Mapping Informal and Formal Learning Strategies to Real Work

During the Q&A at a recent conference session on Social Learning, a retail industry attendee asked “I have to train 300 store level associates in new product knowledge in the next three months.  Is social learning really what I want?”  What would your answer be?

I advocate informal and social learning when appropriate and get as excited about them as you likely do, but it’s not a panacea for all our learning woes.  The current zeal around social learning solutions can distract from real performance needs (we’ve been distracted before).  Social learning gets positioned as the enlightened and “correct” solution for the modern workplace. Formal learning is old, tired, and reluctantly tolerated for the vestiges of the traditional, mechanistic workplace.

But, set aside your biases one way or the other for the moment and simply think of the roles and functions you support in your organization.  It will vary by industry of course, but your list is going to be some subset of the following

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Product Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Operations
  • Administration
  • Service Delivery
  • Order Fulfillment
  • Information Technology
  • Procurement
  • Management and Leadership

Now think of the jobs or roles within those functions…the engineers, technicians, account executives, managers, IT specialists, health care workers, service specialists, and operations staff you support.  Do they demand a singular approach to developing skill and capability necessary for their job?  Is social learning or traditional skills training the most appropriate for all job types?  I hope your answer is no.

Consultants have been telling us for years that traditional, mechanistic organizations are disappearing, and with them linear and routine work.  There is no doubt that is the economic direction, but look around you…at the auto assembly lines, big box retail, supermarkets, call centres, healthcare technicians, administrative clerks in government, insurance, finance and elsewhere. Think about the jobs you support and you’ll see many examples of traditional work where social media based learning will simply not be feasible to quickly develop skills.

Task variety and standardization: Routine vs. knowledge work

Instead of over generalizing the value of any solution it’s best to truly understand the skill and knowledge requirements of the jobs, roles or initiatives you support.  I’m not talking about task or needs analysis (through both are valuable tools).  Instead go up one notch higher and categorize the types of “work” you support in your organization.  Almost all work, indeed entire organizations and industries, vary on a continuum of two broad factors: task variety and task standardization.

An approach for categorizing jobs, roles and work environments

In between these ends of this spectrum is work that combines standardization and task variety to different degrees. The following framework provides a classification tool to place work types, jobs and roles. It’s an adaptation of the work of Yale Organizational Sociologist Charles Perrow.  Jeffrey Liker and David Meier used a different variation of this model in Toyota Talent.

Work Types, Task Standarization and Task Variety

Routine work

Routine work is highly standardized with little task variety. Job fundamentals need to be learned quickly and performed to company or industry defined standards. There is little room for variation and the skills that need to be learned are narrow and focused. Progressive workplaces will also involve workers in problems solving and continuous process improvement where experience will result in tacit knowledge in problem recognition and problem solving than can be shared with others through informal vehicles.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Assembly line workers
  • Bank teller
  • Data entry clerk
  • Oil and gas well drillers
  • Machine operators
  • Fast food server

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured, job specific skills training, performance support tools that enable standardized procedures

Technician work

The work of the technician is less standardized and includes more variety in the tasks and skills required by the role. Work still has many defined procedures and processes. However, they are more complex and often based on sophisticated systems and technology. The sequence can vary depending on the situation so employees have more autonomy in selecting appropriate procedures. There’s also greater variety in the procedures and tasks to be completed and as a result the learning programs need to consider problem solving, decision making and continuous improvement. Tacit knowledge will be needed to solve real technical problems that arise and there is often a service element in technician work that can benefit from informal approaches to learning. Performance supports system are a natural fit for technician oriented work as is mobile learning for customer support technicians often working at customer locations.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Lab analyst
  • Quality Control Specialists
  • Radiation technologist
  • Maintenance workers
  • Technical support specialists
  • Most “trade” occupations

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured learning for required procedures, performance support systems. Informal learning and apprenticeship approaches for building “know-how” and problem solving

Craft work

Craft oriented work introduces even greater amounts of variety in tasks, skills and knowledge, but retains significant amounts of standardization for optimal performance. While there is a definable number of tasks, each situation faced by employees is somewhat different, and each requires creative and slightly unique solutions. Over time patterns in problems and solutions emerge for individual employees and this becomes valuable experience (tacit knowledge) that they can pass on to novice employees through informal approaches. Basic skills and procedures are most efficiently taught through formal methods but the most critical parts of the job are learning through years of experience facing multiple situations. Management is more flexible and with fewer rules and formal policies. Teamwork and communications are paramount.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Nurse
  • Sales professional
  • Call centre agent
  • Graphic designer
  • Air traffic controller
  • First level supervisor
  • Insurance administrator

Learning approach:

Formal learning for foundation procedures and skills. Informal learning and deep work experience and mentoring models for tacit knowledge.

