2023 Learning & HR Trends: Where Workflow Learning Can Make a Difference

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled 2023 Learning & HR Trends: Where Workflow Learning Can Make a Difference. In it, Bob Mosher and Dr. Con Gottfredson discuss market research gathered by their colleague Brooke Thomas-Record and how workflow learning can help organizations meet current and ongoing challenges. 

Bob Mosher (BM): As we start 2023, we want to share some remarkable data gathering that a dear colleague of ours recently completed so that we can consider it in the context of the coming year. I think as learning professionals, we've got to strategically and intentionally think about where we're going and how we’re defining our priorities. So, I am so thrilled to be joined by two colleagues. Dr. Con Gottfredson, are you there? 

Con Gottfredson (CG): I am. It's great to be with you and I’m especially looking forward to our conversation today. 

BM: I am as well. We have been so fortunate at APPLY Synergies to have a remarkable lifelong friend in the industry, Brooke Thomas-Record, join us. As you'll hear in a moment, she brings remarkable insights about our industry into the work that we do. Brooke, welcome. 

Brooke Thomas-Record (BT): Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be part of this with you today and thank you for the warm welcome.

BM: Toward the end of 2022, Brooke did some wonderful work for us. I don't know about the rest of you, but I struggle keeping up with the many trends that are spread across multiple resources. Brooke took on the challenge of looking across several of those to really see where thought leaders, research folks, and voices in our industry were thinking about issues that our field is dealing with and where we are headed. So, we asked Brooke to host a conversation with us today, obviously in the context of 5 Moments of Need, performance, and workflow learning. Brooke, we’ll have you kick that off. Give us a little bit of background about what got you here and what you took on. I know there are four areas you want to highlight. Take it away, friend. 

BT: Sure! This is the culmination of some market research I was asked to do for which I used 10 different resources. I'll list them here so that everyone understands how this information has been sourced.

Everything you'll hear me say today is pulled from those resources. 

BM: Remarkable. So, kick us off. What are some key topics that you think are important as we start the year?

BT: I picked 4 to start so I will list all 4 and then we can dig into each of them:

  • Reskilling and upskilling. (It's probably not a surprise to most people that this was a big trend across all the resources I reviewed.) 
  • Improving the employee experience. 
  • Supporting internal mobility. (I think this is really tied into that employee experience element.)
  • Pivoting toward hybridization. (Although COVID showed up three years ago and work has changed quite a bit since then, this shift is continuing. I think companies are still figuring out the best ways to approach hybrid work.) 

BM: Totally agree.

