embeddedness and the power of this thing, to your point, Con. People want a Digital Coach. They don't necessarily want an EPSS. From a branding perspective, a lot of our clients don't even say they use a Digital Coach. They adopt the language of the business and come up with a different term, but principally, they choose that term because it’s native to the work. It's embedded in the work; therefore, being branded in the context of the work is key. Frankly, we're not married to Digital Coach. We do use it quite a bit because, to Con’s point, it breaks the seal for us with a lot of clients. But I think the message here is that, unlike L&D inflicting our terminology on others as we have for years from a training perspective, this term really comes from the user back. They'll use what sounds/looks/feels appropriate and native. Digital Coach has resonated.

Sue, you've been a 5 MoN designer forever. Why is this so pivotal to the 5 MoN methodology, and how has it been a pivot for you?

SR: A Digital Coach really supports the entire spectrum of learning needs, whereas training really supports you when you need to learn something new or when you need to learn something more. But once you get back to work and you need to do something, or something goes wrong, or you need to troubleshoot, or something changes, then what do you do? You don't want to go back into a classroom and take another class that just pulls you away for longer. Frankly, you don't really need that most of the time. So, I think a Digital Coach fits just beautifully into the methodology. It allows us to really be targeted during training on things that require training and allows us to support people throughout the entire learning lifecycle, whatever their learning needs might be.

CG: We're working with a client right now who said to us, “We have a Digital Coach.” We asked, “What is it?” They described an online help system for software. It’s a very flat system, far from what Gloria Geary described as an EPSS. As a matter of fact, she made a clear distinction between online help and what she called an EPSS, which we're now calling a Digital Coach. So, it's one thing to call something a Digital Coach, but what we must define is the functionality that makes it a Digital Coach. That's where methodology comes in. A Digital Coach needs to deliver just what you need at the moment of need and orchestrate all of the resources available to accommodate all 5 Moments of Need in the flow of work. At the moment of Apply, you've got to be able to get to the steps of things and follow those steps. At the moment of Solve, you've got to get to FAQs. We have so many different kinds of performance support tools, templates, and resources that a Digital Coach orchestrates in a systematic way. The 5 MoN methodology is a clear prescription for how we orchestrate those resources to enable effective performance on the job. Without that vital functionality, you may think you have a Digital Coach, but it won't do what a Digital Coach needs to do.

BM: Sue, I want to run at your point about design and methodology. Con has always said, “Design for the moment of Apply first.” Well, what does that mean? What's the deliverable? I always knew how to make a class. I was trained how to design eLearning—for New and More as you said—but when you pivot on Apply, you have to have something that you that you end up with, and it is a Digital Coach. You build from the Digital Coach back, but that's a huge pivot for L&D. We talk in terms of courses, chapters, lessons, curriculum, ILT, VILT, eLearning. Those are, I think, predetermined and predisposed when we walk into analysis, whether we say them or not. This is a very different pivot, Sue, isn't it—in the methodology that we designed? For many of us, it’s a very different deliverable that we may never have even designed for before.

SR: Absolutely. And it does require changing your thinking, because you really do have to be focused on what people need to do at the moment of Apply and what support they need in order to do it. 

CG: And then you back into the training and only add to it those elements that are critical for the training side of things because the content is fundamentally embedded into that Digital Coach that you bring into the classroom. Then you wrap around it the practice activities and the other things that you do in training. 

BM: Let me run at something you always say that kind of segues into our next question. We often think of an EPSS as being like a job aid or stand-alone resource. But we can put training in there! Part of our Performance Support Pyramid design is to link out to an eLearning, or link out to a video, or link out to an instructional layout or a coach. So, can a Digital Coach replace the classroom? Can a Digital Coach stand alone? 

CG: The answer to that is yes. If the skills that you're supporting don't require people to stop working to learn, we know that, on average, about half of what is in a formal training can be pushed into the flow of work where a Digital Coach can actually facilitate learning while working. But there are those skills, those tasks where the critical impact of failure demands that we have people stop work to learn. We take time to focus in on those higher critical impact of failure skill sets that need to be addressed with training. 

SR: The awesome thing about it is that you have more time in the classroom to actually focus on those things that people need to be able to practice in a safe environment to make sure they know what they're doing. 

BM: It's interesting because it can stand alone, but does it often stand alone in our work? 

CG: Oh, we always find a blend. That blend is where you've got the portion that can be learned in the flow of work with the help of a Digital Coach, but then you have those areas that you need to target—those skills that you need to target [with training]— where the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic. You still need to support that learning as workers transition into the flow of work. So, a Digital Coach is needed for all training, but it can lift the burden of the classroom and of formal learning (whatever form that takes) by pushing into the workflow those skills that people can learn safely on their own exclusively using a Digital Coach. That gives you more time and room on the training side of things to truly focus on methodology that matters and that ensures people can actually master those skills with a higher critical impact of failure. 

BM: Sue, you mentioned targeted training earlier as a deliverable of the methodology. Can you take us a little bit deeper into that? How might you intentionally use the tool in support of that when it comes to instruction? 

SR: I think that's one place where people struggle, especially when it comes to traditional learning design. They're thinking about the classroom and they're thinking, “Okay, so I'm going to design my Digital Coach over here, and then I'm going to design my training.” They really don't see them as integrated. But really, they are integrated, and you should be using that Digital Coach in the training. The point is, at the end of the training, not only have they had time to practice those critical things that they needed to practice, but they also know where to go for support when they are at the moment of Apply. They know where they can find the information that they need to do their job. 

BM: I love that. It is a “teach to fish” approach, right? And you're right. It takes the burden off of covering all that content that I feared as an instructor, whether the students were ready for it or not, because I was the one-hit wonder. If they didn't get it with me, they never got it again. This point about “covering things” changed dramatically for me when I saw my first Digital Coach, because all the content is covered there. Now, when I get in class, I can emphasize and go deeper in certain things and practice and fail others. But I am no longer the “end all” of content and the guide that takes people through an outline. Instead, I am giving them and teaching them how to use everything they'll ever need to know in a way that’s accessible when they're working. 

CG: Traditionally, our view of training has been so narrow. We've thought that the formal side of things is training. Well, formal learning initiates training—it starts the learning process—but expertise is developed in the flow of work and expertise requires experience. That experience happens in the flow of work. If we can't step into the flow of work and support people as they accommodate all of the different challenges at the moments of Apply, Solve, Change, and even Learn New and Learn More, then we're very shallow in how we support real learning and skill development, and the development of expertise in the flow of work. 

BM: One of our earlier articles was about how performance support (at the time we called it performance support) saves the classroom. As I grew up and watched the classroom mature, especially with regard to technology, the technology got harder and more sophisticated. As people had less time to learn it, classes became these overburdened, over-taught places that left people with their hair blown back and eyes glazed over. Often, they were anything but prepared to perform. This is such a freeing model that allows this brilliant tool we have—formal instruction—to do what it does best and let gifted instructors be the best they can be. 