Knowledge work

Finally, knowledge work involves little task standardization (although there is always some) and a great amount of task variety requiring a wide range of skills, knowledge and collaboration. Professionals move from task to task and each situation is unique calling for spontaneous thinking, reasoning and decision making. Knowledge workers must adapt to new situations, assess complex data and make complex decisions.  They also need refined people skills.  The most critical aspects of what experts and knowledge workers do (after formal education) can only be learned on the job over time through experience, mentors and knowledge sharing with other professionals.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Professional engineers
  • Middle and senior management
  • Professions: Law, Medicine, Architecture, Scientists, Professors etc.
  • Software developers
  • Creative director

Learning approach:

Professional education, extensive job experience on a variety of situations and work assignments, action learning, mentorship, Communities of Practice.

Balanced approaches

Of course most work requires a combination of knowledge work and routine work. These characteristics of jobs and work environments call for different approaches to training and development. There is a continuum of learning solutions that range from formal to non-formal to informal. I’ve posted my view on this continuum in the past (Leveraging the full learning continuum).

Avoid over generalizing your solutions at all costs. Participate in social media and learn it’s value to develop tacit knowledge and create new knowledge in your organization but don’t assume it is the “correct” solution for all your audiences. Start with the functions you serve. Truly understand work that is done by the jobs and roles within those groups and the skills necessary for them to be successful. Only then create a solution that will meet those needs.


Web 2.0 Helping to Generate Measurable Business Value

In an earlier post (For Web 2.0 What’s in the Workflow is What Gets Used), I refered to some ongoing research McKinsey&Company is doing in web 2.0 adoption in the workplace– how and where it is being used and the impact it is having on business.

The research is based an an annual survey of 1700 companies from across the globe in a range of industries and functional areas and has been ongoing now for about three years running.  The Mckinsey Quarterly recently summarized results in an interactive visual chart and as a full article in the McKinsey Quarterly titled How companies are benefiting from Web 2.0: McKinsey Global Survey Results (The article is free but you have to join the free membership to see it in full).

The following chart from the interactive feature summarizes how web 2.0 technologies are being used for some internal purposes including managing knowledge and training.   Internal blogs and wikis are being used significantly for Managing Knowledge. For Training uses the highest categories are Podcasts and Video Sharing (unfortunately the most  presentation oriented technologies of the bunch).   Social Networking is being used extensively for fostering collaboration and identifying and recruiting talent.


Click to access the McKinsey interactive chart

If you go to the interactive feature be sure to listen to the “about this research” audio snippet.  It provides a brief summary of the research and findings across three years.   Some conclusions McKinsey draws:

  • an increasing number companies are adopting web 2.0 technologies
  • more companies will start to use them for wider purposes including customers, internal employees and suppliers
  • uses will continue to evolve and get better at deriving business value

the striking result is that 2/3 of the companies are deriving measurable business value.

McKinsey summarizes:

“This year’s survey turned up strong evidence that these advantages are translating into measurable business gains.  When we asked respondents about the business benefits their companies have gained as a result of using Web 2.0 technologies, they most often report greater ability to share ideas; improved access to knowledge experts; and reduced costs of communications, travel, and operations.  Many respondents also say Web 2.0 tools have decreased the time to market for products and have had the effect of improving employee satisfaction”.

ADDIE is dead! Long live ADDIE!

I’m at risk of flogging a very dead horse here, but some recent posts from Ellen Wagner (What is it about ADDIE that makes people so cranky?) and Donald Clark (The evolving dynamics of ISD and Extending ISD through Plug and Play) got me thinking about instructional design process and ADDIE in particular (please  don’t run away!).

Ellen’s post focused on how Learning Designers on a twitter discussion got  “cranky” at the first mention of the ADDIE process (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation).  On the Twitter #Lrnchat session  participants had a gag response to the to the mere mention of ADDIE (sound familiar?).  Don responded with some great comments on how ISD (ADDIE) has evolved and adapted.