BT: Trend number one—reskilling and upskilling. Here are some key data points, statistics, and points of interest from the various resources I read. 
  • Worldwide, nearly 9 out of 10 companies are currently facing a skills gap. The pandemic sped up digital transformation and the ever-enlarging skills gap. Some 87% of executives report existing skills gaps or expect to face gaps within the next 5 years. 
  • While companies might be tempted to trim training budgets amid the ongoing crisis, experience should show them that investing in retraining can pay off in the long run. 
  • It's becoming increasingly important for companies to deliver timely and effective employee training. Workers are eager to acquire new skills with as many as 70% being willing to leave their current position to work for a company that's more willing to invest in their training and education. 
  • L&D sees the growing skills gap and certainly recognizes that leadership is concerned. 
    • 46% of learning professionals say that the gap has widened at their organizations, a percentage that has increased since 2021. 
    • 49% say executives are concerned that employees don't have the right skills to execute business strategy. Again, that percentage has increased since 2021. 
  • 53% of executives in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends research expected that between half and all of their workforces would need to reskill by this year (2023) to provide capabilities needed now. A new study also by Deloitte estimates that 100 million global low wage workers will need to find a different occupation by 2030. At the same time, the demand for skilled workers is growing with 7 in 10 employers globally saying they're struggling to find workers with the right mix of technical skills and human capabilities. 
  • More than half of the low wage workers currently in declining occupations might need to shift to occupations in higher wage brackets that require different skills. In the US, 10% of workers in the onsite customer interaction arena (e.g., hospitality, restaurants, etc.) may need to retrain or gain additional skills or education to transition to more secure jobs by 2030.
  • Speedy and effective worker redeployment will be needed, for example, by recruiting and retraining based on skills and experience rather than academic degrees. Rapid changes in working practices and the jobs people do can be accomplished quickly. The key is to focus on the tasks and activities required rather than on whole jobs. Redesigning work in this way can streamline processes, increase efficiency, and enhance operational flexibility and agility. As companies look beyond the pandemic, they have an opportunity to reimagine work, their workforce, and their workplace by focusing on specific tasks and activities vs. entire jobs.
  • The change in labor demands over the next decade will require a major retraining effort as workers transition from jobs that entail mainly routine tasks that require basic cognitive skills like literacy and numeracy into work requiring more technological and social and emotional skills. But the scale of the retraining challenge goes beyond those workers who need to switch occupations, because even among workers who keep their jobs, the tasks they perform will shift.
    • For instance, delivery drivers now use GPS to calculate the fastest routes and use apps to provide real-time tracking, etc.
    • LinkedIn members’ skills for the same occupation changed by about 25% from 2015 to 2021. At at this pace, LinkedIn expects that member skills will change by about 40% by 2025. 
    • In the post COVID scenario, the greatest increase in demand is for technological skills like advanced IT skills, computer programming, engineering, and scientific research and development. In China, the demand for time spent on these skills may increase by 51% by 2030, reflecting that country's rapid move into advanced industries and digitization.
  • Demand is expected to increase for adaptability and continuous learning, reflecting the need for all workers to continuously learn new skills as technology evolves and continuously transforms jobs. This will change educators and employers as there's little consensus on how to teach social and emotional skills.
  • The changes brought by COVID opened the door for companies to play a larger role in retraining workers for new jobs and creating career pathways with upward mobility to ensure a supply of workers with the right skills.
  • L&D leaders report feeling concerned about continuous change and ambiguity. When asked what they want, they report a desire to enhance the capabilities of their teams and to upskill foundational developmental skills like coaching
  • Examples of behaviors associated with achievements in futureproofing by L&D teams include:
    • Managers recognizing the value of learning in the flow of work. For low performing companies, that recognition is only 9%, but in high performing companies, it's 62%. 
    • People understanding how their work is linked to the organization's performance. Again, in low performing companies, that's only 25%, but in high performing companies, it's 79%. 
    • The learning strategy allowing for changing business priorities. That is true in 25% of low performing companies and 93% of high performing companies
  • When we look at optimal educational journeys, we're increasingly seeing that they're led by individual students starting from the ground up with their motivation to learn on their own terms. Companies that want to deliver necessary skills to their workforce must respect that process and employ L&D solutions that empower learners to understand and integrate what they're taught—not just retain the bare minimum needed to pass the test.
  • In the 2022 L&D Global Sentiment Survey, the data shows a shift from 2021’s grand aspiration of reskilling and upskilling programs to the harsh reality of how difficult implementing those efforts really is as we emerge in our semi post-pandemic world. Still, 79% of learning professionals say it's less expensive to reskill a current employee than to hire a new one. And studies have found that retraining existing employees with proven track records is far more cost effective than hiring new people.
  • According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report, leadership and upskilling are the top 2 L&D priorities, followed by DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion). So, leadership and management training were in half of respondents’ top three choices, but 72% of learning professionals chose upskilling, reskilling, digital upskilling, and/or digital transformation as one of their top three priorities. So, 72% of learning professionals focused on skills. In Asia, upskilling/reskilling was rated the highest priority with 60% of learning professionals saying it's in their top three.
  • There is a 10% increase in large-scale upskilling or reskilling programs that were deployed in 2022 compared to 2021.
BT: After considering those key points, now we turn to some important challenges and areas of concern when it comes to the skilling arena.
  • Scale is a big challenge. According to McKinsey & Company, more than 100 million workers in the 8 countries they surveyed may need to switch occupations by 2030. Of the 17.1 million workers in the US who need to change jobs, almost 15 million might need to find work in different occupational categories. Given the concentration of job growth in high wage occupations and the declines in low wage occupations, the required scale and nature of workforce transitions will be quite difficult.
  • Only 15% of learning professionals say they have active upskilling and reskilling programs, and only 5% have made it to the stage where they're measuring and assessing results. The clear sense seems to be that L&D knows what to do, but is striving hard to obtain the resources, technologies, support, and/or engagement to make it happen. If there was a sense in 2021 that there was a lot of reskilling and upskilling work to be done, in 2022 that drive was somewhat tempered by scale alone.
  • Knowing if a program has made a demonstrable impact on employee performance and the business continues to be L&D’s greatest challenge because the industry is still lacking strategic metrics and relying too heavily on qualitative feedback.
  • Challenges specific to learning in the flow of work include:
    • Globally, 7 out of 10 L&D decision makers are prioritizing learning at the point of need, but learners are saying their learning experiences aren't practical enough. 
    • Although most learners are taking advantage of opportunities at work to help them do their jobs more effectively, it seems that L&D teams need to do a better job of understanding what learners need within the context of their roles.
    • Many L&D teams either don't have the resources to match learning strategies to specific roles, or they aren't invited to provide employees with crucial role-specific support and guidance. They just aren't given the opportunities they need to help people achieve more by learning in the flow of work. 
That wraps up our first trend of reskilling and upskilling. 

