10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 1)

The goal of learning in the workplace is performance–individual and organizational.  If we’ve learned nothing else in recent years, we’ve learned that learning is most effective when it is integrated with real work.  Learning pundits encourage this integration but don’t always offer practical strategies that busy learning professionals can to use to make it happen.  How can we begin to truly reduce the number courses and catalogs in enterprise training and find ways to bring learning to the job?

In a series of following posts I’ll share some practices and approaches that have worked for me.  There is incredible variety in the business settings where we work, the jobs we support and the latitude we have to build our solutions.  Hopefully some of the following suggestions will be relevant in your situation.


1. Understand the job
2. Link learning to business process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a Community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use action learning
8. Use Organizational Learning practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

Each of the 10 strategies on the list above, have helped me to improve performance through learning without pulling people way from the job for formal (classroom or e-learning) training.  I’d love to hear some of your suggestions and experiences.

In this post I’ll discuss practices 1 through 3.

1. Understand the job

If your going to integrate learning with work you had better understand the work.  Watch people, talk to people, use appropriate analysis tools, and think like the performer.  Understand their world, day to day pressures, tools they use (or could use) and how they use them.  Understand the job inputs, processes and feedback mechanisms for job incumbents.

Learn and use the many analysis tools appropriate for different kinds of performance–task analysis for visible work, Cognitive walk-through for knowledge work and output focused performance analysis for both.  Process analysis and value stream analysis are useful for seeing work in the context of the broader system. These and other analysis methods are critical tools if you are to find ways to build learning into a job without burdening the learner (employee) with irrelevant or unwieldy tools and programs that don’t fit in the flow of their day to day work.

It’s unfortunate that some job/role analysis efforts have been overly cumbersome or time consuming (analysis paralysis!).  They don’t need to be.  Often they can simply be a good mental model or filter through which to rapidly examine a job or process for learning and improvement opportunities.  A good analysis is part of the solution not a barrier to it.

2. Link information and learning to business process

We often talk about linking training to business strategy and of course that’s critical, but a key link to strategy is cross functional business process.  Well designed business processes are structured to accomplish business objectives.  Every job is driven by a process, implicit or explicit.   If it so implicit as to be almost imperceptible (as if often the case with knowledge and creative work) there is some improvement you can offer before you even start to think about learning.

Once business processes have been identified (or made visible), process phases can be used to effectively embed relevant learning resources. All business processes contain “knowledge leverage points”-those points in the process where key information is needed for optimal performance. These could be key decision points, data collection points requirements, planning requirements etc. and will vary by type of job and process. And knowledge generation is as important in modern knowledge work as knowledge delivery so it’s also important to examine how knowledge can be accumulated through practice and made available to the wider group at those same knowledge leverage points. Here’s a sample cross functional process (sales) with knowledge leverage points identified.

Knowledge Leverage points in a sales process

With knowledge leverage points identified, learning and knowledge can be made available at it’s most relevant place, and most relevant form in the work flow.

3. Build a Performance Support System

A Performance Support System is a concept more that a specific solution.   Whatever configuration it takes, the core idea is to reduce the need for training (or eliminate it, altogether) by proving information, decision tools, performance aids and learning on-demand, using tools available at the moment they are needed.  An excellent performance system becomes part of the task and complements human abilities (compensate for weaknesses and enhance strengths).

They can be as simple as a job aid or reference and as complex as the panel of airplane cockpit.  It can include decision tools, searchable information resources, e-learning objects, simple software apps, help systems, advisory systems, video and media based reference material, procedural guidance, job aids, demonstration animations, simulations and anything else that supports performance.  They can be as useful for management and professional work as they are for procedural and administrative work.

Research support for performance support can be found in the area of “distributed cognition” which argues that tasks (mental and otherwise) can be dramatically improved through the aid of external tools that intimately aid thinking and performance.  It is embodied in Don Norman’s distinction between the personal and system point of view regarding performance support tools (“cognitive artifacts” as he labels them in Things that Make us Smart):

“there are two views of a cognitive artifact. The personal point of view (the impact the artifact has for the individual person and the system point of view (how the artifact + the person, as a system are different than the abilities of the person alone).

The personal point of view:
Artifacts (performance tools) change the task

The system point of view:
The person + artifact is smarter than either alone

The point is that a well designed performance support system becomes an integral part of the task.  Performance support systems can include small amounts of structured e-learning if the task requires some conceptual understanding or routine practice before application but generally performance support tools are designed to replace reliance on memory.

Business Process Guidance is an emerging term for performance support more directly linked to business processes.  Panviva and Tata Interactive Systems have adopted the term for their tools.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning

19 thoughts on “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 1)

  1. […] Tom Gram discusses the integration of learning and work (my professional passion) and gives a list of ten strategies for integration, of which three are discussed in detail in Part 1 (I’m already looking forward to Part 2): 1. Understand the job 2. Link Learning to business process 3. Build a performance support system […]

  2. This is a fantastic piece of resource and a few realities and simple solutions have come to light because of it. When you talk about performance management, I am involved in building an lms to integrate with our performance tools. Any thoughts?

  3. Emma:
    Thanks for the comment and pointer to LearningGuide. I’m aware of the the tool but have not used it. Have you been involved in a Learning Guide project? What was the nature of the solution?

  4. Tom:
    Thanks for your thoughts. You’re right on, integrating learning and work does not have to be complicated to be effective. In fact in my experience, sometimes LMS systems can be a barrier to close integration because they add that extra layer of interface that can put some distance between the employee and the support.

    LMS systems are administrative by nature (with some exceptions), primarily there to house content and track usage data. EPSS tools (like “LearningGuide” mentioned by Emma above) are more tightly integrated with the task and information is available more rapidly without having to navigate through non task relevant content. Usage info can be fed back to an LMS if needed. That may be what your doing. There are so many LMSs out there (big and small, low cost, high cost and open source) that I wonder why you would be developing another one. Do you have a unique need?

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