SR: I think learners still leave that way, Bob. They just have support afterward! 

BM: But thank goodness for the safety net, right? All the more reason to have a Digital Coach. When we do Rapid Workflow Analysis, the content and tasks needed today to survive, and the rate at which both change, is absurd. How do we sleep at night without a Digital Coach in the background, knowing that it can save the day when people perform? 

So, we're making a huge deal of this thing. Is this something I have to go out and buy? Do I have to go to that extreme? Is there such a thing, and what do I get? And what about those who say, “We have SharePoint, so we already have performance support.” “We've got a content repository.” “We've got Teams, so Microsoft has told us we already have performance support.” I'm not knocking Microsoft, per se, but I think this contributes to misunderstanding about the nature of what the tool itself needs to be. What’s your reaction to the “buy vs. build” question and the response of “I already have that…I've got content around my company”? 

CG: Again, it's all about the methodology and the degree to which you're able to orchestrate and deliver the resources in the way that you need to. You can build a Digital Coach using all kinds of technology. There are software applications you can purchase that are built specifically for developing, maintaining, and scaling a Digital Coach. Those are important to know and understand, but that's not where you have to begin. You can begin very simply using the technologies you have, but you must understand the functions that a Digital Coach needs to perform. It needs to provide two-click/10-second access to task-level support for the steps of a task and enable workers to look at those steps in both high-level and detailed ways. And for that task, workers must be able to access all the reference resources (job aids, checklists, etc.) that are relevant to help them perform. But someone might also need some training, so they need to get to training resources, and then ultimately to people resources. But those are orchestrated in a way that helps workers intuitively access what they need to perform. As long as you're doing that, you can use SharePoint, if you're wise enough and work with it in the ways that you need to. Sue has been a genius in this regard, so I'm going to turn my time over to her and let her continue, because she has done this on many different platforms. 

SR: I would say there's an upside and a downside to everything, right? There are tradeoffs. First of all, what tools do you have? Like Con said, it's really all about the design. You can make SharePoint work as a Digital Coach. You can even make a PDF work as a Digital Coach. My advice is to start where you are with what you have: start building things. As you know what you need, then you can start looking at available tools and platforms and say, “You know what? I really need something else.” If you don't have the luxury of going right out and immediately buying performance support authoring software, oftentimes organizations just need to start with what they have. Again, I would just piggyback on what Con said: it's all about the design. 

BM: Sue, let me ask you a question. An article was recently published by a dear colleague of ours about the top 100 tools that we are using in learning. There isn't an EPSS on there. Not one made the top 100, which is really troubling to me because recently there have been multiple reports from many different associations that “workflow learning embedded stuff” is top of mind in L&D and in the business right now; yet, we won't buy the hammer to drive the nail. Sue, you’ve worked extensively in the store-bought EPSS authoring tools. What takes them beyond SharePoint? What do you get for taking that extra step and making that commitment? 

SR: They're designed right out of the box to be able to support the [performance support] pyramids. You get in and you get to the content that you need without having to dig through a whole lot of stuff. There's some software out there that people like to think of as a Digital Coach, because it walks you through how to do a task, but that's just walking you through how to do a task. It's not a Digital Coach. It's not providing context. It's not providing the additional orchestrated resources and supporting knowledge. 

BM: It kind of takes us into maintenance, in my opinion. We often think about everything leading up to the build, or everything leading up to the delivery. In a training mindset, we think about versions: “I've got three more months until my next one and I'll make the corrections and such in between now and then.” Well, we all know that in the workflow, you may have days, minutes, or hours before your next version. Sue, can you speak to content maintenance and user generated content as a discipline? Maybe even speak to it from the standpoint of the tools you just mentioned. Are content maintenance and user generated content upsides to these kinds of commitments? 

SR: I think so because performance support software is generally designed to point to existing resources. You can deep link into things that are maintained by the groups that actually own them, instead of them being maintained by the L&D team (i.e., you don't have to update an eLearning course because an interface changed). So, I feel like the maintenance is easier. 

CG: Maintenance and measurement are two issues that ultimately push organizations as they invest more and more into the world of a Digital Coach, using that capability to its fullest. Keeping content current, brokering to resources that live where they are maintained, knowledge management systems, and so forth are so important. And that's generally in the journey of maturity. At some point, organizations begin to look at technologies designed specifically for a Digital Coach. And why not? In reality, we have software for developing eLearning. We have software for managing our libraries of learning. Where things are important, we have software that helps us build and design and develop and deliver. We certainly need to have that for something so important and powerful as a Digital Coach. 

BM: And content management has come back in vogue! LCMS and other kinds of things were big years ago and kind of lost favor or took a backseat to other things we were doing. But governance becomes a big deal because so much of this discipline is not about the initial build. It's about keeping things current, and who keeps them current, and where they are kept. This is a whole other level of governance and content management that I don't know we have ever gone into as deeply as this discipline will force you to go. 

CG: In addition to keeping things current, there's also the ongoing optimization of a Digital Coach and the other resources that we're using or employing to support performance in the flow of work. We have to keep those vibrant and meaningful, and that requires ongoing optimization as well as maintenance of the solutions we build. 

BM: Guys, I think part of what has bitten us back is the legacy of EPSS. Even calling it a Digital Coach has the word “digital” in it. Too often, we’re myopic about its application. The first thing that comes to mind, and I agree that it’s low hanging fruit, is IT systems. We had “Clippy” back in Word and then RoboHelp came along for a while. There are current systems like WalkMe and others that have these wonderful recording capabilities and more. So, there has been a bias in our industry that this is only IT-skill-focused, which is only a tiny sliver of the training and performance that we have to support. Con, what's your opinion on soft skills? Is a Digital Coach only for digital stuff or IT alone? What about the whole world of talent management, talent development, leadership, sales skills, and product knowledge, none of which are necessarily tied to any kind of system? Can a Digital Coach support those domains as well? 

CG: Absolutely. Eighty percent of the work we do jumps into the world of soft skills. In reality, every job has procedural skills and what we call soft skills or principle-based skills that are outside of technology. Today, work is so sophisticated that many people are going into technology, then out of technology and doing work that has nothing to do with technology. Then they go back into another kind of technology and then out of that to do other human interactive kinds of things that have nothing to do with technology. So, this mix of soft skills and procedural skills that are both in and out of technology, that's the nature of work today for so many people. You can't just paint yourself into the corner of a technology-based delivery of a Digital Coach that is tied to software and other things. It's got to be able to live in and out of that technology. 

BM: Sue, when you've done your work in soft skills, how do you get people to think task-based in that? Unfortunately, we’ve called it soft skills for a long time, so the natural inclination is to think it's too abstract. How do you get to the procedural level of that stuff? 