CG: Now, the question is how to take all of that and become actionable. I really think it starts with us asking, “What is a skill?” and then defining it. To upskill and reskill, to measure, and to adjust to change, we need to understand and define—as an industry—what a skill really is. The fact that skill gaps are being recognized is important, but how do we see and measure those gaps? This is one of the fundamental challenges that we face: knowing we've got to upskill and reskill, but what does that mean? We know from our work in workflow learning that at the heart of any skill is a job task. That job task must be infused with supporting knowledge that helps workers adapt, adjust, and generalize. And that task can be a soft skill: it can be a principle-based task or a procedural task, but at the heart of any skill is a task. We must understand that and then put in place a system that helps us tactically attack those skills and all those challenges that you've raised, Brooke.

BM: Yes. In your wrap-up at the end of that trend, Brooke, some things just screamed workflow learning to me. And that is my frustration! I’m sick of our industry nodding its head and having workflow learning on its radar. Let's put up or shut up. I'm being abrupt, but what upsets me is if you had a doctor who knew how to heal something, but didn't try to heal it, how irresponsible is that?! We're learning professionals. Workflow learning is not new. There are methodologies to do it. Let's make 2023 the year that we step up to these. 

I didn't hear a single challenge or concern you listed, Brooke, that I have not seen be solved by workflow learning in the years we've been doing it. Measurability? Yep. Time to competency? Yep. Filling skills gaps? I hate that term, by the way, because they should be called performance gaps. They’re not skills gaps. I have skills gaps in accounting, but I'm not an accountant, so I don't care. People have performance gaps and need skills to fill them. And so much vocabulary pivots on “training”. We've got to rethink our vocabulary. I think that will help us begin to rethink what we do and what we build. So much in what you shared was just screaming to me that we've got to realign ourselves around performance, get off the training bandwagon, and to Con’s point, redefine skills. Don't go down the road of competency modeling! Let's look at skills as being based on performance. “Lack of context” means we don't know the workflow. “Irrelevance of training” screams that we don't know the workflow. I mean, if you listen to what Brooke said, it's all in there. So, let's see if this year we can make that pivot.

CG: You know, behind all of this is an organization’s need to be able to adapt, to adjust for the workforce, to pivot to meet market changes, and so forth. As you said, Bob, we know through experience how to meet that need with true workflow learning, which is learning while someone is doing their work, and putting in place the infrastructure to do that. You must map the workflow to build a support system that helps people in their workflow at the job task level. A great example of this is The Hartford’s ability to pivot 2 divisions into work outside of their norms in a matter of weeks because an infrastructure was in place to support learning in the flow of work. It supports people as they perform. 

BM: Yes. Next point, Brooke.