Much of my career has been involved in applying ADDIE in some form or other and I’ve landed on a conflicted LOVE/HATE relationship with it to which you, lucky reader, will now be subjected.addie


HATE (Phase A, Step 3.2.6)

Throughout the 90’s many Instructional Designers and e-Learning Developers (me included) grew disgruntled with ADDIE (and its parent process Instructional Systems Design—ISD) as training struggled to keep up with business demands for speed and quality and as we  observed process innovations in software and product development field (Rapid Application Development, Iterative prototyping etc).

In 2001 that frustration was given voice in the seminal article “The Attack on ISD” by Jack Gordon and Ron Zemke in Training Magazine (see here for a follow-up)

The article cited four main concerns:

  • ISD is too slow and clumsy to meet today’s training challenges
  • There’s no “there” there. (It aspires to be a science but fails on many fronts)
  • Used as directed, it produces bad solutions
  • It clings to the wrong world view

I have memories of early projects, driven by mindless adherence to ISD, where I learned the hard way, the truth in each of these assertions.  As an example of what not to do and a guard against blowing my brains out in future projects,  for years I have kept an old Gagne style “instructional objective” from an early military project that would make your eyes burn.

Early ISD/ADDIE aspired to be an engineering model.  Follow it precisely and you would produce repeatable outcomes.  The engineering model assumes a “one best way” and the one best way of the time was grounded in the science of behavioral psychology and general systems theory.  The “one best way” thinking appealed to the bureaucratic style of the times but it couldn’t be more of an anathema to the current crop of learning designers, especially those focused on more social and constructivist approaches to learning.  And they are right.

Another criticism of ADDIE I have parallels Ellen’s comments.  Adherents and crankites alike view ADDIE as an “instructional design” methodology when in fact it should be viewed more as a project management process for learning projects.  Viewing  Instructional Design as synonymous with ADDIE does both a disservice.  There is loads of ID going on inside ADDIE but it is primarily in the Design phase of the process, and it can be much more creative than the original model prescribes.

In the end, the Achilles heel of formal ISD/ADDIE rests in its prescriptive posture and foundation in behavioural psychology.  Behavioural psychology and performance technology–its extension in the workplace–have added greatly to our understanding how to improve human learning at work, but we have learned much since then, and technology has provided tools to both designers and learners that profoundly change the need for a process like ADDIE.

Of course the ADDIE process was (and is) not unique to the learning design profession.  For many years the five broad phases of ADDIE were the foundation for the design of most systems.  Software engineering, product development, interactive/multimedia development are all based on some variation of the model.   Most however have evolved from the linear “waterfall” approach of early models (can’t start the next phase until the previous has been done and approved) to iterative design cycles based on rapid prototyping, customer participation in the process and loads of feedback loops built into the process.  And learning/e-learning is no different.  It has evolved and continues to evolve to meet the needs of the marketplace. Much of the current gag reaction to ADDIE, like that experienced by Ellen, is based on the old waterfall-linear approach and the assumed instructivist nature of the model.  And again the gag is entirely valid.

However, if you can break free from the history, preconceptions and robotic application of ADDIE, you may find room for something approaching…

LOVE (Phase B, Step 2.3.7)

I can’t say I ever use ADDIE in its purest form any longer.  For e-learning and performance applications, I prefer processes with iterative design and development cycles that are usually a variation of rapid application development process like this one from DSDM.


Or for an example specific to e-learning,  this process from Cyber Media Creations nicely visualizes the iterative approach:

Or for the Michael Allen fans out there, his Rapid Development approach described in Creating Successful e-Learning is very good.  There is a respectful chapter in the book on the ADDIE limitations and how his system evolved from it.

But at the heart of all these processes are the familiar phases of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation,  albeit cycling through them many times along the way.

For me, ADDIE has become a useful heuristic,  not even a process really, but a framework for thinking,  coaching instructional designers,  and managing learning and e-learning projects.  Many e-learning designers these days are not formally trained in Instructional Design and initially think of it as instructional “writing” more than the holistic and systemic approach at the heart of ADDIE.   Likewise, customers and subject matter experts are much easier to work with once they understand the broad project process that ADDIE represents.  For these two purposes alone I am thankful for ADDIE as a framework.  ADDIE has staying power because of its simplicity.  Purists will say it has been watered down too much but in many ways that’s what keeps it alive.

ADDIE phases are also a useful way to think about organization design and structure of a learning function.  They are the major processes that need to be managed and measured by most learning functions.  Just think of the functionality of most LMS systems have added since their inception.