SR: Because there are still things that you need to do, so you need to focus on those. I think soft skills often require more supporting knowledge, but there are still things that I'm going to do. There's a reason why I want to become a better leader or something like that. There is a performance there that I can look for.

CG: It’s so funny to me when folks say, “Well, leadership. That’s soft skills. You can't build performance support for leaders.” And I'm thinking, “So what did they do? Just sit around all day and think about leadership?” For leaders in all jobs and all work, there are things that they do. If they're doing/acting in any way, that is performance, and performance can be documented and supported. It's just a set of principle-based (vs. procedural-based) tasks. In our journey, we've never been unable to build a Digital Coach for any performance area. 

BM: Let's wrap with this. All of what we discussed today is a mindset shift around the deliverable we build (i.e., the technology), the tool in which we design (like an EPSS software), and the framework you guys have continued to discuss (the pyramid and so on). For years, we've been wired around other things: ILT, eLearning lessons, etc. We think about these things first. If we're going to get to a Digital Coach as a deliverable, we have to be in the mindset of that being the bullseye. In your journeys, how did each of you personally make that flip? Sue, in our earlier careers we worked for a training company and wrote curriculum that was for stand-up training. You ran a department and were brilliant at that, too. How did you get to where you are today? And, Con, tell us about your journey as well. 

SR: For me, it was that curriculum line that we developed called LearnPro, where we flipped learning upside down and we did start to think about it as “What do people need to do?”. It was more problem-based, scenario-based learning. So, I think that set the stage for me to make this shift, but it was really a big deal because we had to ask, “What is the higher-level thing that somebody is trying to do and what are the tasks that fall underneath that?” It was not an easy shift. I was used to starting the other way. 

CG: My shift happened in 1984, as you know, which was when I left graduate school and entered the real world of work. I asked myself a question that changed my entire professional career, and that was, “Why am I doing what I'm doing? Training is a means to an end. So, what is the end? What is it that I am doing for the organization that has hired me?” I realized that it was to enable effective performance on the job and that training was a means to that end. It wasn't for workers to be able to think about what they do, but to actually perform effectively. Obviously, that requires knowledge, but it requires more than that. All that I had learned and done in my graduate work came into a different focus. As you said, Sue, it flipped it on its head, and I've never looked back. It's been about performance ever since, and that changed the whole methodology of how we go about instructional design. A performance-first approach to instructional design is very different than what you do when you're designing for an academic environment. 

BM: Con, I remember the first time I watched you do an RWA. I was mortified and mesmerized all at the same time, because it showed me something very quickly, which was that I was pivoting on the wrong thing right out of the chute. I was getting SMEs in a room and having them tell me what people should be told to ultimately do, but if you look at the order of operation in that sentence, it really should be flipped the other way. As you worked through that day, I thought, “I have no clue about the workflow to which my learners return,”—none whatsoever, even though I sat with SMEs for five days telling me what they did, or what they thought was important. But that's not the workflow. That's not designing for performance back. And when you see that, you realize you better put something in that workflow for workers to survive it. Training alone is never going to get us there. 

You know, I wrote an article some years back called “Do We Teach Swimming or Prevent Drowning?”. My pivot was, if you saw someone drowning, would you start doing PowerPoints? Would you do a “What's In It for Me”? Would you say, “No, no. Look over here. Watch me model swimming so you can get to the side”? Of course not. You’d throw them a life jacket. You would give them something in the context of that situation to survive the moment. And in time, you would teach them swimming. That's exactly the model you folks described earlier. A Digital Coach is the tip of the sword for that approach and the tool we have to begin building first. 

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The 5 Realities of Organizational Learning

 By: Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., Rw.E.

Today I am celebrating my 70th birthday. I have devoted 40 of my years to organizational learning. In this work, I have been blessed to work in a profession filled with dedicated, caring people. My life has been enriched by every person with whom I’ve worked, and I have learned a lot along the way.

In these 40 years, I have observed 5 realities:

  1. Just because you read, hear, and/or see it doesn’t mean you know it.
  2. Just because you know it doesn’t mean you can do it.
  3. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you’re skilled.
  4. Just because you’re skilled doesn’t mean you’re competent.
  5. Gaining and sustaining competence requires a Digital Coach designed to enable learning while working at all 5 Moments of Need. 

1. Just because you read, hear, and/or see it doesn’t mean you know it.

My work has allowed me to observe the training practices of hundreds of organizations every year. What I have observed, especially in the last two decades, is a consistent pattern where presenting content from a set of slides dominates most of the instructional time. Consider the last virtual course you attended. What was your experience? Recently I was required to complete an eLearning course that had me read text and watch videos with periodic interjections of sets of questions that I needed to answer. I was required to answer 8 out of 10 questions correctly to move on, which I did. But I didn’t deeply learn anything because there were no learning activities that actually facilitated my understanding of that content in the context of my work.  

This imbalance between presentation of content and the instructional activities that facilitate real learning is understandable. In the last 20 years, those designing and delivering training have been asked to train on more and more content in less and less time. The impact? The time allocated to instructional efforts like modeling, practice, feedback, and review (especially integrated review) have fallen by the wayside in the wake of the need to “cover it all”.

This is where workflow learning saves the day. We know that, on average, half of training curriculum can be pushed entirely into the workflow to be learned while working. This frees up instructional time to allow the reinstatement of fundamental instructional practices that can bring proper balance between content delivery and actual learning.

2. Just because you know it doesn’t mean you can do it.

I continue to be astonished by the failure of learning solutions to distinguish knowing from doing.  The fundamental unit of work performance is a job task; yet courseware today still tends to lean heavily on knowledge acquisition. In a previous blog, I shared the results of a check I performed on the instructional health of an existing course. I mapped the 270 learning objectives from that course to the tasks and knowledge topics we had identified through workflow analysis. Here’s what we found:

  1. More than 80% of the learning objectives were focused on knowledge rather than performance. Only 52 of the 270 learning objectives related directly to actual job tasks.
  2. Significant workflow performance areas were missed. The existing 52 performance-focused learning objectives only addressed 30% of the job tasks we identified through the workflow analysis.  

Knowing about something doesn’t guarantee effective performance. We have no certainty of the ability to perform until we have actually acted upon what we have learned.   

3. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you’re skilled.

A skill in the context of workflow performance is the ability to successfully perform a task with an understanding of its supporting knowledge. Being able to perform a task without that knowledge restricts performers in their ability to adapt and generalize in their work. For example, the ability to successfully complete the task of performing a blood transfusion does not constitute a skill. To be a skill, the performer must also understand key concepts like blood type compatibility.      

4. Just because you’re skilled doesn’t mean you’re competent. 

Mastery of individual skills doesn’t result in competence. Competence requires the integration of skills into broader skill sets and for those skill sets to be adjusted to the realities of the workplace. In addition, those integrated and adjusted skill sets must be enriched over time through ongoing, real-world experience. 