BT: Trend number 2—improving the employee experience. 
  • In the Gartner 2023 HR priority survey, employee experience jumped from 6th place in 2021 to 3rd place in 2022. 
  • LinkedIn Learning is saying that learning leads the way through what they're calling the great reshuffle, which is defined as a period unlike anything in the history of work. Individuals are prioritizing flexibility and fulfillment, and their demands are steering organizations to reexamine business strategies, workforce models, values, and culture.
  • L&D leaders are responding to workers’ calls for growth and purpose while helping futureproof their organizations. Learning leaders are knocking down traditional silos to collaborate on a more holistic vision for HR. They're reaching for fresh solutions to tie skill building to career paths, internal mobility, and retention, while also bringing a new sense of care and humanity to employee wellbeing, diversity, and inclusion. Organizations that prize constant learning will, according to LinkedIn, lead the world as they build the new normal.
  • 81% of executives are changing their workplace policies to offer greater flexibility to their workforce.
  • Having opportunities to learn and grow is now the number one factor that people say defines an exceptional work environment or culture. In 2019, that was ranked ninth in LinkedIn’s survey, so that's a big change in just a few years.
  • Instead of committing to a day of training once a year, or even blocking off a little time each day for eLearning, employees far prefer to learn as they go, making the most of opportunities to speak with people and look things up for themselves. Most learners want to learn as they work, seeking solutions to issues organically at their points of need
  • 3 “blocks” that L&D can address to improve the learner experience:
    • Time crunch. Employees want to learn during work hours, and L&D cites time and resources as their biggest obstacles.
    • Relevance of both content and timing. 41% of learners say that content is too generic. Specifically, onboarding and manager training are identified as key arenas to make sure that the timing and relevance of learning are just right. 
    • Technical limitations. Nearly half of L&D professionals either don't know if their LMS can support integrations for targeted training in the workflow, or they're sure that it can't.
  • Care is moving to the center of conversations about reducing burnout and boosting wellbeing.
    • The most critical factor in a caring employee experience is each person's manager. To that end, almost 50% of learning professionals put increased attention on manager training and support this past year.
    • Employees who feel cared about are over 3 times more likely to say they're happy working for their company, and almost 4 times more likely to recommend working for their company.
    • At companies that struggle with manager care, employees are nearly 50% more likely to apply for a new job. Managers need supercharged soft skills to attract and retain talent
  • It's important to recognize that workers deliver more value when they're respected and invested in. If such investments include reskilling—tying back to our first trend—that will better prepare employers for the future as well
  • One way to show workers the value of their contributions is to emphasize outcomes and performance management since outcomes speak more directly to a worker’s contributions toward organizational objectives.
    • There's evidence that the shift toward outcome-based performance management is already underway. More than 65% of executives surveyed for the 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Special Report agreed that they believed metrics would need to shift to capturing outcomes rather than outputs in the next 5 years. In that same report, when executives were asked what workers will increasingly value in the next 5 years, 86% predicted that they would value a meaningful mission and an opportunity to make an impact on that mission. 
So those are the key points about improving the employee experience and now we go into the challenges and areas of concern. 
  • We talked about managers being critical, but they are also at really high risk of burnout. Data shows that many learning professionals are leaning in to activate the power of managers, but there's a word of caution because managers have shown higher burnout levels recently when compared with individual contributors. Over-relying on them is a potential problem.
    • 29% of learning professionals say they're delivering learning programs to managers about leading through change and change management. 
    • 29% of learning professionals say they're increasing the number of trainings and support for managers.
    • 33% of learning professionals say they're focusing on strengthening managers’ coaching skills. 
    • In Gartner's 2023 HR Priority Survey, leader and manager effectiveness jumped two spots from the prior year to reach the number one spot. The problem remains that we don't know what they really need, and they're burned out. Managers feel squeezed between senior leaders’ demands and expanded responsibilities. Burnout is real. 
  • CEOs care more about the workforce than ever. In terms of business priorities, it's risen from 5th in 2020 to 3rd today. For the first time ever, it's higher than financial concerns. So, it's good that the CEOs recognize the importance, but they're focused on it because they're worried. HR strategy needs to be better than ever and support the business strategy with a solid people strategy. Of course, everyone's managing multiple tradeoffs, like cost savings vs. business requirements, talent investments vs. employee needs, etc. 
That's trend number two in a nutshell.

CG: You know, Bob and Brooke, one of the first things we do when we walk into any organization is map the workflow and the work people do. Even though many organizations talk about performance and so forth, most haven't truly mapped that work. How do you manage work that you can't see, that you haven't mapped, and that you don't know? At the heart of workflow learning is this journey of mapping the workflow and then building an infrastructure that supports people as they perform their job tasks with all the resources they need. If you do that and you understand those job tasks in the context of where the critical impacts of failure lie, then it's a different ballgame for managers (e.g., managing work, measuring performance, guiding and directing workers, etc.). But at the heart of managing the work is understanding it and having an infrastructure to support it.

