Have you ever heard or been told that you should be working smarter? Working smarter is a common phrase, but it is often undefined. Just what does it mean?

Working smarter is a new interpretation of eLearning that’s bigger than just courses on the web or a phone. And it’s key to a strategic focus for learning executives.

It’s clear that the world is changing, and practices of the past will no longer suffice. Organizations need to be more agile, adapting faster. This means that it’s not only about the things you know how to do—and doing them—but also about doing new things. Smart things. So how do we get there?

There are two basic situations: when we’re doing what we know we need to do, and when we need to deal with a new situation. For the former, it’s about doing the best preparation possible, and that includes the best learning design and the appropriate use of tools to augment our thinking. For the latter, when troubleshooting, problem-solving, designing, and more, we may not know the answer when we start. So, besides performing optimally, the other half is continuously learning.

Several ideas here are key. Research on cognitive science (the field investigating how we think and learn) points to several frameworks that give us leverage. We need to look at findings in situated cognition, distributed cognition, and social cognition. These elements align to help us understand not only how to work smarter, but also how to help others do so.

Situated cognition is the result of looking at our behavior and recognizing that what is observed is not what we thought. The formal logical reasoning we used to believe characterized our thinking isn’t what empirical investigation has documented. Instead, we tend to be very biased by the current context. We also have systematic flaws in our thinking. Thus, it becomes very important not only to prepare in ways that will transfer across contexts, but also to provide support to help maintain focus on the important elements.

Given that our mental architecture has systematic flaws, the opportunity to use analog or digital tools to overcome them is important. And distributed cognition kicks in here. Distributed cognition recognizes that our thinking isn’t just in our heads, but is also distributed across our tools and representations. We use representations like spreadsheets and diagrams to capture our thinking as we negotiate it. We share these representations and provide feedback, or increasingly use distributed ones to collaborate.

We also use cognitive prostheses to augment the gaps in our cognition. We use tools like checklists, lookup tables, flowcharts, and more to help us be systematic in ways our brains aren’t naturally. Making these available when and where needed, using digital technologies and contextual awareness, is increasingly possible and useful.

Our cognition is also distributed across others. That’s the point of social cognition; we get better outcomes when we tap into the power of people. As the saying goes: The room is smarter than the smartest person in the room. At least when you manage the process right. We need to find ways to get the best outcomes out of people, and this comes from finding ways to work together—at least at the right times and in the right ways.

It’s about communication and collaboration. We want people to feel free to share their own work and help others. We’re finding tools that allow us to represent and track the development of our ideas, even when we’re working proximally. And it’s about how to work together in the best ways. For instance: We know that we should let people ponder a question or the issue alone before we get together and share our ideas. We also know we should make sure all voices are heard. We can structure tools or processes to support this.

Working smarter is about two things, then. First, it’s about understanding best practices based on what the research says. This includes learning design, performance support, and tapping into the power of people. There are rich understandings in these areas that we could be putting into practice (and too often are not).

Next, we should be using technology to augment those best practices—and our work in general. We use digital technology, but not as well as we could. We’re not tapping into the latest possibilities and developing and supporting our uses of these. We still see idiosyncratic uses of collaborative technologies, for instance, and a lack of awareness of the associated practices.

Our organizations can, and should, be working smarter. I will suggest that this is a role we should be adopting. Not just training, but designing solutions and facilitating the uptake with awareness and coaching. A role that is core to organizational effectiveness is on the table. Are you smart enough to take up the challenge?

This is the first edition of my new monthly column for Learning Solutions. The focus will be on working smarter and aligning technology with individual and organizational cognition. I will cover topics such as ecosystems, measurement, and learning design. Practicing what I preach about collaboration, I also hope you’ll suggest topics you’d like to see addressed! Send your ideas to clark@quinnovation.com.