In the end, ADDIE (and its more current modifications) is probably most valuable because it makes the work of learning design visible. This is an essential feature of productive knowledge work of all kinds.   Almost every learning/training group uses an ADDIE as a start point to design a customized process that can be communicated,  executed,  measured and repeated with some level of consistency.  Equally important in knowledge work is the discipline of continually improving processes and breaking through to better ways of working.  This has resulted in the many innovations and improvement to the ADDIE process since its inception.


I’ve come to believe that the power of ADDIE/ISD lies in the mind and artful hands of the user.  In my experience, Rapid Application Development processes can become just as rigid and prescriptive under the watch of inflexible and bureaucratic leaders as ADDIE did.

There’s an intellectual fashion and political correctness at work in some of the outright rejection of ADDIE.  It’s just not cool to associate with the stodgy old process.  Add Web 2.0, informal and social learning to the mix and some will argue we shouldn’t be designing anything.

For the organizations I work with, there is no end on the horizon to formal learning (adjustments in volume and quality would be nice!).  Formal learning will always require intelligent authentic learning design, and a process to make it happen as quickly and effectively as possible.


Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge

Are you ready for Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge (B.O.O.K)?  Apparently “thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reported flocking to the medium”

I learned about the new device through this B.O.O.K MARK while browsing a local supplier of B.O.O.K on the weekend.

Bio-Optic .....Click to read

New Skills for the Learning Pro? The Big Question…

In a Learning 2.0 world, where learning and performance solutions take on a wider variety of forms and where churn happens at a much more rapid pace, what new skills and knowledge are required for learning professionals?” ASTD Learning Circuits big question for July

The Learning Circuits big question this month is an important one, but there seems to be a few questions embedded in it.  Does it ask what new skills are needed by learning professionals due to a wider variety of learning solutions?…or due to more rapid churn?…or due to the implied technology knowledge of the “learning 2.0 world”?  They are related of course, but they do each point to different skill requirements.  As a result answers to the question so far have been enjoyable but a bit a bit helter-skelter.

Harold Jarche nails the “learning 2.0” aspects of the question with his update of last year’s excellent Skills 2.0 article–especially from a personal learning perspective.  Nancy White highlights general competencies that would be of value to any knowledge worker in today’s workplace.  Mohamed Amine Chatti identifies knowledge networking and double loop learning as critical. I like those.  But again not necessarily specific to the learning professional.  Natalie Laderas-Kilkenny gets closer to skills that are important for the learning professional and says that a learning culture is an important precursor for successful learning 2.0. Right on!

Michael Hanley layers a business view on the question (thank you!) and charts some necessary skills.  I also like Clive Sheppard’s view that we don’t need to tear up the rule book and start again–that our mission remains (organizational performance) but we need to ramp up more quickly on current technology and methods.  Couldn’t agree more.

What Learning Professional?

The question also lumps “learning professionals” into a single group.  Most large training functions have many specialized roles and their skill requirements vary.  So here’s another layer to the big question discussion based on different slices of the “learning professional” roles that are out there.

Generally, most learning professionals will need a combination of these three skills to thrive in the learning 2.0 world.

  • User level knowledge of web 2.0 tools and their applications
  • Open attitude towards sharing, collaborating, contributing, and personal knowledge management that underlie their effective use.

How these skills take shape in various learning roles will vary by responsibility.    Here are a few:


With over 60% of corporate learning still delivered in the classroom (ASTD 2008 State of the Industry report) there are a lot of instructors out there.  They need to develop sophisticated skills in the facilitating, coaching and mentoring using on-line and web 2.0 tools.  As classroom programs are extended or moved into on-line communities and action learning programs (see couching ourselves for a good example) coaching and facilitating skills will be essential.  Since these communities will focus as much on work as on learning, facilitators will also need a serious understanding of their organizations to maintain credibility in these contexts.

New skills:

  • Online facilitation and coaching using web 2.0 and other collaborative tools
  • Action learning coaching
  • Organizational knowledge and experience

Analysts and Performance Consultants

The long and ponderous needs assessment is dead.  Speed is essential.  Web 2.0 tools can help the analyst. First, the social media environments that communities now operate in can be a rich source of performance data to mine for skill and knowledge gaps and to signal when a team needs to bring more focus to capturing learning and knowledge. There are also many useful web 2.0 orientated tools for data gathering and internal “crowd-sourcing” that can be used to collect employee feedback, replace old flipchart voting methods and set priorities.  See UserVoice for example.