5. Gaining and sustaining competence requires a Digital Coach designed to enable learning while working at all 5 Moments of Need.

Dr. Timothy R. Clark has observed, “In any organization, you only have two processes going on. You have execution, which is the creation of value today. And you have innovation, which is the creation of value tomorrow. That’s all we do, just those two processes.”

Traditional approaches to training don’t provide the tactical support in the workflow required to sustain competent performance (execution). Also, the lack of tactical workflow support at the job task level constrains innovation. The workforce is so cognitively overwhelmed trying to remember how to perform their work and find the resources they need that there isn’t the cognitive room required for higher order thinking and innovation. The failure of traditional training to deliver on either of these two crucial processes—execution and innovation—is understandable. Why? Because traditional training is an intermittent intervention that requires people to stop their work, learn outside the context of the workflow, and then figure out on their own how to transfer, integrate, and sustain that learning in the flow of work.  

The following shows the complete journey that learners must make to gain and sustain competent performance [execute] on the job.  

Traditional learning begins and ends in the first phase (Train). Without a Digital Coach to help learners navigate their way through the “Transfer” phase, learners forget much of what they have learned and struggle inefficiently to make their own way to competence. This journey is costly and merits our help. 

A Digital Coach is the game-changer here. It is a web-based system built with purpose in form and function to support employees as they move through all three stages of Train, Transfer, and Sustain. It orchestrates all the resources a performer needs at the job task level.
A properly designed Digital Coach will provide an employee 2-click/10-second access to just what they need, at their moment of need, in the form they need to successfully do (execute) their job. This facilitates continuous learning—while working—in the most remarkable classroom there is: the workflow. 

Visit our website for additional resources, courses, podcasts, white papers, and an eBook on workflow learning.

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Copyright © 2022 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
All Rights Reserved.

Workflow Learning: Making It Stick

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Leadership Matters: Making It Stick” in which Bob Mosher interviews Oliver Kern, a consultant, trainer, and coach, about his deep experience developing workflow learning solutions that stand the test of time.

Bob Mosher (BM): Mr. Oliver Kern, it's wonderful to have you here, my friend. Describe your journey into the performance-first mindset, 5 Moments of Need, and performance support as a discipline.

Oliver Kern (OK): I'm currently a consultant, trainer, and coach based on 25 years of corporate experience as a leader, as a marketer and innovation manager, change agent, and eventually also a learning leader. I'm not a learning person from the start, but I came to learning as a marketer. It was about 10 years ago when I met Con [Gottfredson] in a project. I was tasked by my bosses to produce a global marketing and sales training. Essentially, they said, “Do a three-day training and roll it out globally to about four thousand people,” and I had a hunch that this was not really what we needed. I had no clue about formal training setups. I had done a lot of trainings on strategy and markets and all that, but more from a business perspective—not from a learning perspective. So that's how I came to discover learning.

BM: Many of our best [workflow learning] practitioners are not learning folks. Unfortunately, those who do have a learning background tend to come into this arena with some baggage. We've talked about that on past podcast episodes: the shift from a training-first to a performance-first mindset is sometimes the dark side of our legacy. But you came from the business. You understood what they wanted and therefore came to it with a much fresher, much more performance-focused mindset.

Now, tell us about this wonderful thing called SkillCamp, which became this brilliant deliverable and ecosystem. It's been around for quite a long time. Its journey and evolution have been just remarkable to watch—like you said, from your first efforts and the instinct you had to NOT build three days of training. Can you take us through the business problems SkillCamp solves? What birthed this thing from the business perspective?

OK: First, I should say that this is in the agricultural space. The time to market of those active-ingredient-based products is about 10 years, so [there is] a very scientific, long-term business strategy framework. Why did we need this solution? We understood that we had been a producer over the last hundred years, and then suddenly we needed to start thinking about marketing and sales, because competition came up more and more. There was a lot of market consolidation—the classic story, if you look at the hype cycle of industries. The basic idea is that 50% of success in that market would still be [based on] having great products, but the other 50% would be [based on being] very good at marketing and sales.

So, the solution was a training framework or learning ecosystem for marketing and sales. The marketing and sales departments in many companies are not the best of friends. There's always a little bit of friction between them: how we go to market in terms of strategies and plans and then how we actually execute that, talk to customers, and serve them. We initially called this framework “commercial excellence”, or “marketing and sales excellence”. In the end, we summarized it by saying that we created a common mindset for commercial excellence. And we did that with a common model. One of the best models I came across to kind of frame that learning was the 5 Moments of Need framework. That helped me as a non-learning person to really understand what we needed. And that's where I modeled all the different aspects into that ecosystem. Because we didn't have to only frame it—we also needed to create the content. So, one task was to create that framework; the other was to actually shape the content with a lot of stakeholders and subject matter experts to deliver it and, in the end, build different learning modes for people to digest it.

BM: So, I've heard you tell this story before. You constantly mention this idea about persistently asking stakeholders and those we serve, “What do you want?” Not asking the traditional what-do-you-need-to-know SME stuff! You're really talking to the business about what they really want. Why is that so important and why the persistence? Do they know what they want? We often hear from L&D folks who say, “My line of business doesn't know what it wants.” I don't know if I've ever bought into that. What I’ve sometimes wondered is if we’re asking the right questions, because I don't know anybody who runs a business that doesn't know what their KPIs are that they have to do or what keeps them up at night. We’re asking, “What do you want me to train on?” That may be different from what they want. Why was this so important to you in your journey of being persistent with them around this question?

OK: Of course, they know what they want, or at least what might be best for business. In that sense, they are more knowledgeable than learning folks about all the needs. But how do they actually shape that into learning? That's where you can say they don't know exactly what they want. In our case, they said “We need a three-day training. Take all that content and shape it into a three-day training, and then roll it out globally.” They were ready to spend money. They knew they needed to do something about it because they had a purpose: to become more of a marketer. But what did they really need?

I said, “If you really want to do that and roll it out globally, and it should stick with people, then you need a single point of truth or a single point of data that everybody could tap into.” [In my worst-case scenario] I was envisioning a PowerPoint presentation that would be shown in the training that everybody would just copy and use from there on while we had already developed it further, and then we would have thousands of those versions. We would never have a common mindset for commercial excellence in that sense, right?

If you want to roll out something really business relevant to an organization, you need to have good stakeholder management. You need to bring these people in to understand what they want, because what your boss tells you to do (like a three-day training) is one answer, but what the other pivotal stakeholders are saying and wanting might be quite different. In the end, we did a lot of interviews, and I can summarize the outcome in the sense that everybody wanted a common language around this, because one person might say, “This is what customer segmentation is,” but if you ask the next guy, he might say customer segmentation is something completely different. And everybody agreed that we needed training, so doing a foundational training was part of the show. There was no way around that. As you constantly say, 5 Moments of Need is not “no training”, so one very important aspect of this whole framework was a foundational training. And when you have a common mindset and language, then you can start talking about common processes. When you have common processes, then you can talk about tools you use inside those processes. And when you have all that—mindset, language, process, tool—then you can think about, “Aha! Do people behave in a different way?” And if they behave in a different way, maybe you can measure a different outcome.

