Bob Mosher, the chief learning evangelist at APPLY Synergies, has been a learning leader for 33 years. But, he reveals, in the past 10 years, he’s started looking at “the entire experience and all of the tools of my craft, including the traditional ones, through a very different lens.”

Bob, who was recognized by The eLearning Guild as a Guild Master in 2014, recently talked to Learning Solutions Magazine about his emphasis on what he calls “workflow learning” and how that has dramatically changed the deliverables he creates and the results that learners achieve.

The following conversation has been lightly edited.

Pam Hogle: You talk about “workflow learning” quite a bit. What do you mean by that?

Bob Mosher: It’s a term that has ended up resonating the best for me in the work that I do. It’s basically because of the two words; ultimately, our charge as learning professionals is to impact work, impact performance.

I think all of us know that the most powerful and meaningful learning in our lives has occurred in the process of “doing.” As hurtful sometimes, or frankly painful, as those lessons have been, they’ve often been the most powerful and meaningful and long-lasting ones for us.

Workflow learning, for me, is really the tip of the sword; it’s the bull’s-eye that I think we all are targeting, in that we can make learning truly immersive. We can make it a part of the workflow in a way that the learner, at times, may not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Learning theory teaches us that with the old stimulus response, the salivating dog, the farther away from the event that we move the stimulus, the less impactful it is. For years, we’ve taken people far from the stimulus; we’ve taken them to class, we’ve taken them online. I am not by any means saying those are not powerful parts of the journey that a learner needs. But this whole concept of designing for the workflow and having it be both a training and a support environment—to me, that’s what learning is made up of. It’s made up of times we learn for the first time; it’s made up of times that we try to relearn or unlearn what we know. So workflow learning, for me, encapsulates that really important sweet spot for learners.

PH: How is that different from performance support?

BM: It really isn’t, to be honest. Our industry is one of jargon, right, so the reason I’ve shifted to calling it workflow learning is that when I’ve talked to people in the line of business or to learners themselves, they get it. Nobody wants performance support. I’ve never found a learner or a manager of 100 people who goes, “Oh yeah, what we’re missing here is performance support.”

But if I talked to them in the context of, “What if I design workflow learning for you?” Learning that’s consumed at the moment of need…

PH: So, the language has moved on, but the underlying concept is tried-and-true?

BM: Yes. It’s funny. I’ve been at performance support as a discipline for 10 years. I spent the first six trying to convince people of what it was. I got these nodding heads, but for the most part, glazed looks. In the last four years, I’ve shifted to workflow learning … and it just resonates so much better.

PH: What are you actually delivering? Is it just-in-time training or job aids? Is it mobile tools? Or is it all of that?

BM: It is! A few years back, we threw around two terms: “formal” and “informal” learning. I never liked “informal,” candidly, because it was just too big. Anything that wasn’t formal was informal. I struggled as a designer. I’m a designer first, so I need a systematic way to build stuff. Back then, when we were throwing the two around, I was like, “This doesn’t work for me. But everyone wants it.”

PH: Everyone wants informal learning?

BM: Oh, yeah!

PH: But they don’t know what it is?

BM: No, no. … Performance support, what it has done for me as a designer, through wonderful folks like Gloria Gery, Allison Rossett, Frank Nguyen, and my partner, Con Gottfredson—these people have built constructs and methods that allow us to create [performance support] like I always created learning. Tools, like those you mentioned, job aids, mobile, communities of practice—these are tools of the trade that is performance support. So, like any good craftsperson, my job, when building a home, a playhouse, a deck, is to get out the right tools to create the deliverable. The things that you mentioned are the tools of the informal domain, and our job, as the designers, is to craft those in a way that meets the need of the performance that we’re trying to enable.

PH: Is it individualized, personalized? Or is it more generalized to a work group?

BM: It is actually both. That’s where the art of the design comes in. What we have to be careful of, as I’ve learned in my work, is that our job is not to customize learning. It’s an oxymoron, because customized learning or individualized learning or personalized learning—how do we build that? I can’t personalize for 100 people. “Personalized” means I, as a learner, personalize my learning.

For years I tried to create—we used to call it “customized training.” We thought it was our job to sit down in a room and analyze every possible scenario and then create this thing that we put in front of our learners—and it was customized.

What I’ve learned is, our job is to build these constructs, these domains, these dashboards, these websites—it depends on how they manifest themselves. Knowing the learners’ context, the overarching workflow (back to that word again), their roles—it might be accountants, lawyers, marketers, salespeople. We can analyze that domain really well. We can understand the workflow; we can understand the tasks performed there.

What we don’t have to do, unlike what we do in training is, we don’t have to go too much farther and say, “Now I’m going to architect that entire experience for you,” because now we’ve crossed a line that the workflow learning doesn’t require.

