New Paths to Learning at Work

I did a three part interview series recently with HRM Online introducing emerging approaches to learning.  You can probably guess what they are:

  • Informal Learning
  • Social Learning
  • Mobile Learning
  • Virtual Learning
  • Gaming and Simulation
  • Performance Support

Part one introduces the new paths to learning at work. I’ll post each part in the series here as they are released.  I’ll be doing a Webinar on the same topic on May 15.  Information on how to register are listed with  the video or you can register here

Here’s the preamble for the video:

“As technology and workplaces change, the way we learn needs to adapt to meet the needs of your employees. Classroom learning and traditional online courses aren’t sufficient on their own anymore, but what replaces it? From social media and mobile technology to gaming and virtual tools, there is a lot to learn and there are lots of tools available”

Click the image to play the video…

Click here to play Embrace new paths to learning

Update May 1/2013:

Here is part 2 of the interview.  The focus is on social and mobile learning with some discussion of gaming and simulation. Click the image to play.

Click here to play Social, mobile and gaming: the new training tools

Update May 14:

Here is the third and final instalment of the interview.  The focus is on virtual learning, performance support and implications for the learning and development professional.

Click here to play What HR needs to know: keep up with new tech for learning

Terms of Engagement

employee engagementThe language of employee engagement is growing in HR and training circles.  Engagement is being used both as an explicit goal and measure of successful interventions.  But what is the relationship between engagement and performance?  Can we assume that more engaged employees perform better?  Taking it further, can we assume that  engagement causes improved performance?

Edward Lawler from the  University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business wrote an  insightful piece (Engagement and Performance: Old Wine in a New Bottle)  for Forbes recently targeting the  assumptions behind engagement and it’s connection to performance.   He writes:

 Let me start by making a fundamental point about behavior at work. People’s attitudes are caused by how they perform, and they determine their performance. In short, they are both a cause and a consequence of behavior.

For many in training and HR (and most managers) attitude trumps all and is the defining factor for improved performance. Fix the attitude (the person) and you fix the performance. Lawler’s research (among many others) has repeatedly found a reverse relationship; that performance actually determines attitude. If we truly belief this, it should shape our interventions. In the article he also lists what we know and have known for a long time about the relationship between work attitudes and performance.

1. People who perform well tend to be rewarded better and feel better about themselves and their jobs. As a result of the impact of performance on attitudes, there often is a relationship, although a weak one, between satisfaction and performance.

2. Dissatisfaction causes turnover and absenteeism… Quitting, not showing up for work…are viable methods for improving their work-life…It is wrong to assume that by making employees happy, organizations can improve their performance. It may reduce turnover, absenteeism and as a result lower some costs, but it will not cause employees to be more productive.

3. Motivation is caused by the beliefs and attitudes of employees have about what the consequences of good performance will be. When employees feel that they will receive rewards that they value as a result of their performance they are motivated to perform well. This is true whether the rewards are…“intrinsic awards”…or “extrinsic rewards” such as promotions, pay increases, and praise from others.

His general conclusion is that engagement as a focus is doing more to confuse than to clarify. Organizations need to create supportive work environments that reward individuals for performance. If they do this, they will have motivated and satisfied employees. As Lawler says– It is as “simple” as that. This rings true in my experience. Strategies targeted at diagnosing the work situation, and providing tools and structures that improvement performance will also improve employee engagement. And we know a lot about how to do that!

What do you think? Do attitudes and job satisfaction improve performance or does excellent performance produce improved job satisfaction and attitude?

Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)

practice

Image courtesy HRVoice

This is a variation of an article I prepared for CSTD and HRVoice, summarizing research on practice and expertise.  Part 1 introduced the signature skills demonstrated by experts that separate them from novices. Part 2 presented the type of practice that develops experts.  This post gets to the implications I see for Learning and Development and makes the connection to existing approaches that embody the principles of deliberate practice.