Also performance consultants will need to breakdown the traditional “training vs. non-training” solution duo into more nuanced solutions that integrate learning and work. There are powerful levers on the non-training side of that equation than need to be part of the future solution set rather than a casual hand off to another department.

Evaluation takes a different shape in the web 2.0 world as well.  It’s easy to determine performance impact for hard skill programs but the softer learning and knowledge sharing associated with communities and natural learning methods is a bit of a measurement bugaboo.  New ways of measuring learning need to be developed and incorporated into the toolkit.  I think Binkerhoff’s success case method has great promise here.

New skills:

  • Web 2.0 tools for data collection and analysis
  • Broader understanding of non-formal and informal learning solutions when recommending “non-training solutions”
  • Building learning road maps and curriculum design efforts to include social learning activities
  • Success case method for measuring informal learning programs

Relationship Managers

Most large training functions have generalists that maintain relationships with internal client groups to assess high level needs and assemble teams to meet those needs.   I see opportunities for this role to use web 2.0 tools to both maintain their internal client relationships and to share knowledge with the solution end of their training organization (The matrix model I suggest is here). Possibly one happy community? They will often be the initial discussion regarding learning 2.0 and social networking related solutions.

New skills:

  • awareness of the benefits and appropriate use of new web 2.0 tools
  • recognize genuine opportunities for learning communities and social media
  • educate internal clients on the learning advantages of web 2.0 (and shift mindsets away from traditional learning)

Instructional Designers and e-Learning Developers

I’m not a member of the instructional design is dead clan.  But ID pros certainly need to evolve and incorporate more discovery oriented and natural learning benefits of Learning 2.0.  There is no prescription for learning 2.0 designs as there is for e-learning 1.0 which makes some ID’s uncomfortable, but there are certainly principles and best practices that need to be learned by any ID that wants to stay relevant.

Not all are e-learning developers are instructional designers (and visa versa).  With their stronger technical skills, developers need to up their game in the integration of 2.0 and 1.0 technologies to enable more creative solutions.   Rather than defaulting to a rapid development tool for example, e-learning developers need the skill to develop an effective performance support environment, or to use simple tools to create realistic simulations.  Mobile learning is also growing and is an essential developer skill.

New skills:

Learning and Organizational Effectiveness Consultants

More than the technology of web 2.0 it’s the methods of informal and social learning that they support that have the most potential to change organizations.  Learning consultants and OD specialist are at the heart of this.  They need to work together more under a common umbrella. My idea of a learning consultant is more akin to the OD or Organizational Learning professional that get inside the organization and facilitate change and learning through workflow re-design, change management efforts and action learning.

New skills:

Learning Unit Directors and Leaders

Learning department leaders need to provide the resources to develop their team in line with the above.  The learning unit is a team of knowledge workers that must model the solutions they are recommending to their internal clients.  Learning unit leaders need the skills to make this happen.  More than providing web 2.0 tools they need to encourage and participate in their own learning communities.  They also need to manage their unit as a system.  Since their team (like most knowledge workers) will know more than they do about learning and performance, they need to learn how to manage the “system” and provide vision and direction more than the manage the “people”.  That means building workflow, measures and structures with their team that produces real results from the unit.

New skills:

  • manage the learning organization as a system
  • leadership (not micromanagement)
  • resources to model, experiment and innovate new learning approaches with in the learning unit.
  • web 2.0 tools

e-Learning Suppliers and Vendors

e-Learning vendors (authoring tools, LMS/LCMS, consulting services) have started to add social media tools as wrappers for their web 1.0 offerings but there are few native web 2.0 applications and solutions.   Whether we like it or not, the vendor world plays a big role in shaping technology based learning solutions.

Vendors, suppliers and consultants need new skills in recognizing market opportunities and provide solutions that push the envelop.  Where is the content designed for use within learning communities for example, or a community platform for leadership team development?  People are throwing them together using standard open source or proprietary social media tools but it would be nice to see some platforms/service that offer unique service by skill type the way we see traditional training program offerings.

New skills:

  • recognizing new learning 2.0 market opportunities
  • solutions and offerings built on web 2.0 values and platforms
  • external cross-industry learning communities
  • flexible content for role or discipline based communities (ex. Management communities, consulting communities, technical communities etc)


As Clive Sheppard said, our mission is still improving performance.  Web 2.0 focused discussions like this tend to put technology out front, which is a mistake we’ve made before. Web 2.0 and social media (more importantly the collaboration and sharing they enable) offers us genuine new opportunities for improving performance but they are just one of many important skills needed by learning professionals today.

