Four Learning Traps to Avoid

The Learning End GameTrap

Perhaps you’ve re-committed to improve learning as the mission of your department (or next big initiative, or…).  It’s well meaning but can be self defeating (or worse, self-fulfilling). The term leaves the impression that learning is the end game, your raison d’être. The real end game is performance; individual and organizational, defined in terms the business uses to measure itself. Sure, you don’t have control over all the factors that influence performance, but that doesn’t mean your solutions can’t be intimately connected to them. Thinking performance first is liberating and opens up whole new perspectives on the types of solutions you can and should be bringing to the table.

Antidote to the end game trap:  Performance Thinking (Cathy Moore and Carl Binder have nice methods for deriving learning from performance needs)

The Planning Trap

I used to believe in the perfect annual plan all wrapped in MBO goodness, aligned and linked to organizational objectives. But over time I’ve come to two conclusions. First, the plans are rarely fully realized. The more interesting innovations and strategies emerged from responses to opportunities throughout the year. Second, senior teams rarely have their act together enough to create strategies and business plans that are meaningful enough to wrap a good training plan around. Highly analytic planning processes can deceive us into thinking we are planning strategically and improving future organizational performance.

To borrow an argument from Henry Mintzberg, strategy is actually a pattern embodied in day to day work more than an annual plan. Strategy is consistency in behaviour, whether or not intended. Formal plans may go unrealized, while patterns may emerge from daily work. In this way strategy can emerge from informal learning. I’ve always liked this image of planning from Mintzberg:

from Henry Mintzberg “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” (1994)

Antidote to the planning trap:  Beware the best laid plans. Go ahead and work with your business units to create a simple training plan linked to whatever business plans they may have in place. But have a rock solid process in place to respond to the requests that will inevitably come that are not in line with the plan. Be ready to develop solutions to adapt quickly to whatever white water your company or industry happens to be swimming in. Be nibble and flexible in response to business changes. Watch for patterns and successes in that work and incorporate them in your training strategy.

The Measurement and Evaluation trap

Evaluation is a hot button that causes more wringing of hands and professional guilt than it should. Evaluation is meant to inform decisions. Some types training are simply easier to measure than others. Everything can be measured, but not everything is worth measuring. When you do evaluate use business metrics already in use and explore methods focused more on collecting evidence of success rather than definitive proof. Myopic and overly rigorous measurement drives out judgment and causes us to start measuring trees and forget about the forest. Our attempts at evaluation are often disproportionate to evaluation elsewhere in the organization (we only think everyone else knows their ROI).

Antidote to the measurement trap: Don’t emphasize short term ROI or cost reduction measures at the expense of true investment in the future that do not have immediate and calculable ROI. When you do evaluate use existing measures that the business uses to judge success.

The Technology Trap

We seem to be hard wired to line up enthusiastically behind each new wave of technology. Each wave has left behind tools and innovations that changed learning for the better (and also, embarrassingly, for the worse). It offers increasingly wondrous ways to improve access to learning, immerse employees in true learning experiences, share learning in collaborative spaces and extend the tools we use to do our work. And it offers equally wondrous ways to create truly disastrous learning experiences.

Antidote for the technology trap: Understand and embrace technology, especially game changing social media, but protect yourself from panacea thinking and keep your eye on the prize of improved performance.  Success lies in the design not the technology.


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.

Practice Makes Perfect Revisited

Last Thursday (November  17), I presented a session on the use of deliberate practice in learning and performance at the CSTD national conference in Toronto.  I promised participants that I would post the slide set on this blog.  I’m a little slow getting to it but here you are.  They are not fully explanatory, but if you would like to discuss any aspects of the presentation or how you might use the principles in your organization, please contact me and I’d be happy to discuss.  If you are one of the participants that came to the presentation, thank you for contributing to a lively session!

Here’s the session description for the CSTD conference web site:

I think I manged to touch most of the objectives listed.  When I read the popular books mentioned in the description I was intrigued that they all drew on the same source research.  I have posted on this research in the past.  Over the course of the last couple of years I dove into that source research and what I learned was the focus of the presentation along with connections that I made to current approaches to practice in the workplace (primarily informal).  Most of the practice approaches described stress authentic tasks and problems, development of tacit knowledge and practical intelligence and the critical role of feedback learning process.  I’ll try to post on some of the key concepts from the research in the future.  Cheers!

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.

I Want it Now!

The Learning Circuits Blog big question this month is:

How do you respond to the “I want it now!” request from a demanding executive?