It would be easy to position deliberate practice in the formal learning camp. Indeed for some physical and routine skills  elements of deliberate practice can be build into formal training programs until a learner reaches mastery.  However, in the modern workplace jobs are more complex and demand greater cognitive (versus physical) skill.  The research findings challenges us to consider how we can better support the full novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, design experience to include practice and reflection, build tacit knowledge, and design rich feedback. In a past post I listed some general principles for using deliberate practice in learning

Fortunately we have a number of approaches available to us that align well to the conditions of deliberate practice. Most of these approaches are not training in the traditional sense. They do however have a structure to them and require significant support. Consider them more non-formal learning than pure informal learning.  Here are some well defined but under-used learning methods  that match well to deliberate practice.

  • Action Learning. Small teams create a plan of action to solve a real business problem. Impacts of these actions are observed, analyzed, lessons extracted and new actions prepared. This cycle of plan, act, observe, reflect embodies the key elements for deliberate practice. The approach has a significant and growing following. Used frequently for management development, it would be great to see it expanded to other types of professional work. See this  earlier post on action learning. 
  • Cognitive Apprenticeship. The standard apprenticeship model updated for modern knowledge work. Instead of demonstrating a manual skill, experts model and describe their thinking to “apprentices” who then work on the same problem while they articulate and verbalize their own reasoning. The expert provides coaching and feedback to encourage reflection. Support is “scaffolded”–gradually released as skills build and confidence is gained.
  • Communities of Practice. Groups with common professional or project goals work together sharing and discussing best practices. In doing so they develop rich tacit knowledge and the hidden “how to’s” that are often missed in formal learning programs. New knowledge is created in the process of collaborating with others. Social media environments can provide a home for the conversations and knowledge that is created.
  • Simulation and Games. Great simulations are a surrogate for real experience and incorporate authentic  work tasks. This allows the learner to attempt challenging tasks, experience failure and learn from errors–all critical elements of deliberate practice.  I like games that model real work and allow for fun, repeatable practice, but worry about “gamification” that uses game mechanics to motivate employees to use the same old ineffective training.
  • Feedback in the Workflow. Wonderful natural feedback exists in the form of business results and performance data. We don’t tend to think of it as a learning tool, but in the context of deliberate practice, it is one of the most powerful. It requires connecting the data to individual or team behavior. It is the cornerstone of approaches to team learning found in improvement methods like Lean, Six Sigma and performance technology. Here’s a post with some ideas on implementing a learning feedback system
  • Stretch Assignments with Coaching. One of the most powerful approaches to “practice” is challenging work assignments that push current capabilities. Already a staple of executive development, we need to see much more of it for other types of professional development.
  • Open Practice Centers. Instead of tired corporate universities and course catalogs populated with learning programs, Practice Centres could provide progressively challenging practice, simulations and work assignments matched to key job roles. Individualized practice is designed to support the full novice to expert journey using the principles of deliberate practice. Learning “content” is considered only in a support role to accomplish practice goals. Heres an idea for organizing the learning function around practice instead of content and courses. And the core idea applied to Management Development

These approaches and others like them occupy that fuzzy middle ground between informal and formal learning. Each can be aided significantly by social media/social learning and learning technologies. Most importantly however they are approaches that allow us to apply the research on “deliberate practice” to help improve our organizations and in doing so improve our own professional performance.

Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 2)

Deliberate PracticeThis is a variation of an article I prepared for CSTD and HRVoice, summarizing important research on how practice develops expertise and implications for the learning function.  Part 1 introduced the signature skills demonstrated by experts that separate them from novices.

It seems these signatures of expertise are the result of years of effortful, progressive practice on authentic tasks accompanied by relevant feedback and support, with self-reflection and correction. The research team have labeled this activity “Deliberate Practice”. Others have called it deep practice and intentional practice. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or at all. Six elements for are necessary for practice (or on the job experience) to be “deliberate” practice:

  • It must be designed to improve performance. Opportunities for practice must have a goal and evaluation criteria. The goals must be job/role based and authentic. General experience is not sufficient, which is where deliberate practice varies from more laissez-faire approaches to informal learning. Years of everyday experience does not necessarily create an expert. Years of deliberate practice does.  See my post Everyday Experience is not Enough for a deeper discussion on this.
  • It must be based on authentic tasks. The practice must use real work and be performed in context-on the job. The goal is to compile an experience bank, not a vast list of completed formal training programs.
  •  The practice must be challenging. The tasks selected for practice must be slightly outside of the learners comfort zone, but not so far out as produce anxiety or panic. Deliberate practice is hard work and stretches  a person beyond their current abilities. The experience must involve targeted effort, focus and concentration
  • Immediate feedback on results. Accurate and diagnostic feedback must be continuously available both from people (coaches) and the business results produced by the activity. Delayed feedback is also important for actions and decisions with longer term impact as is often the case in knowledge based work.
  • Reflection and adjustment. Self-regulatory and metacognitive skills are essential. This includes self-observation, monitoring, and awareness of knowledge and skill gaps. Feedback requires reflection and analysis to inform behaviour change. Experts make mindful choices of their practice activities.
  •  10,000 hours. For complex work, ten years seems to be the necessary investment of in deliberate practice to achieve expertise. Malcolm Gladwell drew attention to the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers and it is one of the most robust findings in this research.  It poses a real challenge for our event based training culture. Of course the less complex the work, the less time required to develop expertise.

If we aspire to evidence-based approaches to learning it’s hard to ignore this body of research. Among other things, it challenges us to consider how we can better support the novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, design experience to include deliberate practice, build tacit knowledge, and build rich feedback into our organizations.

Fortunately we have a number of approaches available to us that align well to the conditions of deliberate practice. I’ll outline those approaches in Part 3.

Here is a nice illustration of the key process and concepts of deliberate practice courtesy of  Michael Sahota:

Deliberate-Practice-630x357

Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 1)

I’ve been presenting recently on the research and application of Deliberate Practice for developing expertise in the workplace.  I’ll be doing so again at the upcoming British Columbia Human Resources Management Association (BCHRMA) conference on May 2.  A version of following article on the topic appeared in the CSTD Learning Journal.   A modified version will also appear in an upcoming issue of HR Voice.   It is posted here in three parts.

******

expert We all know well-designed practice is a critical for effective training.  It’s what differentiates meaningful learning from passive information presentation.  But as work becomes more complex and knowledge-based, are the practice activities we design for our formal learning programs (both classroom and e-learning) enough to meet the need for expertise in the modern workplace? A comprehensive body of research on how professional expertise is developed suggests it may not be.

This research, led largely by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University and popularized in recent books such as Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, indicates that the type of practice needed to develop true expertise is more intensive and “deliberate” than we thought, and that it must be embedded in the context of real work.  Also, it must occur on a regular basis over much longer periods of time. The research has implications for us as learning and performance professionals.  It argues for a profound shift away from event based formal learning to approaches that could be categorized as informal learning or learning from experience.  However, it turns out not all experience is created equal when developing expertise, so simplistic notions of informal learning also won’t work.  So how should we rethink the design of practice if it is to truly develop the complex skills of the knowledge workplace?  To answer that question it helps to first understanding what expertise looks like.

Characteristics of expert performance

Ericsson’s research has found that top performing individuals at work, besides being very good at what they do, consistently demonstrate the following differences compared to novices and lower performing individuals

  • They perceive more.  Experts see patterns, make finer discriminations, interpret situations more quickly and as a result make faster, more accurate decisions.  Novices slowly review all information and don’t have the contextual experience to recognize patterns
  • They know more.  Not only do experts have more facts and details available to them, they have more tacit knowledge–that all-important unconscious “know how” that only comes with experience.  Novices rely on limited explicit knowledge
  • They have superior mental models.  Experience helps experts have rich internal representations of how things work and how knowledge is connected.  They use this to learn and understand situations more rapidly. Novices rely on simple, sometimes inaccurate, rules of thumb and loosely connected knowledge
  • They use personal networks more effectively.  Experts know who to go to for help and answers.   Novices are not able to identify access critical information and people as quickly
  • They have superior “meta-cognition”. Experts are better self-monitors than novices.  They set goals, self evaluate against a standard, and make corrections and adjustments more quickly from feedback

novice to expert

These are skills we want in all employees.  At times they seem like they come from an innate ability or deep “competency” unachievable by others.   However the research shows that while natural ability may play a small role, practice and experience are far more significant.  The nature of this experience is critical.  “Practice makes perfect” is only true for practice of a certain type which I describe in part 2.