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 2)

In my last post I listed ten strategies for integrating learning with work. They are a combination of concepts and methods that build knowledge and bring learning into day to day activities and workflow.  I discussed the first three strategies in Part 1.   In this post I describe strategies 4, 5 (which fit nicely together). Both can improve informal learning without pulling people way from the job for formal (classroom or e-learning) training.


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. Organizational learning Practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

4. Build a Community of Practice

I’m a fan of Communities of Practice (CoP).  They are environments (usually supported by technology) for groups of people with a common mission or interest to communicate, share learn and build knowledge needed to more effectively solve problems and accomplish work.  Like Performance Support Systems, Communities of Practice are more a concept than a specific tool and they can take many unique configurations. Unlike performance support tools, they are grounded in the communication and interaction between people as they solve shared problems. The primary interaction is between people rather than between people and a structured information system. As a result CoP’s create knowledge as much as they transfer it–an essential feature in effective knowledge work-and they foster informal learning focused on specific problem domains.

CoP’s have been around for as long as human beings have learned and worked together. Communication technologies have simply allowed us to invent environments to structure and enable the knowledge exchange at the heart of the community.  Etienne Wenger identifies some of the benefits of workplace CoPs:

  • Communities among practitioners create a direct link between learning and performance, because the same people participate in communities of practice and in teams and business units.
  • Communities of practice enable practitioners to take collective responsibility for managing the knowledge they need, recognizing that, given the proper structure, they are in the best position to do this.
  • Practitioners can address the tacit and dynamic aspects of knowledge creation and sharing, as well as the more explicit aspects.
  • Communities are not limited by formal structures: they create connections among people across organizational and geographic boundaries.

“Designing” Communities of Practice

Can CoPs be “designed” or do they simply “emerge” from participants as they work together?   Certainly, they self-organize and develop their own conventions and culture of interaction, knowledge creation and sharing and in this way they emerge from the hearts and minds of the people participating.  A successful community will not require much management, but their success can be influenced by a well structured community environment and guidance on the behaviours of productive community participation.

Learning consultants cannot “design” the learning outcomes of a CoP; but conversely no CoP can fully design its own learning.  They will self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational objectives.  The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without burdening them with “consulting guidance”.   In these ways Cop’s are both designed and emergent.

Here is a CoP Design Guide I’ve found useful. It’s from the education sector but the principles and process they use are virtually identical to the business context.

Keeping Communities of Practice Alive

Communities of Practice have been around long enough now that we’ve learned how to get them up and running but we’re less adept at keeping them going.  They are notoriously hard to keep active.   CoPs have a natural life-cycle when they are built around time limited projects and they should be free to disassemble when they have served their purpose.  Other CoPs have longer term value and motivation can sometimes wane midcourse.  Here is an article by Richard McDermott with some good ideas for keeping a valuable CoP alive: How to Avoid a Midlife crises in your CoPs.

What Can You Do?

Etienne Wenger, a leading thinker and innovator in the Communities of Practice  provides these actions that various roles in an organization can take to support and optimize the benefits of Communities of Practice:

  • Line managers must make sure that people are able to participate in the right communities of practice so they sustain the expertise they need to contribute to projects.
  • Knowledge managers must go beyond creating informational repositories that take knowledge to be a “thing,” toward supporting the whole social and technical ecology in which knowledge is retained and created.
  • Training departments must move the focus from training initiatives that extract knowledge out of practice to learning initiatives that leverage the learning potential inherent in practice.
  • Strategists must find ways to create two-way connections between communities of practice and organizational strategies.
  • Change managers must help build new practices and communities to bring about changes that will make a constructive difference.
  • Accountants must learn to recognize the capital generated when communities of practice increase an organization’s learning potential.
  • Work process designers must devise process improvement systems that thrive on, rather than substitute for, engaged communities of practice.

5. Use Social Media to Facilitate Informal Learning

Ah, social media.  So much has been written about the impact on learning of the tools we now collectively refer to as Web 2.0  that you hardly need more here.  In an earlier post I listed some ways to support organizational learning with Social Media.

However, from the perspective of integrating learning and work, social media is a technical platform (like none before it) for sharing, collaborating and communicating while work is being accomplished.  Social media has been enormously popular in the public sphere but has met with resistance inside organizations so far.  Organizations are still worried that social media is a little too…well…social.  However, what we’ve learned somewhere between learning 1.0 and learning 2.0 is that learning is also well…social…and that the informal networked organization is as important as the formal structure for accomplishing valuable work.

