Extending Learning into the Workflow

by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE 

Everyone in the Training and Development profession needs to answer this vital question: “learning is the means to what end?” My colleague Bob Mosher and I answered this question early on in our careers and that answer changed our future. It pushed us to rethink our solutions to extend the reach of learning into the workflow. 

For us, the intent of all organizational learning is to enable and sustain effective job performance in ever-changing work environments in a way that accelerates growth, amplifies productivity, and minimizes interruption of the work employees are hired to do.

Obviously, for job performance to be effective it must be efficient, safe (both physically and emotionally), and in harmony with the values and mission of the organization. 

This shift to focusing first on enabling effective job performance—ahead of formal training considerations—occurred in 1984. Its immediate impact was the realization that when it comes to learning, there are 5 Moments of Need.

Recognizing these 5 Moments of Need required us to start addressing the realities people face following training—when they meet the challenging moments of Apply, Solve, and Change. A traditional training mindset focuses primarily on the moments of learning New and More, which leaves learners to their own efforts when navigating the critical moments of Apply, Solve, and Change. 

The fundamental reality is that all 5 of these moments occur in the flow of organizational work. Performance support pioneer Gloria Gery called this the “performance zone.” It was Gery who first sorted out the means for intentionally supporting “unconscious learning” to enable effective job performance in the workflow. She called it an EPSS (Electronic Performance Support System) and described its capabilities this way: “an orchestrated set of technology enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.” 

Today, any time these capabilities are orchestrated in a way that meets all 5 Moments of Need, regardless of the technology being used, we call that a Digital Coach. When it comes to enabling effective job performance, a Digital Coach is the game changer. 

Real Learning Happens in the Workflow with the Help of a Digital Coach 

Collectively, we have almost 90 years of experience rolling up our sleeves and working side by side with Training and Development teams. Central to this work has been helping these teams shift their traditional learning paradigms from a training-only approach to one that addresses the 5 Moments of Need—as they occur during the three stages of the journey to job skill productivity.

The first phase, Train (shown in green), represents the formal side of learning (New and More). It initiates the learning process. But deeper and more impactful learning occurs during the Transfer and Sustain phases. The decline in the curve following training is known as the Ebbinghaus Curve and is due to memory transience (see Hermann Ebbinghaus research here). That is, whatever a person learns during a training event begins to rapidly decline once the event ends. Providing learners with a properly designed Digital Coach is the most cost-effective way to prevent this loss of learning gains. 

The second phase, Transfer (shown in blue), occurs in the workflow. Here, workers must reinforce what they have learned during training, translate it to their specific work environments, and integrate all they have learned with their previous experience and knowledge. This is no small learning feat. No one should be left on their own to navigate these rough waters. 

Without 2-click, 10-second access to the Digital Coach capabilities described above, this Transfer phase takes too much time in which learners:
  • Lose confidence and motivation.  
  • Fall prey to the forgetting curve and often fail quietly.
  • Become overwhelmed in their thinking processes.
  • Develop dependence on other workers.
  • Develop inefficient work habits.
Learners need to experience immediate success and move rapidly through this Transfer phase to transition from whatever level of skill mastery they have achieved to the beginning stages of job competence. As they do this, they are most certainly learning in the workflow while working. 

The third phase, Sustain (shown with blue stripes), is where professional growth occurs. Here, when aided by a Digital Coach, workers grow through experience as they adapt their existing skill sets in response to the dynamic nature of real-world work (Apply). They accelerate their growth each time they resolve issues (Solve) and develop their adaptive capacity as they unlearn to relearn (Change). Also, there are times in the workflow when people need to close a personal skill gap (New or More) in response to a pressing work assignment. Within the Digital Coach, as they quickly access the task step guidance for performing that skill (within 2 clicks/10 seconds) and use that guidance to close their skill gap, they are amplifying their work productivity. Since they are doing all of this while working, they are minimizing interruption of the work they are hired to do. 

What’s important to note is that most organizations begin and end in the Training phase, but there is much more to what learning is and needs to be than what is currently occurring in that phase.

