Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)


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:


Making Informal Learning Assets Work

Seeking ways to leverage new social media environments, learning departments are discovering ways to sneak a little formal learning through the informal learning back door. Some of our clients for example, are looking to load up their social learning environments with small bits of learning content related to business goals. The notion being that these informal learning assets will live or die on the strength of their connection to employee performance need. Informal learning assets (or perhaps more accurately formal learning assets designed for informal consumption) are small segments of learning media such as videos, podcasts, documents, animations, short interactive pieces, images, performance guides, job aids, process descriptions, anything with a learning intention that can be posted to a social media environment. They can be created by anyone, from learning designers, to managers and employees and team members.

Survival of the fittest

The strategy creates a kind of Darwinian free-for-all of digital learning resources. Those of best fit to real learning and performance needs will get viewed, liked, shared, discussed and commented on more than those that don’t quite measure up. The best become internal learning memes that do their viral tour of duty and those that don’t hit the mark fall off the social radar, never to produce their learning offspring to see another day. Or so the theory goes. It’s an interesting strategy with loads of implications for designers, suppliers and users of learning content. The idea (I hesitate to call it a trend) is leading some organizations and training suppliers to deconstruct their existing learning programs into learning bits and pieces for populating internal social media environments such as they are.

Making informal learning assets work

I like the idea of infusing communities with digital learning assets but there are a few cautions to watch as we enter this new path. Foremost is the profusion of “information” oriented learning assets at the expense of the practice, application  and reflection that we know is at the heart of real learning and improvement. Information based assets no matter how novel or entertaining we make them are not enough. To bastardize an old Magerism, if telling alone resulted in learning we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand it.

There are ways to structure and design informal learning assets to maintain the best of what we’ve learned from formal design and bring them into the informal learning world. A model we’ve been experimenting with connects formal, informal and social learning, based on five learning essentials (you’ll recognize them if you are familiar with David Merrill’s First Principles or Bernice McCarthy’s 4Mat). Effective learning requires solving authentic problems and tasks, connecting new knowledge with existing mental models, uses powerful ways of presenting and demonstrating new knowledge, provides many and varied opportunities to practice new skills with coaching and reflection, and finally guides the the application to new situations on the job.

Too many informal learning assets target only the “key knowledge” requirement (#3), without any connection to the remaining four learning essentials. Well designed learning programs will account for each of the essentials, but there is no reason they all have to bundled up together in a tidy formal learning bow. In fact, the essence of good informal learning is that the guided application essential (#4) takes place on the job with feedback and coaching from colleagues or mentors inside social media environment or face to face. Forums and discussions are excellent ways to gently guide application. Job aids and performance support systems are effective vehicles for building skills into workflow (#5). Real business problems and tasks (#1) can be used instead of artificial cases. My point is that with care each of these other essentials can be developed as informal learning assets as effectively as a good information driven asset.

This view can also serve as a guide when deconstructing classroom programs for  conversion to social media environments. Instead of retaining only the key knowledge from your programs, look for effective ways to create assets that support the other learning essentials as well.

Learning assets associated with a specific knowledge domain, role or learning objective can be connected through tagging, linking or even a good old fashioned learning path.

Once loaded into social media environments users and community members will begin using them to improve their performance and manage their own knowledge. Not only will they consume the learning assets, they will create their own and in doing so create new and emergent knowledge. As new ideas emerge they will evolve to standard practice and can feed the development of new or revised formal learning programs.

This connection between formal, informal and Social learning might look something like the following:

Extending Action Mapping for Performance Design

Through her Action Mapping process Cathy Moore has demystified, simplified and put a friendly face on an analysis process that produces lean and effective learning programs with an emphasis on practice and application. The four step analysis process of identifying  business goals (1), desired actions/behaviours (2) and  practice activities (3) before identifying content (4) is much advocated but rarely practiced in instructional design. She also uses a helpful visual mapping method to work through this four step process.

