Designs for Natural Learning

What learning are you designing at the moment?

If you’re a traditional instructional designer it may be a structured e-learning or classroom program. If you have a more constructivist bent you may be working on an immersive “learning environment”.  If you prefer humanist OD approaches maybe an action learning program is how you roll. These are all awesome interventions in the right circumstances and each has their place in the learning continuum.

But in addition to these designed programs, I think we have a responsibility to help people learn as they pursue their day to day work. Call this informal learning if you like, but I prefer natural learning. Done well, it typically goes unrecognized as learning at all. But it too can be designed. Instead of learning programs, you are designing work environments, tools, information and feedback systems. The raw materials of this effort is the work itself. Think of it as performance design.

Once you get beyond initial skills training or the introduction of new performance, learning professionals should help reduce the separation between work and learning by reinforcing that the workplace is the primary learning setting, not the classroom. It doesn’t make sense to build a whole department around training when there are so many other ways to help people learn. Most of us learn the bulk of our work skills on the job from both the work itself and the people around us. Learning departments should be structured to support this reality. We should be helping managers and employees become good trainers of others and building systems that help people take responsibility for their own learning progress.

The new work of the learning department should be to assure that people are working in a setting where learning is a natural by-product of working. You can’t make them learn but you can help surround them with the resources and systems they need to learn. Create systems and vehicles to support the following:

  • Access to key information employees need to do their work
  • Clear statements of the work and performance expectations (standards of excellent performance)
    • Tasks
    • Outputs
    • Quality and quantity standards
    • Personal Effectiveness
  • The tools necessary for good performance
    • Technology
    • Communication and collaboration vehicles (including social media)
  • A well designed process work-flow
  • Feedback on how employees and teams perform against standards and targets
    • Performance scorecards
    • Immediate feedback from internal customers
    • Delayed feedback from external and downstream internal customers
  • Empowerment to perform (authority)
  • Eliminate obstacles to good performance
  • Planned project assignments

See my take on Action Mapping for a methodology to identify needs and gaps in work environments.  If I had to choose the most powerful strategy of the bunch, I’d put my money on performance feedback. I don’t mean performance reviews or other or ill-timed approaches. I mean structured approaches for feeding back performance results —think team scorecards. Here are 10 more strategies for integrating learning and work.

We should be training people only when we cannot find a better way to help their performance. You’re not really going to develop many people in the training department –at least not compared to the all the people being developed outside your department right now.

This focus on designing work to enable natural learning resembles what progressive managers see as there role and they are not wrong. Help them fulfill that responsibility better. Partner with them to develop their teams by re-designing their work. Or better yet, work directly with teams to help them re-design their own work. Process re-design, socio-technical systems, and human performance technology all have excellent tools to help with this work (er…learning) design process.

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5 thoughts on “Designs for Natural Learning

  1. Tom – you’re blog was so thought provoking that I printed it. Don’t take that to mean that I’m a traditionalist in the brinks and mortar and training function sense…but it is the suggestion of re-structuring/de-structuring learning departments and adapting to suit natural learning that stimulates thought and creativity.

    As a performance consultant, I would comment that focusing on the estimated 88% of performance factors that lay external to the performer (where applicable), and implementing performance solutions that correct those factors so as to allow for uninhibited learning and performance ‘on-the-job’, is what we optimally do. As a discipline, however, I still observe that we face intense pressure from sponsors to short-cut to learning solutions. I think the fundamental challenge we face going forward is creating sponsor engagement and conviction to taking the performance journey…we need to ‘innovate’ to be more coherent to and effective with our business sponsors.

  2. Thanks Frank.
    Focusing on the work context is not the expected approach from a training unit, so we shouldn’t be surprised that sponsors take the “shortcut to learning solutions”. We need to find sponsors that are willing to try something new, get a few small but powerful successes, and a put a strategy in place to shift mindsets in the direction that work context is where the real learning takes place. A part of that strategy is that work based learning = performance improvement. Most managers don’t turn down the opportunity to get better results. Here are a few strategies for dealing with resistance and the tendency of sponsors to “shortcut to learning solutions”.

    • Hi Jane;
      That’s great to hear. I hope it sparks some good discussion. I’ll be on a plane at that time unfortunately. Plus, I have willfully kept my head in the sand with Twitter, though resistance is seeming futile.
      Tom

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