Everyday Experience is Not Enough

The core belief of informal and social learning advocates is that we learn best through everyday experience. Advocates of the most laissez-faire approaches informal learning suggest that given the right tools employees will do just fine without all the interference by the learning department, thank you very much.

No one can argue that experience is not a powerful teacher, or that our most valuable learning occurs while working. But it’s pretty broad generalization don’t you think? Some experiences must be more valuable than others for achieving learning and performance goals. And if so, what makes those experiences more valuable and how do we know them when we see them? Or, from the perspective of the learning professional, how can we help create the right experiences to help people develop their skills? These seem to be important questions if we are to get beyond loose approaches to informal learning.

Indeed research in developing expertise has shown that not all experience is created equal. Years of experience in a domain does not invariably lead to expert levels of performance. Most people after initial training and a few years of work reach a stable, acceptable level of performance and maintain this level for much of the rest of their careers. Contrast that with those that continue to improve and eventually achieve the highest levels of expertise. It seems that where high performers may have 20 years experience , average performers seem to have 1 year of experience 20 times!

The following chart from the body of research on developing expertise, illustrates the results of different types of “experience” on workplace performance.

Ericsson K.A., “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Expert Performance” The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (2006)

Average performers learn just enough from their environment (experience) to perform everyday skills with a minimal amount of effort. In contrast, experts continually challenge their current performance and seek feedback from their environment to stay in a more or less permanent learning state, mastering everyday skills but continuously raising their personal bar. This deliberate approach to learning from experience is what separates top performers from the norm. Continuously challenging current skills is hard work and it takes it’s toll. Some decrease or stop their focus on deliberate practice and never achieve the excellence of the expert (arrested development).

Designing experience

So, performance does not improve simply through cumulative everyday experience gained face to face, using social media or otherwise. It requires targeted effortful practice an environment rich in accurate and timely feedback. That does not mean formal training.  It does means experience designed and targeted to develop skills and expertise. This is a very different thing than routine, everyday work experience.

Some of the best learning approaches that work well in helping people challenge their current skill levels fall into that fuzzy middle ground between formal and informal learning (see this post for a continuum of learning experiences) and can include the following:

Designing, fostering and supporting work experiences that develop expertise is an emerging role for the learning professional. That role is to assure that people are working in a setting where they can challenge and develop their knowledge and skills. You can’t make them learn but you can help surround them with the resources they need to learn. This approach to learning is truly a partnership between the individual, their managers and you as a learning professional. In doing that work you are practicing and developing your own expertise.

Moving Practice to Centre Stage

As digital content becomes more prevalent (free and otherwise), there’s much talk about the new role of the learning professional as content curator or content strategy developer.

I agree this will be an important role, but worry it yet again puts the focus on structuring and controlling all that information (another round of knowledge management anyone?) while minimizing the critical role of practice and application of the “content”. We all know the importance of practice and feedback in the progression of knowledge to performance (we do all know that, don’t we?). If we truly believe it, then we need to put the design of practice and feedback at the centre of our work, and content (information) in a supporting role. This simple change in vantage point has the potential to radically change the way we approach learning and performance.

Organizing the learning function around practice (vs. courses and content)

What if the learning function was structured around the design and management of practice centres (virtual and physical), rather than the design and delivery of formal training events? It could once and for all move us away from formal event based learning to process oriented learning. The activities in each practice centre would vary by the type of skill being developed. Practice centres to support management and knowledge work for example (simulations, problem solving, cognitive apprenticeships) would look much different than that those supporting procedural and task oriented work (performance demonstrations, skill development). I explored this approach applied to management development in a previous post

What would be different?