Extending the process to performance design

I used the process (and visual mapping approach) to facilitate a learning requirements session a while back. Worked like a charm. I thought then that the process might be taken a little further and be used to identify gaps in the immediate performance environment known to impede optimal performance and then specify solutions for improvement. Here’s what I’m getting at…

Performance Consulting thought leaders (and hard won experience) tell us that newly developed skills alone, without a supporting environment rarely produces the performance impact we need. If you accept this view, you understand that skills and knowledge are only one factor among many that are needed for performance and that, in fact it’s often the performance environment and not the skills that need adjustment. Geary Rummler organized these critical performance factors within a systems framework and labeled it the Human Performance System (HPS), Thomas Gilbert categorized the factors in his seminal Performance Engineering Matrix which Carl Binder has distilled into his Six Boxes Model. The Robinsons summarized the factors in their Performance Consulting process. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found similar factors in his work on optimal performance and flow states. These authors have developed diagnostic tools based on the performance factors that can be used by teams, managers and performance consultants to identify barriers in the work environment and to design tools, processes, and systems that improve performance.

Borrowing from the above models the critical performance factors might be summarized as follows.

  • Clear Expectations and goals (E)
    Do employees understand the behavior and results expected of them and their team?
  • Supportive Tools, resources and business processes (T)
    Are employees supported by helpful performance aids, process guides and knowledge tools?
  • Timely and meaningful Feedback on results of action (F)
    Is immediate feedback provided to employees and their team (system generated or human) on the quality and accuracy of their actions and output?
  • No Interfering or competing demands (I)
    Is the role free of demands on time and task that interfere with accomplishment of individual and team goals?
  • Consequences aligned to expectations and goals (C)
    Do good things happen when employees accomplish goals and meet expectations or do they happen more for undesired performance?

So how might we extend Cathy’s Action Mapping method to design an optimal performance environment in addition to a learning solution? The first two steps remain the same. 1. Identify the business goal 2. Identify what people need to do to reach the goal. However, at this point the process would shift to the key performance support questions defined above. For each behaviour (or behaviour cluster) the following performance design actions can be taken

  1. Create a vehicle to continuously communicate the key goals, expectations and standards of performance
  2. Design performance aids, automated tools, social learning environments, Communities of practice, and business process adjustments. The appropriate tools and supports will, of course, depend on the type of work.
  3. Create a mechanism for providing continuous information (feedback) to individuals or teams on how they are performing against the desired actions. (I have posted some ideas on this here and here).
  4. Define specific actions for reducing interfering tasks and multitasking and increasing opportunities for focus on task without completing demands.
  5. Revise the balance of consequences in favor of the desired performance.

Using the labels I listed above the extended Action Map might look something like this (Common support actions could support more than one behavior):

Adding Outputs and accomplishments

The approach could be further enhanced by identifying work desired outputs before behaviours/actions (a revised step 2).  This would be especially useful when starting with the analysis of a job rather than a specific business objective. This is important for knowledge work where there may be multiple behavioural paths to the same work output. Carl Binder has labeled this approach the performance chain. The same performance thinking is at the root of both Action Mapping and the Performance Chain approach. You can learn more about performance thinking and the performance chain approach at the Six Boxes web site here.


Performance Consulting gets legitimate criticism for sometimes for being too prescriptive and relying external “experts” to implement processes like those above. But there is no reason empowered self-managing team or process improvement groups cannot use the same tools to diagnose and design or influence their own performance environment. A good performance consultant can  facilitate teams through this process.  I learned a while ago from Geary Rummler that good performance consultants can provide both the training artifact requested by the organization and an improved performance environment. The extended Action Mapping method may be a great way to sneak some performance improvement into your training projects.

How Managers Learn

For years we have dragged managers into training programs then do it again in a year or two to “renew” their skills or expose them to the “next  thing” sparked by the newest management trend.  But take the time to ask managers how they prefer to hone their skills, they invariably offer informal approaches like trial and error (experience), observing other managers, and sharing with trusted colleagues.  A couple of studies I like (one newer and one a little older) validate this informal approach to learning and provide some interesting models that can help shape approaches to management development.

What do Managers have to tell us about how they develop skills?

The first comes from Good Practice, an interesting informal learning service for managers and leaders.  Last year they commissioned a survey of hundreds of managers across a variety of industries on learning activities and their effectiveness.  The study, which you can download here, found that the most frequent and effective learning activity  is an informal chat with a colleague (82%) and that 55% of managers will use trail and error at least once a month.  Four primary conclusions are drawn from the study:

According to the study, the top 5 learning methods used by managers are the following (interesting how self-directed each of the strategies are).