BM: If we want to enhance an employee's experience and all that you shared, Brooke, a bunch of things jumped out at me that I think, again, map to the shift we're pushing for here: opportunity to grow, continuous learning, learn as they go, organically adapting, content is too generic (to your point, Con, we lack context and we don't know the workflow). Technology is an issue. Your LMS can’t do it? Well, LMSs haven't done it for a while. A Digital Coach is what we've been talking about forever. 

The moons align so much for me in this category because, fundamentally, if you want someone who feels valued, someone who feels listened to, and someone who is aligned to the mission, self-efficacy steps up for me here. Feeling trusted steps up for me here. Feeling empowered and enabled steps up for me here. You want to take pressure off managers? Empower your employees so they need less managing. The danger is putting the onus on the manager to carry the brunt of this while the learner sits there waiting. 

So, 3 things jump out to me:
  • Outcomes. I love the emphasis on shifting to outcomes vs. output. Outcomes are measured through understanding workflow and designing workflow learning. 
  • Enabled learners come from learning in the workflow and being empowered with intentional tools, methodologies, and deliverables that let them feel trusted, valued, and empowered. 
  • Having enabled learners solves part of the manager problem, because it takes the emphasis off of the manager being the tip of the sword and focuses instead on the employee. 
Each of those points supports why we've got to go more in this workflow learning direction.

BT: Trend number 3—supporting internal mobility. This seems to be in line with improving the employee experience, so here are some key points. 
  • 54% of people surveyed for the LinkedIn Learning report agree that internal mobility has become a higher priority at their organization since COVID hit.
  • Career mobility and growth is a huge concern for the HR leaders who responded to the Gartner 2023 survey, and 44% don't believe they have compelling career paths. 
  • Employees who don't feel that their skills are being put to good use are 10 times more likely to look for a new job compared to those who do feel their skills are being put to good use. 
  • Cultivating a culture of internal mobility means giving employees access to on-the-job learning opportunities that can include mentorships, shadowing, new jobs, etc. And the benefits are increasingly obvious: retention, engagement, and agility, plus reduced costs and hiring time. 
  • Companies that excel at internal mobility can retain employees for an average of almost 5 1/2 years. That's nearly twice as long as companies that struggle with mobility, whose average retention span is just under 3 years. 
  • Most workers want to be empowered where it matters most, which is in the work that they do and advancing their careers. By providing internal mobility through opportunity marketplaces, employers may be able to satisfy workers’ desire for empowerment by putting them in control of their careers. 
A big challenge and area of concern is reflected in the fact that only 31% of one survey’s respondents said they feel their organization provides a great deal of support for learning new skills and expanding professional capabilities and goals. There seems to be a disconnect between what companies know they need to do and what's actually happening.

BM: Con, I think The Hartford is a good example of the power of mobility, be it laterally or in career advancement.

CG: Yes. When you map the workflow and you have a Digital Coach that's supporting performance, and you have that across all your work, the ability to move in whatever direction is needed increases exponentially. Also, when you're supporting tactical work, that allows individuals to be freed up from trying to remember how to do something or how to find something. They’re able to move to higher order thinking, innovation, and contribution. Workers today are so caught up and busy in trying to remember how to do the work, figuring out how to do the work, and finding the resources they need to do the work that they're unable to move to that higher order thinking and be free to contribute, to move, and to grow in necessary ways.

BM: Love that. One thing you said, Brooke, jumped out to me and that was “empowered in the work that they do”. You want to have somebody feel mobile, be allowed to be mobile, own their mobility, own career growth, and own their development. It all gets back to this repeated theme of enablement. Earlier you talked about the whole idea of feeling supported, but what followed is that L&D is thinking about giving workers coaches. I don't think that's an enablement/empowerment model; that's still a dependency model. Is the employee being empowered to own their mobility in that model? I'd argue maybe not. It gets back to understanding the workflow, the Digital Coach, and supporting workers to support themselves—not throwing more resources and managers at them. And back to your earlier point, Brooke, we can’t exhaust managers and ask them to solve this problem. 

Your last trend, my friend.

