A Digital Coach: The LMS of the Workflow Learning World

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled A Digital Coach: The LMS of the Workflow Learning World. In it, Bob Mosher and Executive Director of the 5 MoN Academy Chris King discuss what makes a true Digital Coach and how its journey into the learning world is similar to that of the LMS. 

Bob Mosher (BM): Today, I am honored to be joined by a dear friend and colleague here at APPLY Synergies, but also somebody that we've known in the performance support space for quite a long time. He is a brilliant 5 Moments of Need (5 MoN) designer and more. Chris King, want to say hi and share a little bit about your journey? 

Chris King (CK): Thanks, Bob. My current role is the Executive Director of the 5 MoN Academy. In that role, I'm happy to be delivering a variety of different courses, helping people better understand the 5 MoN and become 5 MoN designers. The Designer Certificate course is what we use to help people understand how to design and deploy 5 MoN solutions. 

I've been on this journey for 11 years, and I've been in a variety of different roles at consulting firms trying to drive 5 MoN solutions into other organizations. It’s always fun, because as soon as you get one stakeholder up to speed, they move on or get reassigned, and you start all over again. So, it is definitely a journey. One of the things that keeps coming up repeatedly is technology and the technological capabilities that you need to deploy a 5 MoN solution in an organization. Part of my journey is helping people with that technology aspect. 

BM: We should do a whole other podcast on sustainability, right? Change leadership, change management, etc. would probably make a great topic. 

Today, we're doing a deep dive into this whole Digital Coach thing. It's really come up on a number of levels that we've determined in our work. The reality is that to do workflow learning well, you must have a Digital Coach in some way, shape, or form. You just do. It's like committing to any kind of platform. If you're going virtual, you’ve got to buy a virtual platform. Well, it's kind of the same here. If you're going deep into workflow learning and this type of skill, you must have the right tools. You're not going to pound nails with a saw. So, a Digital Coach really has emerged as an incredibly powerful aspect of the discipline. But people get hung up on the term and questions like, “Do I buy one? Have I got one? Is it just one?” 

Chris, you've been deep in technology for us for quite a while. I've heard you say this idea that a Digital Coach isn't per se a single technology. What do you mean by that? And what is it really? 

CK: I have to go all the way back to the beginning and Gloria Gery's original definition of an Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS). She wrote her book Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and why to remake the workplace through strategic application of technology in 1991. It was really visionary and ahead of her time. In it she said that an EPSS is 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. I think it's worth repeating that first part: a Digital Coach isn't a technology. It's an orchestrated set of technology enabled services. If you think about 1991, that was really cutting edge, but now, that's where we live. We live in technology enabled services. Software as a Service is everywhere now. You can put together a Digital Coach by stringing together different pieces of technology to cover different areas of capability that you really need to deploy a Digital Coach. Now, it is worth noting that Digital Coach Authoring Software has emerged in the last several years as a strong category in the learning technology toolkit space. The 5 MoN has ongoing relationships with strong technology partners, and they are definitely worth looking into. Three to mention (in alphabetical order) are AskDelphi, Panviva, and tt-s.  

There are three capability areas, as we think about them now, which are 1) content solution development and maintenance, 2) content solution delivery, with the ongoing optimization of that content, and 3) tracking, measuring, and reporting. These map back to the concept of an orchestrated set of technology enabled services. You've already got those things in your organization. If you have an authoring tool, you have a way to do content development. If you have a website, you have a way to do content delivery. What we're trying to think about now is how to apply some principles to those different pieces of technology so that you can really have some guidelines about the kind of capabilities you need. 

BM: Love that. And I think we have to be careful here too, Chris. In my opinion, all too often people go the other way and don't pivot enough on the word “orchestrated”. They skip right to “set of technology enabled services” and think, “Well, I've got all that. I've got 58 SharePoint sites. I've got an LCMS. I've got an LMS. I've got a knowledge management system. I've got MS Teams for social. Poof - I've got a Digital Coach.” I think we have to be careful there. For me, the “orchestrated” part has always been the tip of the sword. Every company we go into has got “stuff”. It's not a lack of stuff. It's just the sheer lack of orchestration. 

To be transparent, people come to us all the time (particularly vendors) wanting to sign up as a 5 MoN Digital Coach. They think they are one. Well, sometimes they're not. When you think about what rises to the top that separates a platform from moving into the Digital Coach area, what do you think are some fundamental things for folks to look for? What are the principles that define a Digital Coach? 