While there are advocates for simply making social media available in organizations to “let the learning happen”,  I prefer a slightly more interventionist approach that uses social media to help project teams, centres of excellence, action learning projects, management teams and other focused networks.  Advocates that focus on the technology are missing the point that the learning lies in the collaboration, discussion, sharing and innovating around a task or problem domain, not in the technology itself.  It lies in the formation and nurturing of communities. I think this is why enterprise software supporting Communities of Practice are moving to more social media oriented technical platforms (Tomoye for example) and social media platforms market themselves as “community” software (Igloo for example).   I think the convergence is good for further integration of learning and working.

Not to put too obvious a point on it, but learning happens while working and social media, more that the one way knowledge management platforms of the recent past, engage employees in the creation, capture and sharing of knowledge in ways that formal learning just can’t match.

Communities of Practice and Social Media at IBM

Here’s a good presentation from IBM that demonstrates the use of social media for Communities of Practice in that company.

Best quote from the video. “Blogging is huge.  Our executives hate it”

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

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

Advanced Learning/This is IT! Conference Presentation

The 15th annual Advanced Learning: This is IT! conference is taking place this year at George Brown College in Toronto May 20-22.   The conference focus is on advanced learning technologies in higher education and business learning.

On Friday at 9:00, I will be presenting a session with Robert Luke (Director Research and Innovation at George Brown College) on the use of social bookmarking in problem-based curriculum design.   We’ll be discussing the project I described here.  Here is the session outline:

Using Social Bookmarking for Problem Based Curriculum Design

Effective problem based learning (PBL) requires a repository of relevant learning and knowledge sources for students to access as they pursue solutions to assigned problems. Most Learning resource repositories are one-directional and limited to instructor defined resources However, the Delicious social bookmarking tool provides a collaborative environment to create a dynamic knowledge base with ongoing contributions by students, instructors, experts and course designers. This session will showcase how George Brown College used Delicious to create an innovative knowledge base to support a new certificate program in Research Commercialization. Attendees will learn the benefits of using Delicious to support problem based (and traditional) learning and the steps to create their own. A demo of the GBC Delicious site will be presented.

Session: Using Social Bookmarking in Problem Based Curriculum Design
Date: Friday, May 22
Time: 9:00 am
Room: 203
George Brown College
290 Adelaide. St. East
Toronto, ON

Hope to see you there!

For Web 2.0 What’s in the Workflow is What Gets Used

These early days of implementing web 2.0 for learning (or working, or both) is turning out to be a hit and miss affair.  While social media has been embraced in the public sphere, attempts to implement in organizations have been met with mixed success.  A recent survey by Mckinsey and Company showed as many survey respondents were dissatisfied with their use of Web 2.0 technologies as were satisfied.  Many of the dissenters cite impediments such as organizational structure, the inability of managers to understand the new levers of change, and a lack of understanding about how value is created using Web 2.0 tools.

Tony Karrer in his e-learning technology blog recently wondered about social networking participation –“it’s different when it’s a natural part of how we work”.  Some insight is provided in a popular article from the McKinsey Quarterly Report.  In Six Ways to Make Web 2.0 Work, company analysts suggest some tactics that are instructive for encouraging participation in social media for e-learning or in communities of practice.  One of their “six ways” that resonated with my own experience they labeled “What’s in the workflow is what gets used”.  From the report:

What’s in the workflow is what gets used

Perhaps because of the novelty of Web 2.0 initiatives, they’re often considered separate from mainstream work. Earlier generations of technologies, by contrast, often explicitly replaced the tools employees used to accomplish tasks. Thus, using Web 2.0 and participating in online work communities often becomes just another “to do” on an already crowded list of tasks.

Participatory technologies have the highest chance of success when incorporated into a user’s daily workflow. The importance of this principle is sometimes masked by short-term success when technologies are unveiled with great fanfare; with the excitement of the launch, contributions seem to flourish. As normal daily workloads pile up, however, the energy and attention surrounding the rollout decline, as does participation. One professional-services firm introduced a wiki-based knowledge-management system, to which employees were expected to contribute, in addition to their daily tasks. Immediately following the launch, a group of enthusiasts used the wikis vigorously, but as time passed they gave the effort less personal time-outside their daily workflow-and participation levels fell.