  1. Informal chats with colleagues
  2. Search engines (internet resources)
  3. Trial and error
  4. On-the job instruction
  5. Use of professional literature

How managers develop core management competencies

An earlier study of over 200 managers in the Insurance industry got similar results but made the link to specific core management competencies. You can review it here.  Investigators (from the University of Connecticut) asked to what extent and in what ways managers learned core managerial skills through formal training and informal learning. Results found managers consistently reported learning twenty core managerial skills mostly from informal learning activities. The diagram below, from their study, shows a comparison of the number of managers reporting that they learned each specific managerial skill formally and informally.

Click for larger view

Drawing from these and other results from the study the authors offered, quite accurately I think, a model for how managers learn.

Click for larger view

In the model informal learning mechanisms include job experience (solving problems through action) watching other managers, and interaction with others.  These activities build tacit and explicit knowledge which, when regulated through goal setting and other meta-cognitive skills develops proficiency over time. Notice the role of formal training. Managers apply what is learned only if relevant to their job experience. This doesn’t negate the influence of formal training but again reinforces how job relevant it needs to be before you can expect any transfer.

The future of management development?

Managers have always learned through informal methods. The last thing we want to do is get in the way or start over-formalizing these successful “informal” approaches. Social Media offers an interesting platform for manager informal interaction (especially in the form of Communities of Practice) but managers are still warming up (or not) to on line networking.

I think informal management development needs some direction and shape from proven management practices from both inside and outside the organization.  And to keep the wheels of informal learning greased, action learning facilitation, useful performance support tools and access to on-demand informal learning assets are all a part of the mix.   Any strategies that provide managers with a forum and support to discuss and share their experience in the context of leading ideas and best practices will clearly be received well by managers.

Sparked by the recognition of untapped market for informal learning services, new vendor services are emerging that are likely the forefront of a shift in management development services.  Internal and external Communities of Practice like What Do You Want from Them are starting to emerge.  Traditional management development companies are re-purposing their content for more flexible delivery on line like Good Practice. And informal coaching services like Coaching Ourselves, driven by content from leading academic thinkers, are gaining real traction (see my  discussion of Coaching Ourselves here).  Formal management development isn’t going away (and shouldn’t), but shifting more of the load to informal learning may start to produce the business results long sought after by management development practitioners.

Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World

Last week  I presented a session titled Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World at the CSTD 2010 National Symposium. Here is the description of the session from the conference program:

Leadership Development in a Learning 2.0 World

Developing effective leaders and managers is an increasingly important task for the learning function. Leadership development has been slow to adopt eLearning strategies but recent developments in web 2.0 technologies, along with changing perspectives on workplace learning are changing that. The social learning drivers behind learning 2.0 are a natural fit for the learning needs of managers and leaders and provide the learning function with an opportunity for real innovation in leadership development practices. This session will provide an overview of the key concepts, strategies and tools to help transform leadership development practices for the emerging learning 2.0 world.
Learning Outcomes:
  • Contrast current leadership development practices with learning 2.0 driven practices
  • Describe benefits of learning 2.0 for transforming leadership and management development
  • Describe a model of leadership development driven by learning 2.0 principles
  • Envision a future Leadership Development program for your organization on a by a learning 2.0 foundation
  • Define strategies for integrating learning 2.0 concepts into current leadership development programs

I promised the participants in my session that I would post the slides  on this blog.  Thank you all for attending!  You were a great audience.  Please leave a comment to say hello or post any thoughts you had on the session.

You can view the presentation below or download it directly by clicking this  link:  Leadership Development in Learning 2.0 World

Dan Pontefract was originally scheduled to present with me but he was not able to make it.   For those of you interested in in Dan’s very active and always interesting blog Training Wreck you can find it here.

Conference attendees braved the snow (yes, snow!) in Calgary to participate in some very interesting sessions.   As always, it was a pleasure to connect with old colleagues and meet many new people with interesting perspectives on the profession.  Thanks to the CSTD organizing team!

Simulation and Immersive Learning

Here’s a nice example I stumbled on this week that illustrates the transition that training needs to make.