BT: Trend number 4—pivoting toward hybridization. Again, this isn't brand new, but I still think we're figuring it out. The shift and adjustment continue. Here are some interesting points:
  • Roughly 20% to 25% of the workforce in advanced economies could be as effective working remotely 3-5 days a week as working from an office. If remote work took hold at that level, 4 to 5 times as many people would work from home at least part of the time compared to before the pandemic, which would have a profound impact on all kinds of things like urban economies, transportation, consumer spending, etc. 
  • Hybrid remote work models apply mainly to computer-based office work because it's the arena with the lowest requirements for site dependent work. In this arena, 70% of time could be spent working remotely without losing effectiveness.
  • Remote work presents a potential opportunity to be a great equalizer. 
  • In one survey, only 27% of remote workers say that they feel less connected to coworkers since the pandemic began regarding producing quality work. 
  • A 2017 two-year study by Stanford University shows that, on average, remote workers are 13.5% more productive than their office-based counterparts, 9% more engaged in their jobs, and 50% less likely to quit. 
  • The recent American Opportunity survey by McKinsey & Company revealed that when given the option, the vast majority (87%) of employees across industries and job titles would choose to work remotely. 
Despite all that positivity, now we talk about the challenges and concerns:
  • 47% of HR leaders surveyed believe hybrid work worsens employees’ connection to culture, and just 1 in 4 employees today reports feeling connected to their culture. 
  • 54% of workers feel less connected than before to their organization when it comes to everyone working toward the same business goals. 
    • 65% of senior managers say they feel more connected to their company and aligned with common goals.
    • Only 42% of middle managers and individual contributors feel the same. Employees who are lower on the food chain find themselves consuming scraps of information delivered to them more slowly and sporadically than before. Especially in remote and hybrid situations, middle managers and individual contributors are unable to connect as quickly as they could in an office environment with the context, the nuances, and the clarity of work roles and goals coming down from senior managers.
  • Today, L&D leaders are reporting that attitudes towards learning are at their lowest point in 3 years. Employees aren't as engaged as they were during the height of the pandemic, and the appeal of digital learning is wearing off.
    BM: And therein lies the rub. How are we defining digital learning?

    CG: Traditional digital learning is deadly, right? As I listened to you share all of that, Brooke, what comes to mind is how do we manage a dispersed work team whose members are not together? How do we tie them together in that work? Again, it requires us to understand and map the workflow, and to have a system in place that supports that workflow. When you have that common workflow defined and you have a system in place supporting that work, then you're able to work together, because you know what that work is and you're able to act as a team. That's so vital. We are not going to be able to address this hybrid work environment without defining our workflows and putting in place a Digital Coach that supports that work.

    BM: The elephant in the room is that waiting for this to go away is wrong. COVID has birthed a new work culture that is the new normal. Now, it'll settle out to maybe 1-2 days in the office per week, but we're not going back to 5 days per week in the office. I think in many ways this was a sleeping giant. Our company itself has been remote since its inception and we've done fine. So, there have always been remote workers. This just accelerated and exacerbated the situation.

    Brooke, a couple things jumped out to me, like lackluster digital learning, which I also think encompasses virtual learning. I love the fact that this is still on the radar. Even though, to your point, it may have started 3 years ago, I think we're just getting our arms around what it really means. I think we triaged and patch-quilted it in the beginning. We weren't solving it then, but the dust has settled and now we're having to deal with it. We must go back to look at what we made. 

    Too often, we see statistics like what you shared about digital learning dying off and think, “Well, then digital learning is bad.” Maybe the kind of digital learning we have is bad, but digital learning could be stunning. Virtual instruction might be lackluster or unengaging, but we don't throw virtual learning out. Maybe we do it differently. I think that's the challenge of the day in 2023. How do we reinvent ourselves in our approach to these things? 

    Some think performance support is scrap information. So, don't make it scrap. Structure it well! If workflows have been redefined and workers feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, rapid workflow analysis will define the new workflows and enable consequent collaboration. Are workers missing access to resources because no one is sitting in a cubicle next to them anymore? Let's help redefine that access. The opportunity to revisit all of this in 2023 is stunning. The door is open, but will we walk through it? That is the question, because people will make it work with or without us. They just will. 

    I think your research is stunning, Brooke. The data is compelling. I think we're beyond the irrational nature of hybrid work, if that makes sense, so it's time to take this on in a rational and intentional way. But I would argue it's not a time to just boomerang back or assume the definition of insanity (i.e., doing the same thing repeatedly expecting to miraculously get a different result). We live in a brave new world, and it has shown us that there are cracks in the dam. We need a new way, and we know we have that new way.