CK: I've got about 6 principles that I’ve been thinking about. The first two are around applying structure to your content:

1.    The first principle is to provide consistent structure for each type of content. You have to be able to present the content in a way that is consistent for the performer to consume. They’ll begin to look for that particular form when they're looking for that particular type of content.

2.    Consistent structure is important and has to be there on the back end for the authors. That way, the authors can establish what is a task, what is supporting knowledge, what is a step, and what is a resource. Your set of orchestrated technology enabled services must provide that consistent structure. 

The other kind of broad grouping of principles is around providing task-level performance support. This is really where the rubber meets the road for a Digital Coach. If you're not able to get those steps to the performer when they need them, you're not really helping them. Some of the principles behind this are:

3.    Providing access to the Digital Coach at all relevant points of work, whether that's through a screen on a desk, on a tablet, or on a phone. How are you providing access to the Digital Coach and is it in that work context?

4.    Setting up contextual access to the tasks and their supporting resources. That's about how you limit the choices a performer must sort through in order to reduce their cognitive load so they can get right to the work.

5.    Providing just enough. “How can I help you the least today?” is one way I've heard you say it before, Bob. It's all about limiting the amount of stuff they have to filter through when they're in the flow of work. Because if they have to stop and think about it, then they're out of the flow of work and that's defeating the purpose.

6.    Keep all content correct and current. In a Digital Coach, as soon as something is out of date, people stop using it. The operations and maintenance aspects of those technology enabled services have to make it easy for authors to keep things up to date.

BM: I think the only other thing I'd pivot on, Chris, that I always look for is the workflow itself. That’s the crux of it: the context, right? When I'm shown a tool, the first thing I ask if I don't see it right away is, “How is the workflow represented here? How does this technology allow the learner to see the workflow as their guide?” Instead of links and top-down menus and similar kinds of things, which are fine and I’m not knocking them, in the context of a workflow Digital Coach, fundamentally it must represent (graphically or otherwise) the workflow as its navigation. 

We've been running at an interesting metaphor lately because people say, “Look, principally I get it. But is this like anything that I know? Have I been on this journey before?” Something that I think has actually been resonating is this idea that a Digital Coach is to workflow learning what an LMS was to the eLearning domain. I think there are a lot of similar principles we can work through here, Chris. 

I was there when the LMS was invented if you will. I was part of a large eLearning company at the time that eventually went on to one that you may know as Skillsoft and other things. We ran headlong into this problem: as successful as eLearning became, the initial foray was, “I'm going to write one for Excel and I'm going to write one for Word, and…” and suddenly you had 20,000 eLearning courses. The word “library” started materializing. Like we described a moment ago with the plethora of resources and content types across an enterprise, suddenly we realized that this was not manageable. Our learners couldn’t navigate this stuff. They couldn't find what they needed. We had no way of reporting on the courses. To your point, we couldn't guide learners at all if we needed or wanted to. And poof—the LMS was born. 

I think there's a Digital Coach metaphor here for this idea that first, fundamentally, we needed a single source of truth on the training side. We couldn't just send learners off to whatever we had at the time. I don't think SharePoint was even around, but wherever these libraries were being stored and however they were named, we couldn’t just say, “Have at it.” So, I think there's an analogy here to this idea of the UI or the interface that a Digital Coach provides. 

CK: That development of the user interface really drove the popularity of the LMS in an organization. If we're drawing a straight parallel between the LMS and the Digital Coach, we can skip past the, “Oh my gosh, we can network this LMS!” and, “Oh my gosh, we can include content in this LMS!”, which were the phases of LMS evolution in the 1990s. But we're at the full-on Software as a Service learning portal that is web-based technology now. So how do we take modern web design principles and apply those as we present content to the performers and help the authors on the back end? Those are the two parallel tracks of LMS development that really made things workable as an enterprise system: the ability to author content somewhere and bring it in, manage it and date it, and then maintain it. Those are important aspects, but also how are you presenting it? We just talked about the principles for what it should look like on the front end, but the back end is just as important. I think you have to think about the user interface for both of those audiences—the content developers and the content consumers. 