They provide the scenario of  a Type A executive with a website open on rapid instructional design prompting the “I want it now” request.  (Hard to imagine i know, and if true presented an excellent “teachable moment” with that executive!).

While “I want it now!” is a common demand on training functions, it’s certainly not unique to us.  Ask the IT, Marketing, or Administration function and you’ll hear the same groans of recognition.  The strategies for dealing with the situation are the same and they have more to do with relationship building and consulting approaches than anything related to how quickly you can throw together a training program to meet the request.

Here are a few strategies that might help.

1. Prevention

The best strategy is a preventative one.   Training functions should have annual plans in place with their internal clients identifying skill and capability development priorities based on the business and functional needs.  The plan is ideally part of the planning cycle of the organization so business needs are “in the air” and being cascaded through the organization on a number of fronts.  For each group you support, the plan could include:

  • strategic and operating goals for the year
  • pivotal roles involved in achieving them
  • skill, knowledge and capabilities required for each role
  • training and learning approaches and programs to be developed/acquired
  • agreement on responsibilities of client and learning function
  • review plan

The joint planning process itself helps build mutual understanding of the requirements for meaningful learning solutions and informal learning regarding those situations when knee-jerk training is not a solution at all.  You may be lucky enough never to get the “I want it now” request at all.  When they do come (and you know they will)  and they deviate from the jointly developed plan, you can legitimately ask what other priorities need to be dropped, and what resources need to be added, in order to fulfill this new request.

2. Rapid performance analysis

Along with your heart rate, the “I want it now” demand should raise your performance antenna.  This is your opportunity to apply the performance analysis process you know well in theory if not in practice.  There may be other root causes at work and you have a responsibility to suss them out.

But that’s not what your Type A executive asked you to do is it?  So this is not the time for a lengthy root cause analysis, but it does justify a rapid performance analysis.   This is why relationship building and consulting skills are as important as process skills for the learning professional.  You will need to muster your knowledge of the organization, your business acumen and the factors that impact performance to quickly ask the right questions to get to the bottom of the “issue”.  Responding to the “I want it now” demand with an analysis is tricky.  Do it well however and you may earn the respect that will avoid future “I want it now” demands.

There are a number of rapid analysis tools available that are based on “performance thinking” approaches.  For years I’ve used my own adaptation of Thomas Gilbert’s PROBE questioning heuristic.  There are many others.

2. Provide the learning “artifact” but fix the real problem

Your rapid performance analysis may indeed point to other root causes.  If your executive is blind to this despite your best efforts, you may need to provide the learning artifact but sneak in the real solution while doing so.

The “I want it now” executive is usually not as specific as you may be on what a learning program actually is.  This frees you to design a “program” that can be a performance solution in the guise of a training program.  But if you’re A type exec wants you to call it that, why not?.  If your program includes an improved feedback system, better information resources and a process fix all communicated through small training session to help employees use these simple performance support tools,  you have fixed the problem and provided a “training program”.  And again, often all of this can be done faster then slogging through the development cycle of a full blown training program loaded up with rigourously defined learning objectives and practice activities.

4. Do it!

Your executive may be dead on.  Don’t discount this possibility.  Things change pretty quickly in business these days. Roles and skills can take unexpected turns to meet emerging business requirements. At least you have an executive that considers the importance of skills and knowledge needs and cares enough to make the call to you,  abrupt as it may be.  If that is the case, then perhaps a rapid solution is exactly what is called for.  A lean program built with basic job aids, performance support tools, and creative information design can often be done even faster than “rapid e-learning”.  Rapid tools are made for this kind of scenario and they can be very useful.  But creative thinking with a laser focus on actual performance requirements might be even faster.

5. Don’t do it!

If your professional judgment tells you that this project would be folly and waste important resources,  or if it you believe it has lass than a 50% chance of success, you have the responsibility to say no.  Be prepared to back up your response and provide alternatives if appropriate.   This is a risk not many take with the type A executive demand.  The upside is intact professional integrity and the knowledge that  you have saved the company some wasted effort.   The downside is…well that’s what keeps life interesting isn’t it 🙂

Each of these strategies requires strong professional judgment, authentic relationships and sound consulting approaches with your “client”.  These skills include:

  • Contracting
  • Understanding and dealing with resistance
  • Building relationships
  • Providing feedback from analysis
  • Authentic interactions
  • Managing feedback meetings
  • Internal negotiation

In my experience, the best source of guidance for these skills in our profession remains Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting.

So you better get on that.  I want it now!

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.