Develop Performance Objectives Aligned to the Workflow

By: Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., Rw.E.

When I shifted my mindset from learning to “performance-first” in 1984, the way I viewed and created learning objectives changed. “Performance-first” pushed me to design solutions that enabled knowledge enriched performance in the flow of work, which in turn required me to ask and answer four key questions about job performance:
  1. What is the fundamental unit of job performance?
  2. What is the role of knowledge in enabling effective job performance?
  3. What is a job skill?
  4. How does all of this influence performance-first instructional design practices?
What is the Fundamental Unit of Job Performance?

No matter the role, all work is comprised of a group of workflow processes, each with a set of job tasks. The tasks that make up each process have steps that are procedural (algorithmic) and/or principle-based (heuristic). 

For example, the following workflow map shows the processes for a company’s leaders who are responsible for leading sales teams:

Behind each of the processes shown in the map above, there is a grouping of job tasks. The following graphic shows those task groupings:

Focusing on tasks as the fundamental units of job performance provides the optimum framework for aligning all performance support and learning instruction. We know from cognitive research that the way performers encode skills into memory affects how efficiently and effectively they retrieve and translate those skills to action (see Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, by Ruth Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller - 2006, Pfeiffer). In simpler words, how we train people affects how readily they can transfer what they have learned to their specific work environment. For example, when you were taught the letters of the alphabet, you were most likely taught those letters in a sequential order. You therefore encoded those letters in that order in your long-term memory. Now, if I ask you to retrieve those letters in a different order - say backwards by every third letter - you will likely struggle. This is exactly what happens when the training people receive isn’t directly aligned with how they perform their work. It’s like they are running into a brick wall. This is why after learners complete their training/learning experience and return to the workplace, they are often greeted with the comments, “Forget what you have learned in class. We’ll show you how it’s really done.” 

Performers need to learn according to how they will perform in their flow of work. Job tasks are the fundamental units of that work and when task training is aligned with the workflow and supported by a Digital Coach (i.e., EPSS) transfer can happen in the blink of an eye.

What is the Role of Knowledge in Enabling Effective Job Performance?

Today’s speed of change favors an organization whose workforce is inherently adaptive. The workflow is the best schoolroom for developing this critical skill. Why? Because any object or situation experienced by an individual, in the flow of work, is unlikely to recur in exactly the same form and context. Every time performers effectively respond to a recurring but altered situation, while working, they are practicing the skill of adaptive response.  

Research by Albert Bandura demonstrates that successful adaptive performance not only increases the adaptive capacity of a workforce, but also its workers’ overall self-efficacy. Increased self-efficacy fuels more effective performance. (Cognitive Therapy and Research, VoL 1, No. 4, 1977, pp. 287-310) 

So how does all this address the need for knowledge enriched experience? Performance without requisite knowledge is sterile and mechanical, but when knowledge is infused into a job task, performers are better able to successfully adapt to change. Knowledge contributes to better decision making while adapting. All of this opens the door to the benefits identified by Bandura.

A performance-first approach to instructional design begins with the identification of job tasks. Then, those tasks are mapped to workflow processes. The next step is to identify the key knowledge topics (i.e., concepts) that support meaningful performance of those job tasks. In the sales leadership example shown above, we identified 65 job tasks that make up 9 workflow processes. The table below shows the supporting knowledge topics for two of those processes. These are topics that performers need to understand in the context of the specific tasks. For example, leaders need to understand what the organization means by “Bench Strength” as they perform tasks 1, 2, and 5 in the “Build Your Bench” process.

What is a Job Skill?

There are many ways to define a skill. Here’s one way in the context of workflow learning: “A person has mastered a skill when they can successfully and consistently perform a job task with full understanding of its requisite supporting knowledge.” This is a tactical definition in that it allows the consistent identification of skills that can be specifically targeted for support, training, and measurement.  

Thus, a skill set is an integrated set of tasks and associated concepts (i.e., supporting knowledge) that comprise a specific workflow process. A learning module is generally comprised of a series of lessons, each focusing on a task and its supporting knowledge.  

The following example shows these tactical relationships: 

How Does All of This Influence Performance-First Instructional Design Practices?

The great danger of all learning and instructional theory research is the academic backdrop of researchers and their subjects. But there is much to be learned from academically focused research. As a graduate student, I was highly influenced by the research of David Ausubel, who, for me, set the research standard for the value and use of advanced organizers. Ausubel believed that one of the key roles of an advanced organizer is to trigger previous knowledge and experience as well as prepare learners to look for and process new knowledge and experience. Workflow performance objectives can and should serve these two purposes.   

When I answered the three previous questions (1. What is the fundamental unit of job performance? 2. What is the role of knowledge in enabling effective job performance?
3. What is a job skill?) forty years ago, it fundamentally shifted the way I thought about objectives. Once tasks and their supporting knowledge topics were identified and aligned with the flow of work, I found I had all I needed to write meaningful learning objectives.  

NOTE: I need to pause here and acknowledge the high probability that some readers are going to push back on what I’m going to write next. Please take a deep breath and brace yourself.

A performance-first approach to instructional design focuses on the workflow first and designs the performance support solution ahead of its associated learning experience solution. As stated earlier, these two solutions need to be integrated into a cohesive overall solution.   

Inherent in the design of the learning experience is establishing the scope and sequence of the learning modules and the lessons within them. This is where the magic happens when training is aligned with the workflow. At the completion of every module, learners need to be able to do two things:
  1. Successfully perform the job tasks that comprise the workflow process represented in the module.
  2. Demonstrate understanding of the supporting knowledge associated with those tasks.
More specifically, every lesson in a module has the primary objective of enabling learners to successfully perform a specific task with the help of performance support. In addition, learners need to develop their understanding of the supporting knowledge related to that task in the context of performing it.

The following is an example of an objectives statement taken from a module overview:

In this module you are going to learn how to Build your Bench. Specifically, you will learn how to:
  • Identify talent in the market
  • Build a relationship with a potential candidate
  • Justify a position
  • Secure position approval
  • Interview and close an offer
  • Manage succession planning

And here is an example taken from a lesson overview within the module for “Build Your Bench”:

In the following lesson you will learn how to Identify Talent in the Market. To do this you must first understand: 
  • Bench strength/roles
  • High performing leadership/seller behaviors
  • The competitive/market landscape 

Here’s the good news. In the realm of workflow learning, it is absolutely possible to verify (measure) successful performance of each and every task via usage data and micro-polling gathered by a Digital Coach (i.e., EPSS). In addition, adaptive learning systems can most certainly reinforce knowledge learning while gathering measurement data to verify ongoing understanding of the supporting knowledge associated with those tasks. 

This approach to objectives isn’t theoretical. It has been proven by 40+ years of real-world experience (Rw.E.) developing comprehensive performance-first solutions that span chronologically, culturally, linguistically, and logistically diverse audiences in settings ranging from small to large international corporations, government agencies, and religious organizations. Thank you for investing your valuable time reading this blog. I hope it hasn’t been too stressful and welcome any questions or comments you have. 

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