BM: Anyone we've worked with runs headlong into that as soon as they start pulling this whole thing together. We've always argued that the journey to a Digital Coach—to your point, as a framework more than a technology—can often start at a linked PDF. That meets Gloria Gery’s definition. Likewise, to your point, some of the earlier versions of the LMS were equally as clunky and equally as immature, because they stepped up to the initial need, which was just structure. Then we learned pretty quickly that there were a whole lot of things that follow, like maintenance, reporting, and guiding our learners to what's appropriate. On the training side, we use terms like learning path, professional development, and HRS—all these things that help people on the training side. But the same things come up on the performance support and workflow learning side and become a really important part of the need for this kind of platform and what we need it to do. 

CK: Yes, it’s things like tracking for compliance. Are you able to show how many times a certain task or process in the workflow is being accessed in your Digital Coach? Those are the kinds of capabilities on the tracking and reporting side that I think are still maturing within the Digital Coach space. Ultimately, we're going to get to the point where the Digital Coach as a platform needs to be as robust and well thought out as the LMS has become. It's been a 20-year journey for the LMS. For Digital Coaches, we're a few years down that road, but we're not quite where we are with the LMS. So, if you're a vendor and you're listening to this, think about the software requirements that went into the LMS and how you can adapt those to your Digital Coach. How can you grow your Digital Coach in a way that's going to follow the principles we’re espousing and make it easy to use? I think the “easy to use” part is one of the big challenges. 

BM: Particularly on the Apply, Solve, and Change side, that's the different pivot for me. The LMS pivots on New and More and all the stuff we've talked about with tracking, versioning, and reporting. Although, we’ve always argued that New and More are parts of the performance support pyramid. This is the power of a Digital Coach. In some cases, it supplants the LMS in that it can also house New and More. But those are low in the pyramid. The reality is, it's a performance tool. It's not a training tool. It’s all about doing and all about applying. It really has to pivot on the tracking, the usage, and so on around how it helps people get their work done. 

The podcast before this was with our colleague Sara Chizzo, and she's so excited about this domain and has moved into it intentionally after 20 years of being in measurement, because she finally feels that this is cracking that nut. The tracking we're talking about here is not just click-throughs or attendance, which are clearly valid on the New and More side, and particularly with compliance and so on. But what we're talking about now is tracking and reporting on the application and doing of steps and knowledge. I think the Digital Coach opens a whole other door to us that the LMS never really got us through. 

CK: I think about things like the Experience API (xAPI), which allows us to track activity outside of the LMS. How can xAPI, if it's incorporated into a Digital Coach, start to really fill out those learning paths that the LMS has already been maturing and defining really well? You integrate xAPI into a Digital Coach and now you can say which performers are doing a specific task, and you've got a record of it in a Record Store somewhere that will be able to show how your performers are climbing that proficiency curve. You can see them getting to the point where they are acting in a way that lets you say, “We have reached that point where we're moving past integrating into the workflow. Now, we're performing and we're sustaining that performance, and we're improving that performance.” I think the Digital Coach is going to be a key aspect of that, because it will live in the workflow—unlike the LMS, where you have to stop working to go do something in it. The Digital Coach should live there in the workflow with the performers. If you've got xAPI or some other technology that's going to allow you to track what they're doing there, you're going to be able to create an amazing story about how you're actually moving the needle in your organization. 

BM: Here's another interesting parallel, Chris. Once the LMS matured to a point that it had the structure we're talking about, once it got pretty decent and our libraries grew, once we had significant volume and covered a lot of content, “blended learning” was born. In the sense that we took 5-day courses and made them 2-day courses and surrounded them with eLearning (making flipped learning or whatever we want to call it), these kinds of practices were born. Micro-learning, I would argue, has been around way longer than when the term came about several years back, because we had small chunks of instruction (aka “learning bursts” as Con likes to call them). So, “blended training” was born. We like to say that with a Digital Coach, blended learning was actually born. We called it blended learning early on, but I've always argued that if you ask the learner, it's not. It's blended training. We're taking New and More assets and mixing them up differently. The economics changed dramatically, which is spectacular, but that really doesn't change the intent and that moment of need. The Digital Coach gets out into the workflow—Apply, Change, Solve—and I think with it, we arrive at blended learning. What do we mean by that when we talk about that full journey? 