We need to create a manageable, accessible, intuitive environment where the learner chooses well, once they understand it. That’s what a well-designed performance support solution looks like. It is representative of the context. That’s as much as it needs to be, because the learner then says, “I get it; this encapsulates what I do. But now I’m going to choose, based on the options you’ve given me and the tools you’ve made apparent, which ones help me right now.”

PH: So you’re providing options, different paths that people can choose?

BM: That’s the crux; that’s what we didn’t get before. As training developers, we would never do that. We would never throw learners into a room with a bunch of lessons and say, “Okay, now just pick one.” We’d never say, “Just go off in the corner, and, you want to do lesson five? You do lesson five.”

No, that’s not training. In training, we architect from 8 to 5, that entire experience. In the workflow domain, we don’t have to.

PH: We’ve been doing work on creating content that provides better access and accessibility—not only for learners who have disabilities, but for everyone. That sounds like what you are describing here.

BM: I’ve learned there are two domains here, two axes. One is accessibility; you’re spot-on there. But there’s another axis that I was blind to. There is one thing about accessibility; and then there’s this whole other axis of usability. Man, that usability thing changes the whole world.

Let’s say you’ve got a SharePoint site with a ton of links, lots of good stuff up there, ranging from a job aid to a 30-minute video, and everything in between. Our belief was that the learner would land on this page, see a category for performance appraisals—if that’s what they’re doing—and go, “Oh, 20 things! How helpful is that.” And just start clicking on things because they are accessible.

But here’s the problem: When the learner’s at that point of work, there’s a scale of gray here about the kind of asset that they want. If I did an appraisal a month ago and just haven’t done one in a while, the job aid is stunning because, frankly, I probably just need a tool that reviews for me, right? But if I haven’t done a performance appraisal in a year? Or maybe it’s my first time; after getting manager training nine months ago, I’m finally doing my first performance appraisal. That job aid is meaningless to me because it’s just not enough. In that case, the 30-minute video, which basically reteaches doing a performance appraisal, is really what I want.

So what we’ve learned is, yes, accessibility. Rule number one: If they can’t get to it, they will not consume it. Period. And it has to be very innately and intuitively in the workflow—I don’t have to walk across the building; I don’t have to wait for a coach to answer my calls. Those are not accessible things.

But the second thing, once you’ve got me to the precipice of that experience, is what you present in front of me. Even though everything there might solve my problem, they’re not all helpful. So what we try to do is, we architect these domains. We’ve seen different methods: tabs across the top of the page, and all kinds of things that basically introduce the assets in a usability scale from very simple and quick—a job aid, a Post-it note, literally—down to very hefty and deep and long, i.e., a 30-minute eLearning module. And everything in between.

What’s masterful about this, what’s exciting to watch, is that the learner—once they get that architecture—becomes really good at self-selecting because they’re living in the context of the problem. So, once they learn that hierarchy, they go, “Oh yeah, I just want the down-and-dirty method. I don’t want a lecture; I don’t want moving parts. I don’t want video. Just give me a six-step job aid and I’m outta here.”

PH: There are two things about this that you don’t really know about each individual learner. One is what knowledge they come with—how much they already know. And the other is what level of competency they need.

BM: Correct. And that’s why the domain has to help them with that. That’s why there are layers to this pyramid. We call it the performance support pyramid. And there are layers of this pyramid that are exactly what you describe. There are layers of it that assume a lot of base knowledge; therefore, they do not teach. They assume a high level of aptitude. That’s what a job aid does, to be honest—if it’s written well.

Figure 1: Performance support pyramid from APPLY Synergies

But if a learner comes in and does not have that, then the layers below that—as each layer gets broader and wider, it should include more of the two things that you said: It should teach more, and it should inform more. Then the learner can say, “This third level is exactly where I am. I could use a little refresher, maybe some instruction; I don’t need the lesson. And you know, I didn’t really understand the concept of X. So, that little paragraph you gave me really filled in for me. Now I can perform.”

PH: So, you have a big topic, and you divide it up into units of instruction. So does each unit have those layers?

BM: Yes. That’s when I get back to what I call workflow analysis. We have to be careful, as instructors, of reverse-engineering this. This is not, by definition, an instructional moment. By definition, it is a support moment. If a learner needs to be taught, I’m going to put it in there. I’m going to design from the workflow back. I’m going to design from that job aid back.

Now, if I’m teaching, I completely invert that. If I’m teaching, I cannot assume any base knowledge. I have to start with, “In this lesson, you will learn…” because I cannot assume that you have that already.