A few years ago the UPS driver training unit had a mini-revolt on its hands from younger drivers who were unhappy with the long traditional classroom-based training program required for new drivers.  The program was experiencing increasingly higher failure rates and the number of tasks that had to be learned was becoming too much for classroom delivery.  Peggy Emmart, corporate schools coordinator of UPS corporate training and development department commented “while in the early ’90s our DSPs (drivers) may have needed to concentrate on eight key tasks each day, they now routinely perform 30 to 40 major tasks within the same time frame.”

UPS responded by completely overhauling the driver training program into a simulation and immersion based experience called UPS Integrad.  It included a training facility that incorporated a mix of e-learning, simulations, virtual learning, and immersive learn by doing.

Here is a video feature from ABC news on the program. Click the image to take you to the video. There is a short ad first–be patient (sorry I couldn’t embed it).

UPS Integrad ABC News Video profile (click to link)

UPS Integrad Video profile (click to link)


The Integrad program has “exceeded expectations” in all three of the program’s primary goal areas, which include enhanced DSP safety, decreased new driver turnover, and accelerated time to proficiency.

“It wasn’t about video games, it was about providing hands-on application and allowing trainees to learn by doing in a way that connects unambiguously with their jobs”.

When UPS originally started the re-design effort they thought the answer to training younger workers was going to be video game-type training.  Through additional research, they learned it wasn’t about video games, it was about “providing hands-on application and allowing trainees to learn by doing in a way that connects unambiguously with their jobs”.  I think this is a useful caution to e-learning designers moving down the path video game style instruction.

Here’s an article that describes the program in more detail:  UPS Moves Driver Training From the Classroom to the Simulator

But is it appropriate for knowledge workers?

The UPS program is an example of mostly physical or psychomotor learning,  but the lessons hold true for knowledge work as well.  For managers to learn “problem solving and decision making” they need to make decisions and solve real work problems first in a simulated setting and then in real work context with feedback and coaching.   New consultants need to consult; learning designers need to design learning, engineers need to design and test solutions all within safe, feedback rich, immersive work contexts.

As UPS summarized so simply, “The point of all this hands-on instruction is to simulate-as closely as possible-exactly what it’s like to be a…”fill in the blank“.

just say no :)

Just say no 🙂

Deliberate Practice, Learning and Expertise

I’m back from some vacation where I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on the beach at our cottage (along with some very funny David Sedaris).

Even if you haven’t read Outliers yet you probably know that it sets out to dispel myths that intelligence or innate ability are the primary predictors of success.  Instead,  Gladwell summarizes research and provides examples to show that it is hours and hours of practice (10,000 to be exact) and a “practical intelligence” (similar in concept to emotional intelligence) acquired through experience that are the real determinants of success.

Gladwell covers similar territory (and draws on the same research) as Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates world Class Performers from Everybody Else, another excellent book that elaborates on an article Colvin wrote for Fortune magazine a few years ago: “What it Takes To Be Great”.

Both books debunk the assumption that “gifted” skill and great performance comes from innate talent, personal traits or hard wired competencies and ability.  The research Galdwell and Colvin draw on is impressive.  Both point to the extensive work of K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University.  Ericsson has conducted years of rock solid research on the role of “deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.  If you like to seek out source research as I do, then you’ll enjoy Ericsson’s (and others) impressive work that has been collected in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Here is an earlier (and less hefty) review on some of the same research: “Deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.

At the core of these works is the concept of “deliberate practice” over longs periods of time (up to ten years).  While impossible to boil down the theory into a few points, here it is…uh…boiled down into a few points.   Highly skilled performance in all aspects of life and work can be developed by the rough equivalent of 10,000  hours (10 years or so) of increasing specific, targeted and mindful practice in a domain of expertise. The practice must be:

  • Specific & technique-oriented
  • Self regulated
  • Involve high-repetition
  • Paired with immediate feedback on results
  • Isn’t necessarily “fun”, (in fact can be grueling hard work)

“Deliberate practice is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
From: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else .

Where Gladwell and Colvin focus on how an individual (you!) can use deliberate practice to improve and achieve the success you want,  Learning Professionals should be thinking about how to use the ideas to help others develop and grow the expertise needed by the organizations we support.  Ericsson has something to say here as well, having recently published a new book on how to design learning environments to develop and measure expertise– Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments.  In a time when learning/instructional design has become generalized and de-professionalized to the point of non-existence, it’s refreshing to see a serious treatment that moves the profession forward.