    Brooke, brilliant. Really, such good stuff. My gosh, this could be the most data-heavy podcast we've ever done. I'm sure you're all going, “I’ve got to listen to that seven more times.” I've been taking notes myself, and I've heard the data before! What a powerful, substantiated, validated way to kick us off and show us the challenges ahead. But let's take them on now! Now that they’re apparent, what are we going to do about them? Thanks so much. Thanks, Con.

    CG: Thank you, Bob. Great work, Brooke.

    BT: Thanks to you both.

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    Performance Support: A Key Workflow Learning Element to Ensure Organizational Success

    by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE

    To survive and thrive in today’s unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving world, organizations must cultivate learning agility and be able to learn at or above the speed of change. They must continuously develop new skills to prepare for evolving competitive cycles—constantly retooling to maintain their edge. Companies lacking the capacity to anticipate and adapt ahead of change risk failure.

    With that in mind, consider your current talent management practices. What are you doing to develop dynamic learners: those who are rapid, adaptive, and collaborative in how they learn, unlearn, and relearn? To what degree does your organization encourage personal learning strategies that minimize the probability of skills becoming automated (deeply rooted) unless they are absolutely critical? How effectively do your employees learn on the fly? Are you supporting every moment of their learning needs? And when change appears out of nowhere, are your employees able to independently assess their current readiness to perform, identify what skills and knowledge they need to cast aside, and determine how to assertively adapt to the conditions around them? The heart of organizational effectiveness is the capacity of employees to learn at or above the speed of change. 

    Organizational learning agility won’t come to fruition unless talent management practices aggressively develop and sustain this kind of dynamic learning. The first step in doing so is to establish a performance support infrastructure that enables and sustains learning agility. It is through this infrastructure that dynamic learners can instantly access just what they need, in the form they need, to help them perform effectively at every changing moment.

    So, what is performance support? It is intuitive, tailored aid intentionally delivered to people at any of their 5 Moments of Need (see the figure below) to ensure the most effective performance on the job. 

    And what is a performance support infrastructure? It is an orchestrated set of technology enabled services that are Embedded in the workflow, and that provide Contextual access to Just Enough information to enable ongoing effective performance. 

    Performance support is Embedded based on two principles: 1) the proximity (two clicks) and 2) the immediacy (ten seconds) in which dynamic learners can physically and digitally access what they need to perform effectively. Time to effective performance hinges on the degree to which performance support is embedded in the workflow. 

    Contextual access also impacts speed to effective performance. Dynamic learners require access to the same information via different circumstances or settings. For example, a primary context in which dynamic learners need performance support is within a specific workflow process. The most logical way for them to access what they need is according to that process. But at another time, they may need to access the same information according to their specific job role, a point in a timeline, or a specific area of the business. 

    Once dynamic learners get to the information they need to perform, they must be able to immediately interpret and apply that information to their performance moment of need. They don’t have the luxury of time to wander through multiple web pages or plough through an eLearning module to find just what they need. This approach doesn’t work at the moment of Apply. Effective performance support must provide dynamic learners Just Enough of what they need to immediately perform. 

    Traditionally, that is not how organizations have approached training. Instead, we often design, build, deliver, manage, and maintain courseware. We make it available 24x7 via eLearning, mobile learning, and virtual and traditional classroom instruction. We chase every opportunity we can find to enhance this courseware with emerging capabilities like gamification, collaboration, and communities of practice. We blend it, personalize it, and attempt to measure it. Sadly, in most cases, these remarkable courses are a waste of time. The employees we train falter and often fail to perform effectively. And this leaves us asking, “Why?” Here are some fundamental reasons for this failure:

    Not enough time and too much to learn

    In years past, there was enough time for employees to stop their work and attend training events to learn how to perform their jobs effectively. But that dedicated time no longer exists. While the scope of what people need to learn to keep current in their jobs has increased, the time allocated to learn it has decreased. This presents a particular challenge with live classroom instruction where there is too much content and not enough classroom time. Trainers are often pushed to skip or rush through content to cover as much as possible. 

    The good news is that although some skills merit the investment of formal learning, others don’t. They can be safely performed with the right “on-the-job” support—in the workflow. 