Most workers today have developed proficiency in an array of job skills that are integrated into broader skill sets and stored in their long-term memory. Over time, in the Sustain phase, they enrich those skills with experience every time they perform them in their work environment. Since most job skills are unlikely to recur in the exact same form and work context, workers develop what we call “expertise.” This expertise provides them greater ability to generalize that experience into successful on-the-job performance in more complex and challenging work situations.

Real learning is a continuous process that develops expertise through ongoing effective job performance in ever-changing work environments. This level of learning requires blending formal and workflow learning practices.

What is the Optimum Blend of Formal and Workflow Learning?

Enabling and sustaining effective job performance requires an understanding of its fundamental components. At a tactical level, the basic unit of all job performance is a task. A task can be principle-based (heuristic) and/or procedural-based (algorithmic). 

A job skill is the ability to effectively perform a specific task supported by the knowledge needed to make decisions, resolve challenges, and adjust performance of the task in real time within the workflow. 

A skill set is the ability to effectively perform a workflow set of 5-9 related tasks—again, with the requisite knowledge needed to make decisions, resolve challenges, and adjust performance in real time within the workflow. The tasks in each skill set comprise a core workflow process. 

The fundamental cost justification for pulling employees away from their work in order to learn is the impact that failure to perform would have on the organization and people. Job skills with a low critical impact of failure can be learned exclusively in the workflow—while people do their work, using the Digital Coach. But when the impact of failure is significant to catastrophic, there is a compelling case for workers to stop their work to safely learn. Here, a Digital Coach can provide a safety net as learners move from necessary training to the Transfer and Sustain phases of their journey to job productivity.

Achieving Measurable Business Impact

Extending learning into the workflow allows us to directly measure the impact of our learning and performance support efforts. A Digital Coach makes this possible because it is embedded directly into the workflow and is built intentionally to support performance in the flow of work. As workers use it to support their work, we can gather real-time data to confirm business impact, such as: 
  • Halved time to competency and a diminished productivity gap between less experienced employees and high performers.
  • Reduced waste related to work stoppage, support costs, transaction costs, and delayed learning opportunities.
  • Decreased critical error rates.
  • Increased workplace trust, confidence, self-efficacy, and effectiveness.
  • Closed skill gaps (done in real time, while working).
  • Increased work proficiency.
  • Reduced time to changed performance.
Here are a couple examples of organizations that have extended their reach into the workflow by employing the power of Digital Coaches:
  • A global consulting firm transformed its onboarding program into a blended formal and workflow learning solution. Its traditional training approach required 30 days of intensive onboarding with significant oversight of new hires. On average, it took 18 months for them to become proficient in their work. By implementing a blended training and workflow learning solution, powered by a Digital Coach, their classroom training time was reduced to 20 days and their time to proficiency was reduced to 5 months. In addition, as new hires demonstrated significantly greater productivity, they moved through the three phases of Train, Transfer, and Sustain with less oversight. 
  • A global manufacturing organization piloted a workflow learning solution at one of its plants, resulting in 20% faster change-over time of machines and 3% improved operational effectiveness (on 50 million bottles, which meant 1.5 million additional bottles and 8% less unplanned downtime). Now, the company is in the process of rolling out the Digital Coach to plants worldwide.
These are just two of many organizations that have had the foresight to intentionally pursue the power and potential of workflow learning to complement their formal training programs. In the last 10 years, we have observed a global shift from a training-only approach to one that addresses all that is required to meet the organizational requirements for real learning. Now, we are at a tipping point. We have the strategic, tactical, and technical know-how and industry experience to extend learning into the workflow. We can enable and sustain effective job performance in ever-changing work environments in a way that accelerates growth, amplifies productivity, and minimizes interruption of the work employees are hired to do. 

Subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

Visit our website for additional resources: Certificate courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paper.

Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

Be part of the Workflow Learning & Performance Alliance. 

Copyright © 2023 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
All Rights Reserved.