BM: And that doesn't all have to be arrived at through the burden of a training. That's where the SkillCamp tool, I think, became the tie that binds. It was the thing that brought all of that together, including the training that we still do. I love the foundations side of it because that really gets back to our critical skills and things that are most important—vs. training on everything.

So, in this mindset change, you're setting some expectations with a question. And you're getting them away from the expectation of having a three-day training deliverable. So, it's so important to manage those expectations over and over and over again, because the training mindset is ingrained in most organizations. It is a reflex. And so, you're trying to turn that around to get them to a different deliverable. How important was expectation management to the success of this endeavor over time and in general?

OK: It was absolutely critical. Right from the moment I walked into the office and got the buy-in from my boss, when he said, “This is an important point in how we do marketing and sales. We want to do that training,” I said, “That can’t be the end of the story. We need to actually put in place that single point of truth and we need to put that into the training. We need to instruct people where they can get the stuff and use the stuff that we will teach them in their training. Otherwise, they will create their own versions and it will be version hell.” So, expectation management started at the very first meeting when I got the mandate to do this.

Then there was expectation management that came when we did what we called a pressure test: when we invited all the managers to say, “Okay, this is what we want, and this is what we want to roll out globally.” It then came out very clearly that this was not a learning initiative, but a change initiative. It was a massive change initiative. And that opened their minds to actually invest in it. So, they said, “If that's the case, we need five days training, because in Asia, you need to train that a little more thoroughly.” Or “In that country, they already know everything, so you train a little less, but we might actually tap into that single point of truth a little more.” So, I was thinking, “How do I set this up? Do I set this up in a way that is a training with a little bit of support? Or do I want to set it up in a way that it sticks and stays around?” And that's what I did. I probably didn't say that enough, but I was aiming in that direction. And now after 10 years, it's still running. It doesn't even have the name SkillCamp anymore. I think it's called something else, but it was set up in a way that it can evolve and shape itself. That's something that's also playing into expectation management, right? You want to have something that's around and can grow with the organization as it learns how to better market and sell products.

Expectation management also has to do with stakeholder management (we said that before). As I explained earlier, we needed to also create the content. So, you have that SME community, which is also pivotal for success. You're in that sandwich position between top management and the people in training who want the bare essentials, right? You [Bob] always phrase it as “2 clicks/10 seconds”, so just the essential information. And the SMEs want to give you 50-page white papers and research backgrounds and all that. So, you need to explain this whole concept to the people who are the real experts in an organization, and even more in a science driven organization.

We also had ambassadors (coaches) and an ambassador community. We shaped that by asking, “Who are the people who like to help others learn in the organization, no matter where they are in the hierarchy?” Those became our ambassadors. We shaped and built that community and taught ambassadors what to expect from how we’d further evolve this learning ecosystem. At first, we had the foundational training, but later on, we had focus areas, role-based content, extended search, different languages, auto translation—all these kinds of things were evolving. And you need to tell people [about those features]. You can't just roll them out and expect people to use them. You really need to manage how the solution reaches out to people and build that ecosystem in a sustainable way.

BM: Clearly it was [sustainable], my friend. Like you said, not only has it been around for 10 years or so, but the brand changed, which shows that it outlived even its original intent. Because of the way you were intentional in setting that up, the brand evolved as it should. The tool has evolved as it should and the technology evolved as it should, but the principles you ingrained there and this mindset shift have stood the test of time.

So, describe outcomes. Looking back, what has been the outcome of this for the organization you were supporting?

OK: We shaped the content found in roughly 5,000-7,000 slides. We had the help of a few large consultancies who identified the competencies and skills needed to be successful in the market, and that's what we shaped. In the end, we said, “Okay, how can we visualize that?” And then time was up to start the whole endeavor. We looked at our watches and I suggested we use the watch [as a model]: take a twelve-step go-to-market approach as a basic way to start (12 hours in the day, 12 steps for us to go to market). That seemed like a good model to start with. It's been changed in the meantime, but that was a good context that everybody could grab throughout the world. And then we learned from Con that we needed a process context model, which in the end was not only a simpler way to digest tons and tons of competencies to go to market, but it was also a real click map. We put it on the homepage of the EPSS, or Digital Coach as you call it nowadays, and you could click on a step and go into the different tasks you would need to do to complete that step, and then drill down into whatever resources you needed to be successful. And that's what we taught in that foundational training. In the end, we spent the first couple hours of every foundational training just helping people understand the Digital Coach, which we called SkillCamp in those days.

And this was by no means perfect (just a little practitioner secret). In the beginning, we had only the bare essential information in there. Also, the technical system was not stable. We didn't have the cloud services behind it back in those days. It was all rudimentary. In the end, we knew we had to build this plane while we flew it. And then we had this global rollout. In three or four years, we had physically trained more than more than four and a half thousand people. Since then, it has evolved.

You asked about outcomes. In the end, there were role-based elements, and we had a training on how seeds are produced and marketed. We had a project on lifecycle management in the training framework, we had different focus areas to help with events and structures. So, it was actually evolving into a blended learning framework or learning ecosystem that used different learning modalities. We were experimenting with a lot of things, like how to ask the right questions. How could we do tests in there? Could we ask small questions? Could we use a chatbot? I'm not sure how these evolved over time, but we tried a lot of things and built a learning ecosystem around it.

BM: And like you say, it has stood the test of time. Wrapping that process around a lot of content made it such that it was that single point of truth.

Looking back, what are some key success factors you can share with others? Many who come here are very early in their journey. They want to get their arms around where to start and hear lessons learned, so it’s wonderful to have someone like you on a podcast like this, who has that tenure in this experience. What would be some key things they should keep in mind that made things work successfully for you?

OK: I think the one that [most] stands out is that context is king. Context is king. For me, I needed to contextualize how to bring the knowledge and the content for a new way to go to market to a lot of people from a lot of different cultures. The 5 Moments of Need framework gave that context. Where do people learn? We needed to teach people how to cooperate. We had marketing and salespeople in the room together, and there was a lot of happy discussion that we facilitated. We said, “Look, a lot of the stuff we’re teaching you guys you already know and do somehow, but some of this is new. So, we have a lot of new [content] and the whole approach is new that you need to learn, and then you need to learn [even] more. There are a lot of things you need to let go and change. You need to start to apply that.”

