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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