Designing practice centres would require us to establish standards (ideally in collaboration with the people doing the work), derive authentic problems and tasks that help people achieve those standards, scaffold practice exercises in a progression towards expertise in the job/role and source and manage the “content” that will help employees make their way through the practice exercises. The framework puts practice in the centre and moves content to a supporting (but critical) role. You might think of the approach as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping applied at the organizational level (rather than at the course level).

Separating content from practice

Traditional instructional design tightly connects information presentation (electronic or otherwise) with practice in structured learning events.  However, separating content from practice is positive and liberating (no matter what your ID traditionalists tell you) as long as practice does not get lost. Learning functions centred around the design of progressive practice would ensure that.

In the right context Web 2.0 and social learning can beautifully separate content and application.  Other times it can result more in  information dissemination.  Knowledge is an inert thing without application and consuming information is no substitute for true learning. Much of that awesome user generated content out there focuses on informing and much less on doing (thus the calls for content curation).  When social learning encourages sharing,  thinking, collaborating, and real world application as it does in an excellent community of practice, it fits well into the definition of practice I’m suggesting.

The role of Deliberate Practice in the development of expertise.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation on designing practice to improve performance, I’ve been reading much of the excellent source research on the role of deliberate practice in developing expert performance (popularized recently in well known business books). It’s sparked some ideas on how we might manage the shift I’m suggesting above.

If the research on deliberate practice has taught us anything it’s that developing expertise is a long term proposition (about 10,000 hours depending on who you believe).  One-off practice exercises built into formal training events only introduce employees to the “feel” of a skill and in no way produces the expertise needed in the modern workplace. If work performance is important and effective practice is a proven way of getting there, we should take it seriously enough to get it right.

I’ll explore the application of deliberate practice to various types of learning in my next few posts. In the meantime here are 10 ideas from a previous post that just scratch the surface on how Learning Professionals can use “deliberate practice” to improve workplace skill and performance.

  1. Move from “mastery learning” to designing practice with feedback over longer periods of time (from learning events to a learning process). Deliberate Practice differs from the concept of ‘Mastery Learning” at the heart of much instructional design. Mastery learning assumes a skill is perfected (or at least brought to a defined standard) in a fairly short period of time often within the scope of a single course. The complex professional skills of modern knowledge workers and managers demand a stronger focus on long term practice and feedback and building learning around long term objectives.
  2. Develop the person. Time, practice and individualized feedback imply a long term focus on individuals rather than on jobs or roles.
  3. Informal learning efforts like action learning, coaching and are cognitive apprenticeships are critical but they must be focused on practice and immediate feedback and extend over long periods of time.
  4. Relevant, frequent and varied practice must be the dominant and most important element in all formal training programs.
  5. Practice opportunities must extend far beyond initial training programs, to allow people to hone their skills through experimentation with immediate feedback.
  6. Create practice sandboxes and simulation centres for key organizational skills where people can practice their skills and experience immediate feedback in safe environment.
  7. Design visual feedback directly into jobs so professional can immediately see the results of their work. In this way working IS deliberate practice.
  8. Turn training events into the first step of a learning journey that will continue to provide opportunities to practice and refine skills throughout a career.
  9. Identify the interests and strengths of people nurture them through opportunities for deliberate practice. Provide resources and support that encourage early effort and achievement.
  10. Ensure social media environments provide opportunities for coaching and mindful reflection on performance.

8 Ways to Improve the Strategic Value of Custom Learning

About half of the formal training provided in organizations is custom developed (the other half are packaged “off-the-shelf” programs).  That’s a lot of training.  Every week  internal learning design teams and their external  partners are heads down at work developing learning programs of every description to help build skills and capability unique to their organizations.  In a knowledge economy,  organization specific knowledge and skill is at the heart of competitive advantage.

Yet organizations often don’t get the strategic bang for their custom learning buck.  We are getting good at producing more training in shorter time periods (rapid!) but not necessarily better training, and we are using technology to reinforce these patterns, not break free from them. Training functions continue to respond to ad-hoc requests and greasing those squeaky wheels.

On Monday June 20th, at 1:00 pm (EST) I am doing a free webinar to discuss ways organizations can get more strategic value from their custom learning initiatives (including informal learning).  Panel guests from two Global Knowledge  clients  (Bell Canada and Service Canada) will participate.  Feel free to join us (it’s free).  Click here to register .