So, you see the 5 Moments of Need framework really being used in the foundational training. It was also used for setting up the technical back-end system. It was used for setting up and briefing the SME community, for the stakeholders, and for the ambassadors. In the end, you need a theory or a model so you can easily explain why you do things the way you’re doing them. If you can then say, “Dr. Con Gottfredson has been at this for 40 years,” and bring him in to explain it further, which we did a couple of times, then that's extremely helpful. Because if you are telling internal people about the framework, it's much less impactful than when somebody who's an expert in the field and has used the framework in many industries tells the same story. But that's kind of the most important.

You asked for success factors. You must have the people who are experts about the content “in the boat.” Somebody once said, “You have to have the right people on the bus.” You need to get your SMEs on the bus! And you are in that stakeholder sandwich when you do that: you want to reduce the content and the SMEs want to actually tell their story and what they know about everything. So, they are usually highly motivated to help. So, you need to explain [why less is better], and you can use that model again: 2 clicks/10 seconds. That was that was a phrase we used a lot.

The other thing that is a success factor is your own mindset of looking at your learning ecosystem. We did a lot of user experience testing that was trying to look at this from the learner’s perspective, as the person who's going to sit in the training or in front of Digital Coach and try to make sense of it. From what I learned later, typically what often happens in the corporate learning space is that they look at it from the corporate perspective. So, how do I organize all the trainings? How do I access all the trainings? How do I manage participants in these trainings? How do I get locations secured or invitations sent, right? So, these kinds of things—the learner perspective and the corporate perspective—are fundamentally different from each other. But you need to look at both sides if you talk about a learning system or learning ecosystem. Look at it from the company perspective and look at it from the learner perspective. Both are critically important for the success of your plan to establish learning in your company, wherever you are. And don't forget the single point of truth, obviously. Have one single point where you put your content and maintain it—and work hard to switch off all the others!

I can give a nice example [of switching off other sources of content]. We decided not to present a PowerPoint in the foundational training. We made that decision that after the first or second foundational training ran because it was hell to produce these PowerPoints and have those printed in different countries by different people in different setups in different languages. It was crazy. But it took us almost three years before the last foundational trainings ran without PowerPoint. We still had PowerPoints sneaking in here and there, but it was more for exercises or tasks. After we had completed about two thirds of all the trainings, we managed to completely remove PowerPoint, which made it much more fun, much more active, much more “in the process”, and we had much more time for practice.

Another success factor is stakeholder management. As you asked in the first question, why didn't they know what they want? You really need to think about who is important for the success of however you want to establish learning in your organization. Talk to them to understand what they expect from this and how you can make them happy. If you can't make them happy, at least keep them informed. One of the biggest “presents” I received was from the CEO in those days. I walked into her office and said proudly, “This is the EPSS, and this is how we're going to set it up. We have that single point of truth, and we have the 5 Moments of Need framework behind all that. We have the 12 steps and a common mindset.” And she said, “Okay, but do you have the buy-in of everybody?” So, I said, “I was assuming so because I talked to everybody. I talked to you and you're the CEO of the company. I talked to my bosses. I have everybody on board.” And she said, “I don't believe you. My experience with this is that you need to have them sign almost with their blood to really ensure buy-in because they are overseeing the business in a country, and they are operationally driven. So, if you really want them to drive this commercial training in their countries’ organizations, then you need to invite them to a room and present this to them. And maybe they can still make changes, but in the end, they will need to sign off. Have the key stakeholders sign off on what you're going to do so that you have a common way forward”. And we called this “pressure testing”. I think pressure testing is one of the most valuable tips we can share in this podcast. Pressure test with your key stakeholders and have them sign off on the way forward.

BM: Excellent. So, what are three key takeaways for you now that you’re looking back?

OK: The most important one is that whatever your learning is about, make sure it's business relevant. Why else should people consider it? So, make it business relevant.

The second one—and not just because I'm on your podcast for performance support—is make it workflow accessible and intuitive. It should be really usable in the work, during the work, or at least accessible while you work.

And the third, which I’ve already mentioned a lot, is stakeholder involvement. Stakeholder involvement is not only important at the beginning when you talk to people about what they want, it's not only important when you really want to kick off the solution and do your pressure testing, but it’s also important afterwards. Always make sure that the people who are affected by the training give you feedback and that you're involving them, because everything's changing faster and faster now, right? I don't know, we might have flying taxis soon. So, things change and that's why you need to keep your stakeholders involved, and maybe even get new stakeholders involved. So, do you stakeholder management and involvement all the way through your learning journey.

BM: My favorite question to ask those that have been on this journey is what advice would you give your younger self before you even start it? What would help the younger Oliver about to begin this thing 10 years ago?

OK: It’s two-fold. One would be to ask yourself if what's in front of you is actually just a learning initiative or a change initiative that requires lots of change management or even organizational development. That's a question I was not aware of at the beginning of all this. That's one thing I would talk to my younger self about.

The other is understanding learning within the context of the 5 Moments of Need. This is where Con helped us so much. We did bring him in when we already had a lot of content shaped, so we had these slides arranged around our 12 steps and we were very proud of them. And then he said, “Okay, but what's critical?” We really had difficulties with this. We needed to go back and redo a lot of content, which was thousands and thousands of euros. We needed to invest to redo all that content and talk again to all those experts. So, that's where I would go back and say, “Look, Oliver, think about how you can really reduce the content in the right way so that it's digestible and usable for the learners.”

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When NOT to Use Performance Support/Workflow Learning? NEVER!!!

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “When Not to Use Performance Support/Workflow Learning” in which Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE explore whether there is ever a time when performance support and/or workflow learning should not be used.

Bob Mosher (BM): This is an interesting discussion. It stems from a recent LinkedIn post that had well over 10,000 views, over 100 reactions, and a bunch of comments. That post was sparked by a conversation that Con [Gottfredson] and I were a part of with a dear friend. In it, she was asked a number of questions, and one of them was from a very astute colleague who asked, “When would you NOT use performance support/workflow learning?”

I couldn't help but walk away from that engagement intrigued. I was taken back by the fact that the question was even asked. I think I would have asked if she could give me a time when training should not be used. I can't imagine a time in our work, in this shift from training to performance that we've been in for years, that we would not use workflow learning and performance support. Con, can you speak to that in your journey as well?

Conrad Gottfredson (CG): Well, performance support lands in the world of work—supporting people in the world of work. If our objective, our purpose, our intent is to ensure that people work effectively on the job, why wouldn't we always have [performance support and workflow learning] helping people do the work they need to do? The journey from learning [to performance] requires people to move and to translate what they learned into the workflow, and then to apply it in the workflow in an ever-changing environment. There isn't ever a time where you don't need that to happen: where whatever it is that you've learned doesn’t need assistance making that journey to the workflow through transfer, and then to be sustained that in the workflow over time. I can't imagine ignoring that important journey. And sometimes we just need to work and learn as we go.