As enthusiastic as early adopters are with new technologies,  each new wave teaches us that unless they add value to how work get accomplished,  the novelty can wear off quickly.   I think the lesson here for organizational learning and e-learning practitioners is to be careful not to simply roll out social media (for learning or otherwise) and expect widespread adoption similar to what we have seen in the public arena.

Also, management will be making a mistake if they feel they are best suited to make the decision regarding how to best use web 2.0 tools. That decision should be a participatory exercise with end users and it should be grounded in workflow or knowledge flow improvement efforts.  Chances for successful adoption will be much greater when employees analyze and improve their business processes building in web 2.0 tools as integral elements to that workflow.  There will also be lots of trail and error involved.  One of the other interesting findings of the McKinsey report was was intended uses sometimes failed but were replaced by unintended successes that emerged from grass roots use of the tools in pilot projects.

Leveraging the Full Learning Continuum

Formal learning (structured and designed classroom or e-learning programs) has been taking a beating these days.  The informal learning movement, powered by constructivist concepts of learning and web 2.0 applications is well underway.   Carl Sauliner almost got his virtual head lopped off in the blogosphere for suggesting that predictions of the death of classroom training may be premature (Long Live Instructor Led Training).

I believe that informal learning in the workplace is critical and has been long overlooked by the learning function.  However, we’re creating an artificial competition between formal and informal learning and should be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Learning in organizations is a continuum from informal natural learning through loosely structured learning experiences to formally structured and designed training.  Traditional training functions focused on the design, delivery and management of structured learning programs.   Organizational Development, Performance Technology, many quality systems and Senge styled Organizational Learning practitioners have all merged learning and work through semi-structured, facilitated learning experiences.    Knowledge Management and more recently social media (web 2.0) provide environments that support informal knowledge creation and sharing environments.  This continuum of informal through formal learning continuum might look something like this (adapted from Stern and Sommerlad 1999)

The Organizational Learning Continuum

Leveraging the full range of this learning continuum is important for every organization.  Here are some general suggestions on how to do that.

Use formal training to prepare employees for jobs and tasks

Well designed, formal learning (traditional or on-line) develops new skills fast.  Leaving routine, job specific skill development to informal, buddy system methods is wasteful.  Skills will always need to be refined once on the job (informal learning will play a big role here) but organizations need rapid development to a performance standard for quick productivity.  Well designed structured learning is the best way to accomplish this.  The time/performance chart illustrates this time tested principle:

The time performance chart

The time performance chart

Informal learning encourages learning from mistakes and experimentation and is great for experienced employees.  But it’s also true that we learn our mistakes.  This is the risk of leaving initial training to chance and buddy systems.

When jobs change, new methods or technology are introduced, formal training methods can again be the best method to get up to standard quickly.

Use non-formal (semi-structured) learning to build organizational capability

When employees become productive, they need continuing opportunities to learn and develop in ways that grow organizational capability and resilience. Here learning must be intimately integrated with work–almost a byproduct.  When employees say they learn the most from “experience” this is what they mean.  Learning by doing.

Skilled facilitation through team development, real time problem solving and process improvement efforts move learning in the direction needed to build individual and organizational capability.  Organizational Development, Human Performance Technology,  Senge inspired Organizational Learning have all produced sophisticated methods for results focused learning in job settings.  After initial training, as job expertise develops through experience, less formal learning interventions are more effective for shaping culture, building capacity, and improving performance.  I discussed some methods in my last post.

Create processes and tools that build learning into jobs and cause informal learning

Experienced employees also learn plenty (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) simply from interacting with people, ideas and objects in their work environment using the natural learning cycle I described here.  We can create work systems that can cause this type of informal learning through well designed and visible work processes, feedback, and performance systems. Web 2.0, social networking tools and communities of practice give employees, especially knowledge workers, tools to create, share and use organizational knowledge.

Clark Quinn in his recent article Social Networking: Bridging Formal and Informal Learning, includes this useful chart describing the value of formal vs. informal learning for new and experienced employees.

Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert

Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert

The Learning function in combination with other functions tasked with improving performance need to work together to use the full range of the learning continuum.  How the learning continuum is used and where emphasis is placed depends on job type, organizational function, industry sector, performance issues etc. but the ultimate solution should be a combination of informal, non-formal and formal learning methods to best suit the needs of the organization.

Ultimately we need to use the continuum to create programs and services to:

  • Build requisite knowledge and skills
  • Create pervasive learning opportunities beyond initial skills
  • Encourage collaboration and team learning
  • Establish systems to generate, capture and share learning
  • Build organizational capability and adaptive capacity