Here are some of the  practices we’ll be discussing.

1. (Really) Link Learning to Business Strategy

  • Business goals are your friend. Use them to support your decisions not to respond to low value ad-hoc requests.
  • Get hooked into the annual planning cycle to truly understand your organizations business strategy
  • Prepare proactive annual learning plans with your customers to  jointly addressing business needs
  • Manage ad-hoc requests professionally

2. Target Signature Competencies that Differentiate your Organization

  •  In today’s knowledge economy organizational capability, skills and knowledge set companies apart and provide real strategic advantage
  • These signature competencies are often driven by key business processes
  • Custom learning will add more value when it focuses on these core competencies and not on lower leverage ad-hoc learning needs
  • Identify pivotal jobs, roles and associated skills. Target custom learning projects squarely  at these all important core competencies

 3. Start at the End

  • Custom learning programs too often start with “content” or subject matter–a sure fire way to produce bloated, dull and low value programs
  • By starting with the performance improvement needed from jobs and roles, custom learning programs can be leaner, more effective and faster to develop.  In fact you may not end up developing training at all.  Performance support, information and informal learning solutions will start to to become obvious choices.
  • Work backwards:  business need –>performance needs–>practice/application –> minimal content
  •  Content and subject matter should be the last decision, not the first

 4. Design with Integrity

  •  We know how to design effective learning programs.  We just usually don’t follow our own advice.  The key factors are practice, application, coaching and feedback (true even for informal learning).
  • In our efforts to meet training volume targets, respond to unplanned requests and meet impossibly short turnarounds we opt for speed, convenience and content “coverage” at the expense of real impact
  • Set design standards that produce high impact learning and stick to them.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible and have different approaches for information requirements vs deep learning requirements.  But it does mean you need to have the knowledge to know the difference and the professional integrity to commit only to the appropriate  solutions
  • Professionalize your team.  Hire people with the skills and track record to produce high impact learning and performance.  Develop those that don’t.  Set high standards.

 5. Get Informal

  •  Formal learning programs are only one way to accomplish learning outcomes.  And they are often the least effective and most costly
  • The majority of learning taking place in your organization right now is through informal learning
  • Tap the full range of learning solutions from informal to non-formal and formal learning to broaden your reach and influence the 80% of learning happening outside the training function
  • Performance support systems, communities of practice, job assignments, structured experience, collaborative learning and learning 2.o solutions are all custom solutions that can have greater strategic impact than a formal training program

6. Innovate with Technology

  • Technology has given us e-learning, automated learning administration (LMS), learning content management and collaborative design (LCMS), mobile learning, assessment tools, and more
  • It has brought efficiencies but not always improved effectiveness or strategic value
  • Web 2.0 and social media are disrupting current views of how technology can and should support learning.  That’s a good thing.
  • Be creative in how you use technology to support learning.  Don’t simply be a servant to it.  Use it as a tool to innovate rather than institutionalize mainstream approaches that don’t add value

 7. Use Partners Strategically

  •  External partners can offer more than a “pair of hands” to design custom learning programs. There are many points in the analysis, design and development stages where external partners can add strategic value to your programs that you may not have thought of
  • Set up partnerships with defined roles for internal players and external partners
  • Encourage knowledge sharing
  • Establish a collaborative project workspace to work and learn together
  • Merge processes to develop a seamless flow for working together

 8. Measure Success

  • If it’s important to develop strategic programs it’s equally important to know if you accomplished your objective
  • To be effective evaluation has to be a part of the plan, not an afterthought.
  • Evaluation does not have to be a complex and time consuming. Use existing business measures as much as possible
  • Consider alternatives to the Kirkpatrick model
  • Don’t measure everything.  Find out what’s important to the business and make that your measurement focus.  If the business itself is lousy as measuring results, you have yet another opportunity to add value

July 10 update:

Here are the slides used for the Webinar mentioned in this post.  You can view a recording of the free webinar here.

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.

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.