CK: For a Digital Coach, when we're focused on the blend, we're talking about incorporating Targeted Training so that we're leveraging the methodology to identify where the high-impact points are in the content and in the workflow. Which tasks in the workflow are going to have big consequences if they’re not done correctly? A Digital Coach gives us the ability to see the entire workflow, but it also opens space in the classroom for us to say that because performers have access to the entire workflow in a Digital Coach, we're now going to spend our classroom time focusing on those points where you need a safe place to fail in order to learn how to do something correctly. In the struggle comes the learning, as I tell my students in the 5 MoN Academy courses. We have to give people a place to struggle that's not live in the system, that’s not in front of an actual customer, etc. You would never want an airline pilot to try out a new maneuver in an airplane full of actual customers. We need an airplane simulator. 

I think the power of the Digital Coach is that we are presenting all the things we need to cover in the workflow. It's all there. It's in that Digital Coach that’s available to everybody. And now we've got the opportunity to blend in the learning so that we're focused on the high-impact points, where we can give space for practice, and how we can bring more discussion into the classroom. We can give performers a chance to do more exercises and more practice, rather than just trying to cover everything. 

One of my big failures as an instructor was a Microsoft Project course that I designed in the early 2000s. To my shame, in that course I started on the left-hand menu and went through everything in it. And then I went left to right across the menus. I just covered everything that was in the menus. I didn't teach anybody how to use Microsoft Project. With what I know now, I could have developed a Digital Coach that gave everybody all of those things in the menus, and then just focused my classroom course on how a project manager might use Microsoft Project. That's the promise that we've got with this. 

BM: Yes. Focus on the workflow of a project manager—not the menus of MS Project. 

Although performance support was born out of IT—which we understand because it's just so darn task driven and step driven—every job has a workflow, including squishy ones like leadership, sales, and customer service. They all have a workflow. They've all got tasks. They've all got critical things that if done wrong result in terrible consequences. Workflow learning lifts up and plops down—as eLearning did—in everything. I mean, the early eLearning courses we wrote back in that company I was a part of were all for IT. Then along came some other organizations, Harvard being one of them, who said, “What about business classes?” Sure enough, we broke out of that model and picked up hard skill courses and wrote soft skill (or power skill) eLearning courses. We can absolutely do that here. 

That's why I love the fact that for us, blended learning has two deliverables. One is Targeted Training, and I love that brand. I really do. Notice we didn't say targeted “learning”, because learning to the learner is the train, transfer, sustain journey. That is their learning journey. We don't inflict that on them. That's what a performer does. We enable their learning through Targeted Training in the training part, and a Digital Coach in the transfer and sustain part. It's just such a powerful thing. 

Let's put a bow around this. So many people are running at workflow learning. It's very exciting and global. We see it everywhere. But under the covers is this Digital Coach thing lying there. What I think we want to get across today is that you should absolutely run at the workflow learning discipline, but when you get into the weeds of it, there are things you must have to do it. 

CK: I agree completely. And you know, we're calling them our ADAPT principles, but they’re really principles that can be applied to whatever technology you have so that you can make decisions about how to make it into a Digital Coach. What are the interface standards you need? What are the capabilities you need for it to talk to other systems? What kind of measurement do you need to build into this? That's what we're talking about when we're developing these principles. And then they can be applied to any kind of orchestrated set of technology enabled services. That's where we're headed with this. 

I've also been saying that technology is not methodology. I think that's an important thing to end on. You can get a fancy, shiny, very modern Digital Coach, but if you don't have some sort of methodology behind it to help you organize the content and figure out what/when to produce and present to performers, it's not going to do you any good. I think that's where we really need to focus now. Let's develop this Digital Coach technology and make it into an LMS-style enterprise system that really checks the boxes on how to deliver content to the performers in their moment of need. But also, we need to make sure that we're organizing that content and figuring out how to design and develop it in a way that's sustainable and maintainable in an organization. 

BM: Yes, methodology begets technology. We've been down this road before. I do not believe in death by PowerPoint or that SharePoint sucks. It's actually death by bad presenting and SharePoint stinks because it's designed poorly. We love to throw barbs at these tools. I remember sitting in a meeting at Microsoft with someone from the Word group. He very nonchalantly said, “Look, just because we gave you Word doesn’t mean you’re a writer.” The same goes here. Without the principles you so brilliantly started us out with, and that Gloria Gery espoused over 20 years ago, we don't get there. Today, we can get there in ways we never could before. Gloria would be incredibly energized and proud of what her original definition could mean today. 

Great stuff, my friend. Great work as always and so appreciate the dialogue. Thanks for being here. 

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