Using “Deliberate Practice” to Improve Workplace Performance

Here are 10 ideas 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.

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 5)

This is the fifth and final post in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series.  The series seems to have struck a chord and I appreciate the comments and e-mails in response to previous posts.  This last post focuses on the job (or role).  First,  how jobs can be designed to optimize natural learning (strategy #9) and second,  how elements of the job can be used to improve formal learning (strategy #10).


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

9. Design jobs for natural learning

Most of us accept that we learn through experience,  whether that experience is structured into a training program or simply the “experience” of working.   But what is it about experience that results in learning?  There are a number of factors,  but most powerful among them is the feedback we receive (or don’t receive) on the results of our actions.  We intuitively use that feedback to adjust our actions, decisions, methods etc. to try to get it right the next time…in other words we use feedback to learn…to get better at what we do and accomplish.

Left to our own devices we seek out feedback to determine how well our actions worked at accomplishing our goal.   Jobs with effective feedback mechanisms available result in much more rapid learning, improved results and higher levels of motivation.  Designing a job with an effective feedback system is the equivalent of designing a job as an effective learning system.

A useful performance feedback system need the following elements to produce the kind of information needed for an employee to learn and perform:

  • A clear understanding of the requirements both in terms of the outputs they are expected to produce and the standards of quality, cost and time they are expected to meet.
  • An accurate and objective measurement system. Job outputs must be easily measured and compared to the standard.   It can include both qualitative and quantitative data.
  • A visual display of the performance data against the standard. Charting and graphing performance data is much more effective than text, tables and spreadsheets.  It adds a level of interpretation and visual comparison that people readily accept.  There are many visual performance charting tools available, most of them automated.  They include line graphs, control charts, bar charts, pie charts and many others.

A sample line graph

  • It must be timely, relevant and specific to the employee of team.

System thinking has also taught us that feedback is also important for identifying the downstream consequences of our actions. This feedback will typically be delayed, especially in knowledge work contexts when our output is part of a larger solution that can take months or even years before results are fully realized.  Sometimes unintended or undesired consequences can be the result.

immediate and delayed feedback

immediate and delayed feedback

Other learning uses of performance feedback systems

Once an effective feedback system is in place it can be the basis for other learning interventions like coaching, performance appraisal, team development, and process improvement.  It should also be used to provide data to evaluate the effectiveness for formal training.  In many ways formal training is meant to compress and accelerate the learning that an individual might naturally get on the job.  Training should result in improvements that register on the performance feedback tool.   Formal training is our last an final strategy for integrating learning and work.

10. Bring the job to learning

Integrating learning and working implies building learning into jobs and processes–and that has certainly been the focus of the first nine strategies.  But greater integration can also be achieved by bringing jobs and processes into formal learning design.

Broadly speaking the goal formal training is to compress on the job experience to bring people to competency as quickly as possible.  Somehow over the years that goal been reduced to lots of telling and very little “doing”.   So my last strategy is an appeal to bring structured experience back to formal learning.  I don’t mean generic structured experience (like a management outdoor education or abstract team building exercises for example) but experiences based on authentic learning tasks.

We know how to do it.  The formal learning strategies that result in superior learning include business and process simulations, decision case learning, anchored instruction and the whole task learning design methods found in Jeroen van Merrienboer’s  4C/ID work.   Here are some links to design approaches that are based on real world learning tasks:

Some organizations are starting to turn their training functions into simulation centres and learning “studios” that use a combination of physical and knowledge based simulations of actual work processes and tasks.  For example Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto has developed a simulation centre.

For a very interesting academic experiment in a studio based approach to learning that I think would translate well to business settings see MIT’s Technology Enabled Active Learning Project.  It is based on a studio approach to learning that moves seamlessly between lecture, experimentation and discussion and individual design projects in one large technology enabled room.  Remote technologies could easily be used for dispersed employees.

This takes us full circle back to strategy #1.   If you use appropriate analysis tools to understand the job for which training is being developed, the quality of that training will be dramatically improved and the skills employees learn will be immediately useful.   Performance-based learning and Learning-based performance.  Two worthy and achievable goals for the learning professional.

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