    Retention death spiral (the Forgetting Curve)

    How much people learn while participating in any formal learning opportunity varies, but whatever they learn rapidly evaporates following that learning or eLearning event. The rate of forgetting depends on whether the instruction was superficial or methodologically sound, as well as the complexity of the knowledge and skills. The reality is that forgetting happens, and most of the time it happens quickly. Effective performance support can interrupt this forgetting and shorten the time it takes from the start of a course to successful on-the-job performance. 

    Limited transfer at the moment of Apply

    Learning transfer is tested once learners return to the workflow and attempt to apply what they learned. The realities of real-world application are seldom simulated sufficiently in a formal learning environment (i.e., outside the workflow in a classroom or through a computer). Simply put, the moment of Apply presents challenges that limit formal learning transfer unless it is adequately supported during and after the learning event via a performance support solution. 

    Lack of skill integration between formal learning and the moment of Apply 

    One of the flaws in most formal learning approaches is that learners master unique skills and concepts but fail to effectively integrate them all together. Real competency in the workplace requires efficient integration of all the moving parts, and on-the-job performance is often collaborative. Efficient, collaborative skill integration doesn’t just happen. It needs support at the moment of Apply. This support must intuitively map to each unique role in the workflow process and directly support areas where collaboration is needed. Performance support is the most effective means for doing this.

    Failure to support unlearning to relearn 

    When skills are performed repeatedly, they tend to become deeply rooted in people’s skill sets. They become automated (performed without conscious thought). Once skills are ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations, replacing outdated practices with new ways of performing and thinking becomes one of the most significant learning challenges an organization will face. Performance support is key to meeting this challenge. 

    The bottom line? Organizations need a performance support strategy that accommodates all 5 Moments of Need and enables us to push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow. Enabling effective performance at the moments of Apply, Solve, and Change must be at the heart of all we do. 

    Indeed, a performance-first focus is critical for any organization’s success. Twenty-five years ago, performance support pioneer Gloria Gery rightly challenged how most organizations were addressing their corporate learning needs. She boldly pointed out that they were failing to intentionally address their “performance zone”. Here’s how she defined that zone:

    "The performance zone is the metaphorical area in which things come together. It is the place where people get it, where the right things happen, where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situation. It is the place where employees put together all the individual dance steps that they have mastered. The dance, the dancers, and the music are one.”

    The performance zone exists within the workflow whenever employees need to apply what they have learned, solve a problem, or unlearn and then relearn something because matters have changed. 

    We’ve spent billions on learning management systems and even more on eLearning. But what benefit is all this investment if employees ultimately fail in the performance zone? Do you have a defendable technology infrastructure in place to sustain effective performance? Or does your current approach assume that learners will have the time and capacity to figure out—on their own—how to apply what they have learned in the classroom to what they do in their workflow? 

    Gery believed that “As the number, complexity, and interrelationships between the various threads of expertise increase, the chances of operating within the performance zone decrease, unless, of course, something is done to guarantee it.”

    Today, we are certainly operating in an environment that threatens our capacity to be effective within the performance zone without something to help “guarantee it.” Learners want just enough, when they need it, in the form they prefer to address their specific learning need. They want to learn in the performance zone. 

    Gery concluded that an EPSS (Digital Coach) was the best way for organizations to “guarantee” effective performance. She defined it as 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.”

    Bear in mind these critical distinctions: 
    • There are different types of vehicles for delivering performance support (e.g., job aids, websites, Digital Coaches). 
    • These vehicles differ in capability and quality of production.
    • As a result, they vary in their capacity to deliver effective performance in the performance zone.
    In all her groundbreaking work, Gery settled on an EPSS (Digital Coach) as the embodiment of what she proposes performance support can and needs to be for organizations. She set aside other performance support renditions, like job aids and traditional help, because although they provide some degree of performance support, they don’t provide all the “technology-enabled services” required of a fully loaded performance support solution. 

    As you consider your upcoming needs for learning technology, don’t stop short of the performance zone. Just as you wouldn’t consider developing eLearning without authoring software, you need EPSS (Digital Coach) solutions that will enable effective performance at every changing moment of need.

    In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “First gradually, and then suddenly.” This is a consistent pattern for companies that lack the ability to learn at or above the speed of change. Managing talent is all about delivering effective performance at every changing moment. The people we are charged to train and support deserve immediate, intuitive, tailored aid that is orchestrated to ensure the most effective personal and collective performance during all 5 Moments of Need. Anything less puts a company at risk.

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