One of the biggest things that we, as designers, have to learn is that the workflow, by its name, provides a ton of contextual hooks that the classroom and eLearning have had to provide for learners. When I go to class, I’m not at work anymore. I may be sitting there with 20 other people from 20 other companies, so the instructor has to use all of these metaphors and analogies and all of this storytelling because they have to bring all of this richness of context to those learners. When I am in the workflow, I am sitting there staring at that performance appraisal that’s due at 4 PM. I know what a performance appraisal is; I get it. I get what I’m trying to do here. Now, I don’t know the legalities or the steps—that’s where the instruction or support comes in. So the analysis starts with the workflow.

PH: It’s a real task, rather than a simulation or made-up example.

BM: I love that; that’s exactly right. My colleague, Con Gottfredson, and I have struggled with this. It really is a true task. But back in my ADDIE days, when I was taught to do task analysis, if I may say—we really didn’t define tasks. Not job tasks. When we say “task” in this context, what we mean is a job-work task. Not the task of printing an Excel. The task of doing a report as an accountant. Those are really two different kinds of tasks. And in this domain, it’s the latter. We want to find out the kind of workflow tasks first. Once we nail those, and the overarching workflow, everything else is filled in from there.

That’s a different approach. This is my 33rd year of being in the business. The first 21 or 22 of them, I did not look at my work through this lens. It has been a reorientation for me to do this stuff.

But here’s what’s exciting. I was just talking yesterday to a large bank, a global bank. And I said, “You guys, here’s the thing—I have yet to build performance support and not still build classroom stuff.” Because if I’m going to build a solution for my customer, ultimately there’s going to be some classroom stuff. It is still part of the mosaic.

Here’s the difference: I used to start there. I used to start building training stuff first … classroom stuff and eLearning stuff. And then if I had any time left, I would build workflow stuff. Or I would hope that the stuff I was building for training would become workflow stuff.

What I do now, to oversimplify it, is, I build first for the workflow. And then, almost always, I will still build some kind of learning—a training experience. But it’s very different than the ones I used to build when I started with that because … you know [the learners are] going home to this really well-designed safety net.

Just to give you some metrics, I have found that the average training deliverable I build now is half as big as it used to be. Because the burden of content being covered—I hate that word, covered—is no longer (nor should it probably ever have been, if I can get a little “out there”) the responsibility of the classroom.

It’s such a hard burden to put on a stimulus that’s miles from the response, that it has to cover everything. Well, if you have this wonderful tool, you don’t; you cover the most critical. You let people practice; you let people crash and burn. You let them fail and pick themselves up and learn through using the tool. And then, when they leave, they are so much more enabled and empowered to not just remember everything—which they never do anyway—but to apply, if nothing else, the most important things.

PH: So, how can someone get started with this? Many of our readers are new to eLearning development or are one-person training “departments.” Do you have any suggestions that could help these readers create a program that enhances workflow and performance?

BM: I sure do. Two things.

Number one: Start real small at first; don’t boil the ocean. It’s a problem in our industry. These shiny pennies come along and we sit down and our thought is, “We have to reinvent instruction as we know it.” That’s never going to happen, especially in a mom-and-pop shop. So here’s my suggestion: With your clients, find a performance gap, something that a job role is not doing well. I’m trying to get really focused here. Don’t try to say, “What class should I write? What software is being released next year? We want to rearchitect our leadership curriculum.”

Those chunks are way too big. Sit with a line of business that you know. Sit with a learning leader that you trust, that likes your work, or that you’ve done brilliant stuff with before, and just say these words: “What keeps you up at night?” and “Give me three things that those under your charge just can’t figure out”—here are the words—“how to do.” Not “understand” or “learn” or “Should I retrain them?” That’s not how I just said that.

What’s exciting is, the answer they will give you is very finite: “They can’t do their annual report.” “They’re terrible on phone calls to customers.” “They can’t close the sale.”

See, those answers are really specific to one or a couple tasks. There’s that word again. Tasks that an employee is not performing well.

And then, here’s part two: Build first for a deliverable that solves that performance problem in the workflow. Build first.

I’ve done it a thousand times totally on my own. One person. Think about the stuff we talked about, think about the pyramid—but don’t go crazy. Don’t build a jackhammer here to kill a fly.

This is the beginning. Once you build one, even if it’s a real simple one with a couple of job aids, and you see how learners react—you see how that businessperson goes, “Bob, you just solved one of the biggest thorns in my side because now all the weekly reports are perfect; every week they’re perfect”—you will all of a sudden go, “I am on to something huge here. I want to build a lot more of these.”

What’s funny is, once you become known to the business as [someone who builds] stuff that makes the company perform quickly and efficiently, the line at your door will be like you’ve never seen before. Because it works.

That’s how we need to be seen; not the learning arm of the building or L&D. That’s a scary place to hang your hat—I’ve been there.