BM: It's an important pivot, one that I learned through you. It's one that many of our experts who join us in “Experience Matters”, one of our other podcast series, share repeatedly. One of our dear friends, Doug Holt, who's in one of our earlier featured podcasts, said that once you've seen this [pivot], you can't go back. That's been our journey from a training-first mindset—let's build three versions of this, nine days of that, seven learnings on this, or nine virtual sessions on blah, blah, blah—to one where we pivot more on the workflow and performance and build first for those. Then, only if we must and maybe not at all, we build training. This is a complete 180-degree shift from the way I know I was schooled, and from how I spent the first twenty years of my career.

In my LinkedIn post, I list seven deliverables or outcomes that we have found from our work over the years in this area. These have happened time and time again; they are not just happenstance or one off. I'm going to go deeper into these seven outcomes today. For me, they are the seven reasons I got into this profession in the first place. It was not to get fives on an evaluation or to be an order taker.

The first point is this issue of time to competency that you were speaking about a minute ago. In a past podcast, we talked about “train, transfer, sustain”. That's the infamous journey we've used time and time again to really explain and even visualize that journey from learning to application. So, what about time to competency being reduced by half? What does that mean and where does that come from?

CG: Well, when you step into the workflow and have 2-click/10-second access to just what you need at the moment of need to do your work, you're immediately empowered with the ability to perform. You don't have to wait. From the moment you step into the workflow, you can begin to apply what you've learned in your training. This ability—from moment one—to be performing, adapting, and adjusting in an ever-changing environment rapidly moves you to competency. But if you don't have that, if you don't have that bridge and that support, then you've got to find your way through trial and error and figuring it out. Frankly, that's inefficient and ineffective. With a Digital Coach or an EPSS, with that performance support system in place, then you're performing the moment you step into the flow of work. And if you have a performance gap, you close it yourself. You know what you need to do. You don't know how to do it, but in 2 clicks and 10 seconds, you get to everything you need to close that gap. You’re constantly closing your performance gaps as they relate to your own competency; therefore, you get to [competency] much faster.

BM: This challenge is a “sacred cow”, if you will, in our industry. We often associate performance or the success of our training classes with memorization: the degree to which somebody can regurgitate back what they learned through a test or demonstration. The reality is, it's about performing. You know the classic Einstein anecdote that he never learned his phone number because he could look it up? The point here is that if the journey is truly performance, very often we can guide a learner to doing before they ever even internalize [the knowing], before they memorize anything, before they even “learn it”.

Now, they will [learn it] over time and their dependency on a Digital Coach drops off—not immediately, but over time—but if, for instance, I can continue to look up something that changes all the time, but I principally know what I have to do, why can’t I [choose to never] memorize the six steps to do it when I can look them up and do them correctly and quickly every time? That's the time to competency by which the world judges [workers]: not L&D’s traditional time to competency, which is going through the course, proving you memorized [information], etc. Our industry has looked at [competency] very differently, I think, for a long time.

CG: I distinguish a difference between time to effective performance and time to competency. When you have performance support in place, the time to effective performance is immediate. I can perform effectively, and as I perform effectively over time in an ever-changing environment, I learn. When things go wrong, I solve [problems]. When things change, I close that gap and figure that out. I begin to integrate various skills together into larger skill sets and capabilities. That is where competency is born—as I integrate all this effective performance of my job tasks with the knowledge and experience that comes from doing them and doing the things that we need to do in the flow of work.

BM: Outcome number two: reducing the training footprint by half or more. This is one of the greatest gifts in your work that I, as a designer, learn from the most and that's this idea of critical skills. We do not have to train people as long as we have a Digital Coach that covers everything they need to know and that enables them in the workflow to learn things that don't kill them, hurt anyone, or get them in significant trouble. The world of learning while doing has been proven (theoretically) as way more effective than pulling someone out of work to train them. Through critical skills and the use of workflow learning we're able to use what we call Targeted Training vs. something our industry has traditionally called blended learning. Con, what is the difference between those two things?

CG: Over the last twenty years, we've been looking at all the job tasks people need to perform and assessing the Critical Impact of Failure of those tasks. We find that, on average, about half of the skills required for those tasks can be safely pushed into the flow of work for people to learn as they actually do their work—in the context of work—which is much faster to translate to their jobs, right? We reduce the time that people stop their work to learn. We can cut that in half and address with greater significance the instruction that we give for high-risk skills. At the same time, we can push the skills with a lower risk of failure (if I fail, I can safely learn from it) into the flow of work to guide people as they work. So, now we can actually design blended learning by targeting these critical skills in the classroom, using Targeted Training, and pushing the rest into the workflow to be learned there via the Digital Coach. That combination is true blended learning.

BM: Brilliant. Number three: self-efficacy/self-confidence. This is one of my personal favorites about what the learner gains. Years ago, I had a dear friend who was in training at Kodak. One of the things they brought up was this idea that “We’ve created a passive learner at Kodak, even though we are a wonderful organization, and we didn't do it maliciously.” But what the person meant was, we have this rigorous training schedule for when the next offerings come out. And what was taught to that enterprise is not unique to Kodak. In fact, I think we've done it all over the world. We taught learners to wait for us to give them what they need. Besides creating that delayed journey from knowing to doing, we also created a very passive learner who was kind of being told, “You don't have the wherewithal to do this on your own. You’ve got to wait till the next version comes out from some expert standing in front of you.”

What I love about enabling people in the workflow, Con, is that it raises their self-confidence in learning while doing. We've seen this across our clients’ workforces time and time again, and we saw it in some remarkable ways during the pandemic. Mark Wagner from the Hartford tells a miraculous story of an entire division of that organization having self-efficacy and confidence because they had a remarkable Digital Coach called KMT from which they had learned and built self-confidence to continue their transfer and sustain journey on their own. So, when asked to jump to a whole new discipline because of the pivot of COVID, an entire business line was able to do that, as opposed to waiting till we wrote a course, put them all through a bootcamp, spent weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks getting people up to speed (although they probably wouldn’t be competent, but they would have gotten through the class). I mean, we see this time and time again: from the learner’s perspective, one of the most powerful parts of not just a Digital Coach, but a performance mindset with multiple Digital Coaches, is the confidence it can instill in folks.

CG: You know, nothing increases competence as much as successful performance and the ability to recover quickly when you make a mistake. Both of those are very powerful and if you have a performance support system in place that ensures that I am successful the moment I step in to do my work, that I succeed and I can see that success, then self-efficacy is increased. If I make a mistake, I can recover quickly and rapidly. Again, my competence increases, and we know from research that as competence increases, my work performance actually accelerates and I'm more engaged in my work. This is such an important piece to ensure that we minimize the failure that can occur once a person leaves a formal training environment and steps into their real world of work. If we can help them immediately perform effectively, we've got increased confidence that will accelerate on and on in performance.

