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Workflow Learning: The Four Fundamental Principles

By: Dr. Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher

The following is an excerpt from The Performance Matters Podcast Series, Episode 13.

Let’s jump right into Bob and Con’s discussion around workflow learning…

Bob: Today we’re going to take a strong run at what’s becoming a super-hot topic in our industry that is being currently called “workflow learning”. I think it’s really important to take the time to step back and be sure our industry has a clear understanding of this.

“Workflow learning,” isn’t just about making information available in the workflow. It’s enabling a learner to learn or be supported while doing their work.

eLearning, for instance, has thrown around the acronym JIT, or just-in-time learning. We’ve agreed all along, eLearning does provide ease of use and is clearly a powerful economic model for not taking people out of the workflow for three to five days. But here’s the thing. You still have to step away from your work, in this case, cognitively. For example, you’re not leaving your seat but you’re not performing your work anymore. You’ve launched an LMS to consume.

True workflow learning is done in parallel, not to the side. It’s done while getting work done. It instructs, informs, and supports—three, frankly, different things, all while doing the job. Con, do you agree?

Con: This is a crucial distinction. There is a great deal of misunderstanding in our conversations around workflow learning because of it. Real workflow learning is learning while working. That’s genuine workflow learning. Many people, in their approach to workflow learning assume all learning in the workflow constitutes workflow learning. Micro-learning in the workflow can be a rudimentary form of workflow learning. But the real power of workflow learning is what you said. It’s enabling people to learn as they do their work so that they don’t have to stop work in order to learn. And that’s the distinction.

Bob: I really like this distinction. “Informing” and “supporting”, while performing work is a powerful way to learn.

Con: Oh, yeah! Because in traditional learning we have what we call “train”, and then the learner has to transfer it to their job. That is, contextualize it to their own work. When you have real workflow learning the transfer inherently occurs while learning. There’s no stopping work. There’s no real transfer stage. So, it’s faster and more economical in terms of the learning process. It’s absolutely more powerful—as long as it can be done safely.

Bob: Con, you talk about context a number of times. It’s only since I’ve gotten into this deeper and have been involved in The 5 Moments, watching the methodology play out, that a huge “aha!” came to me. I realized, as an ID, how very little I knew about the workflow. I knew what the SME wanted me to teach. I knew what the SME wanted me to have people understand. I knew what software to use. But that’s not workflow. That’s what is inflicted on the workflow and has to be contextualized.

Con: I have yet to walk into an organization that truly understands their workflow. And that’s startling. Tragic, really. How does an organization really take control of how their people do their work if they are blind to just that—the workflow?

Traditional approaches in instructional design employ traditional job task analysis. But, unfortunately, this approach fails to organize those tasks into a workflow process. You have to map the workflow because this mapping is what creates the context that provides your learners with just-in-time access to just what they need, at the moment they need it, in order to be able to learn in the workflow.

Bob: So Con, “If it’s not embedded in the workflow, it doesn’t work.” Meaning, we have to be sure we understand the context of the work. That’s the workflow. But there’s also the physical context in which the learner can consume. If it’s a system, embed it.

Con: Yes. The only way I can learn as I do my work is if I have access to what I need, to do that learning, as I do my work.

Bob: It’s in this next principle where I think most of us go wrong. We embed well, we make things contextual, but then we pile on. There’s this misconception, in my opinion, about adults and adult learning. How could more not be better? They are adults—they can handle it—well, that’s wrong. A lot of the real need is driven by the context. If I’m in one of The Five Moments of Need—let’s say Solve—I am not in the mood for an asset that’s going to take me twenty minutes to Solve. This principle of Just Enough and The Right Kind of Just Enough is so important.

Con: That’s why we talk about “2 Clicks—10 Seconds.” The “2 Clicks” is getting to the needed information, while the “10 seconds” is the time it takes for me to translate that information into action. So we really do need to be able access just what I need, at my moment of need to help me get the job done—and in the process, learn by doing.

Bob: So let’s wrap up the four fundamental principles with one I know is near and dear to your heart—content management—aggregating content, currency, trustworthiness, maintenance. These principles are sort of foundationally building one on the other but in the end, if what I call up is wrong or if what I call up is old, I would never go back. Con, tell us a bit more about this discipline around currency and trustworthiness of content.

Con: This is the elephant in the room—keeping solutions current. When you step into the workflow, there is no room for people to be accessing information that is inaccurate. We’ve got to take steps to keep the solution meaningful, vibrant, and up-to-date. The good news is that performance support methodology and technology can enable that in ways that we haven’t been able to historically. We have to bring to this world of workflow learning strong content management practices. We can’t ignore it.

We have to step in and partner with the business in that journey, or we will fail. Workflow learning takes us into the world of the organization, and its business, and we have to have practices that let us partner with the business in keeping things current, vibrant and meaningful.

Bob: So, friends, I want to conclude with one last thought, or myth, if you will. “We have workflow learning because we have this really remarkable coaching program.” Disclaimer, we are not knocking coaching programs. But, in the context of what we just got through discussing, that is not what a coaching program does.

Con: Correct. A coach isn’t always around when I experience my moment of learning need. The cost of coaching is so high—I’m tying down another human being to be there to coach me. Then coaches, depending on the day, can be very good or they can just take me to a place that I hadn’t ought to go! Sure, coaching is a very powerful thing, but you can’t scale it to meet all the needs that people have in terms of workflow learning. It’s “just not gonna happen.”

Bob: This discussion is one we have to continue. It’s fundamental to going forward in the Five Moments and effectively doing it.

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