A Bit of Harvard Business Review Hogwash

by Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

Bob Mosher just invited me to read through the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Build Learning into Your Employees’ Workflow.” I jumped right into it and discovered a well-intentioned academic researcher who proffers up some good insights but also a bit of “hogwash” * (as we say on the farm). 

The article begins by declaring that “Learning and Development (L&D) programs are critical for the success of any organization. These programs…ensure that employees have the skills and capabilities necessary to do their jobs well…”.

But in 90% of organizations today, L&D programs are failing to do this, which the article acknowledges with this statement:

“Unfortunately, many organizations struggle to demonstrate a return on their L&D investments. In fact, one estimate found that only 10% of the $200 billion spent every year on corporate training and development in the United States delivers real results.”

Here are three reasons the article provides that only partially account for this failure:

1. Trainings typically take place outside of the organization, making it difficult to translate what is learned in the classroom into real workplace applications.

2. Trainings tend to require the learner to invest a substantial amount of their own time, while still being expected to fulfill all their regular work duties.

3. The onus for applying the learning is typically placed on the learner, with minimal follow-up from the instructor once the training has concluded.

These are primarily training transfer issues that do matter. Transfer is where performers first meet the real moments of Apply and Solve in their flow of work. But the article ignores a critical phase that follows these transfer challenges. Once performers have navigated the rugged journey of transferring what they have learned to their specific work environments, the moments of Apply and Solve are joined by the moments of Change, Learn More, and Learn New in the ongoing flow of work. Here, performers must adapt to an everchanging work environment, which requires them to unlearn (Change), and then relearn (New and More) while they are working.

Here is where the HBR article really goes awry. Stopping work to learn is costly no matter where it occurs. Workflow learning isn’t just about embedding micro learning events into the workflow. This is actually the hogwash part of this article. Performers are still interrupting their work to learn in those micro events, which have their own set of challenges. The cognitive responsibility to transfer what performers have learned to their work is certainly easier in the context of work, but there is still the cognitive requirement of transfer. True workflow learning eliminates the transfer phase.

True workflow learning occurs to the degree that people learn while actually doing their work rather than stopping work to learn.

Learning while working requires a Digital Coach that provides 2-click/10-second access to all the resources people need to perform effectively at the job task level. As performers land on the step-by-step instructions and follow them, drawing upon other supporting resources as needed, they are doing their work and learning at the same time. 

This doesn’t require stopping work for reflection time, and nudges happen naturally. Whenever workers need to perform a task (Apply), resolve a challenge (Solve), or learn something New or More, the workflow naturally nudges them to access the Digital Coach that has been designed to support learning while working at all 5 Moments of Need. 

The following graphic shows the two criteria that govern true workflow learning:

1. The degree to which the workflow learning solution is embedded in the flow of work 
2. The degree to which performers are NOT required to interrupt (stop) their work to learn   

Where the HBR article and others get it wrong is they only address the degree to which learning is embedded in the workflow: they ignore the power and potential of learning in the flow of work while actually working. The following graphic shows how these two criteria can help sort through the maze of discussion around workflow learning.


If you read an article or hear any discussion about workflow learning in which it is defined only by creating or placing learning events in the workflow—where learners must still stop working to learn—then you can count it as hogwash. 

* Here’s one definition of hogwash (if you’ve not had experience feeding pigs): noun. refuse given to hogs; swill. any worthless stuff. meaningless or insincere talk, writing, etc.; nonsense; bunk

Be sure to visit our website for these additional resources: workshops and courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paperAlready shifting to a performance-first approach? Bring your team to our 2023 Summit! Registration is now open.


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