BM: Outcome number four feeds number three (this list is additive). Four is this idea about the insane rate of change, which I can better handle if I am self-confident, if I have been taught to use a Digital Coach, if my training has been reduced to the most critical skills so my cognitive load is managed, and if I can learn on the job. COVID has accelerated the rate of change in the workflow like probably never in the modern era. Even before COVID, there was tons of research to support that the rate of change had far surpassed our ability to keep up with it in training. So, it’s critical that we help our learners keep up with change as it happens vs. ask them to wait for the next class or “lunch and learn” or bootcamp. This is a remarkable strategy to complement that.

CG: Yes. Frankly, when we do things over and over again, they become deeply rooted in our experience base and oftentimes they become automated. When you have to unlearn something that's become automated, you can't train your way through that. Organizations simply can't invest in training that will override deeply ingrained or deeply rooted skill sets that have developed because workers have been doing something in a certain way over time. That's where performance support bridges that gap: it helps me at that moment where I need to do it a new way rather than fall back on the old way. I need support in the flow of work to help guide me through that new way of doing things until I've unlearned and relearned the new way. A “lunch and learn” will never do it. A training session will never do it. You’ve got to have a performance support system in place to accommodate that kind of change.

BM: Number five: measurement. I'll let you run at this one alone because it’s your favorite thing. We have been chasing ROI in L&D since the day I joined it over 30 years ago. Why is this approach so different in the measurability of our work?

CG: When you have a performance support system in the workplace that guides people as they do their work, you can observe that work. The system is there, guiding them as they work; therefore, we can understand and see and gather data about that work like never before. Gloria Gery saw this in the 1990s. She recognized the fact that when you embed a tool in the workflow to guide people and help them do their work, you can gather data at the same time about that work, which allows us to measure work performance in ways that we haven't been able to from the distance of a classroom.

BM: Brilliant. So, I love this thing called RWA, or Rapid Workflow Analysis. It’s the first step in the journey of many steps to get to a [workflow learning] deliverable. To us, it’s really just a step in the journey, but to many organizations, it could be transformational in and of itself. When you design for the workflow, you make the real workflow transparent. We help organizations see what's done by their workers in the flow of work every day. Why has that been so different, Con, than what’s been done in the past? An organization might dismiss this and say, “Well, we've done process analysis. We've even done workflow analysis. We've got that already.” How is this different? 

CG: Unfortunately, a lot of traditional process analysis ends at a high level. It stops before it gets to the tactical level of doing work, and we have to manage work at the job task level. We map the workflow so that we can know tactically what it is that people need to do, so that we can lift the burden of that tactical work off the shoulders of the performers and allow them to focus on higher order thinking and decision making (the other kinds of things that are so important in the workplace). I don't know how an organization can ever expect to manage performance if it doesn't know what that performance is. Unless we're at the tactical level, we'll never be able to manage performance in the way that it needs to be done in the workflow. 

BM: And understand the criticality of that work. When you layer Critical Skills Analysis on top of an RWA, those two things together are in and of themselves a huge value. We've had organizations we work with thank us just for that. We've had stakeholders in the room observing [our work] thank us for the fact that it's one of the first times they've ever really known the true work of their organization, and what happens in the workflow every single day.

Now, content management: it’s back! Knowledge management: it’s back! Why? Because we're doing a lot of it now. We are in a content revolution in the world right now again with COVID. We’re coming out of this world of new workflows, changes by the second, information overload, and so on, right? This idea about 2-click/10-second access to support is one element—the design of something we call the Performance Support Pyramid—but the architecture of that Pyramid is also a remarkably powerful activity for an L&D team to lead an organization through. Assets have always been there, and there have always been a lot. They've always been redundant, and they have always been out of date. They're always hard to keep current. All these things we hear from the days when SharePoint came along, and even before then. Why does this discipline bring rigor to content management when we guide organizations through the design of a workflow learning solution?

CG: Well, different assets have different roles to play, don't they? Depending on who I am, I need assets to help me in my journey. Some are more helpful than others, and some are more expensive than others. Orchestrating assets in an intentional way that ensures I can perform effectively on the job is a vital thing for us to do. Just giving me a list of assets without orchestrating them in a way that helps me determine which assets I need in a given moment [isn’t helpful]. It’s so important to have that guidance and that help.

I might call a friend but calling a friend can be a very expensive proposition and doesn't scale very well. Gloria Gery always taught that “people assets” need to be managed carefully and ought to be the last place we go, and that we ought to have other assets we go to first. They're the assets that support me as I actually do my work vs. learning assets that support me if I need to learn in the flow of work. Those different types of assets need to be orchestrated in what we call the Performance Support Pyramid and at the job task level. In 2 clicks and 10 seconds, when I land on the steps of a specific task, all the resources that I need for that task are there in an orchestrated, orderly manner for me to choose from, based on what I need to be able to do with that task.

BM: And let's not forget the ongoing maintenance of those things and the idea of governance—a word that was unfamiliar to me, to be honest, in the first twenty years of my work. Once we start sharing the maintenance and the creation, in some cases, of those assets you described, Con, we've got to get our hands around user generated content, which is another thing we've thrown around in our business forever, but never had a discipline or a way to get our arms around the reality of that, and we see that all the time in this work.

CG: And all assets aren't equally helpful, so we can learn from the usage patterns of our performers about which assets have more value than others.

BM: Our last point is number seven. We recently held an alumni session with folks who’ve taken our courses, and this brilliant man, Jeremy Smith, who we've admired for years and has been a remarkable practitioner in this space, shared this idea that he journeyed into it because, among other things, his L&D team had been minimized. They had become “order takers”: those two dreaded words that we hear all the time about us when we've moved out of the performance zone and are seen as those people who downstream put a bow around things by making training. What we've seen time and time again, Con, is that when you shift from a training mindset to a performance mindset and deliverable, your involvement in the conversation and the things that you build are seen as way more strategic to organizations in terms of the outcomes and effectiveness of the performers than any deliverable we've built before.

So, this idea of becoming strategic: we've been wanting a seat at the table for years. I've heard that said from podiums and conferences for twenty years, but the journey to getting there and earning it is another matter. Until I made the pivot to performance first and the 5 Moments of Need and a performance mindset, I was not allowing myself, let alone the enterprise, to see me in that way. How have you seen this with other organizations over your years?

CG: Well, frontline managers have always been reluctant to give their people time to take an eLearning course or the like, because they're held accountable for the work that's getting done. When you step in with a solution that lets them learn while they actually do their work, that supports them and ensures that they work effectively and efficiently, that removes wasted time from that work and helps them focus and get things done, they value that. It's all about getting the work done, getting it done right, and the productivity of their people, and you readily earn the respect of frontline managers. And that then rolls up to key stakeholders, who then suddenly see this support and this performance happening. We're talking about ensuring that their people perform effectively in their work. That kind of conversation is appreciated by the business. It takes us out of the realm of “Let's talk about learning and having your people stop the work to learn” to “How do we help you enable your people to do the things that you need them to do?”

BM: Everything we’ve talked about today has led to that final point. Thank you so much, as always, for your insights.

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