In many people’s minds, learning and working are separate undertakings. Some see a linear progression: Training teaches a skill that is then applied on the job. In some knowledge areas, this makes sense. In others, the line between learning and applying that knowledge is increasingly hard to detect, and workflow learning is becoming a common replacement for or supplement to training. That can complicate the task of L&D teams: Are they training learners? Supporting employees? Both?

Training or performance support?

Performance support and workflow learning share many characteristics with good training or eLearning; they also differ in critical ways. Understanding the similarities and differences can help instructional designers create more effective content for learners who increasingly expect learning to take place within the workflow.

Some eLearning products can meet training needs and provide performance support. Both approaches to skill development aim to improve learners’ performance on the job and boost overall efficiency. Learners can consume learning materials and performance support tools in a variety of formats and can accomplish their learning goals alone as well as collaboratively or cooperatively with colleagues, within their organizations or through online or in-person professional groups. But workflow learning and performance support tools differ from conventional eLearning or training materials in fundamental ways.

What’s distinctive about workflow learning?

These five essential characteristics of performance support and workflow learning enable learners to meet critical needs without disrupting their work.

1. Immediacy

Training takes learners out of their workday tasks, even if the training is eLearning that they can complete while physically remaining at their workstations.

The most obvious difference between conventional training and workflow learning is inherent in the name: By definition, performance support and workflow learning assist workers as they do their jobs. This helps employees efficiently meet immediate needs and solve problems without slowing their productivity.

2. Collaboration

Learners can and do train alone, in a cohort, or collaboratively.

Workflow learning tends to be solitary: An employee encounters a problem or knowledge gap, seeks information, and continues working. This reduces the disruption of work tasks.

But there is also room for collaborative workflow learning.

3. Scheduling

A training course might be a group class, whether online or in person, that occurs on a set schedule. It could also be microlearning or asynchronous training that learners complete on their own schedules. Though training can take any of a multitude of formats and designs, it is often something that a learner must decide to do and find time to complete.

Workflow learning and performance support are generally unscheduled and are sought and consumed at the moment of need. An employee encounters a new piece of software or a process that she hasn’t done in some time or an unfamiliar concept. Without missing a beat, she searches for information, reads or views it, and goes on with the task. Workflow learning can take a variety of formats, but tends toward short, narrowly-focused content that answers common questions that arise during work.

4. Takeaways for learners

With a conventional training course, the learning objectives should center on meeting business goals, solving particular problems, and changing behavior in a specific way. The content of the course is the point; learners are expected to master a body of knowledge or a specific set of skills. Instructional designers need to provide instruction, opportunities to practice, and a means of evaluating that mastery.

The point of workflow learning or performance support is often to solve an immediate problem, rather than gain mastery of a topic or skill. Learning where to find the needed information may well be more important to the employee than memorizing the actual information. For instructional designers, that means that providing discrete chunks of information in an on-demand format, and offering outstanding search capabilities matter more than capturing every nuance and detail of a complex topic.

5. End result

While both training and performance support aim to improve performance and efficiency, the way they do this can be very different.

Training often seeks to change behavior by teaching a new skill or way of performing a task, or by imparting knowledge that then leads to different behavior on the job. The end result is a learner who does things differently than she did prior to the training.

Performance support might improve worker performance and efficiency by automating or taking over some tasks—instead of teaching the learner how to do them.

A workflow learning tool might guide learners through an infrequently performed task, helping them do their jobs more effectively without changing their long-term behavior. When used for a frequent task, though, the same tool could change behavior over time as the employee masters the task through repetition.

Some workflow job aids, like checklists, might change behavior permanently in a different way: The behavior change is that the employee uses the checklist to ensure accuracy and consistency.

Meet moments of learning need with workflow learning

Training and eLearning products can meet any moment of learning need—learning a brand new skill or topic, expanding knowledge, providing the skill to apply knowledge in a new situation or solve a problem, or enabling an employee to adapt or add skills in times of change.

While workflow learning and performance support tools truly shine when employees need to apply skills and solve problems, workflow learning can meet all five moments of learning need. More importantly, these tools meet learners’ needs for immediate, relevant, and useful learning products.

Discover more about how workflow learning is shaping corporate L&D in Learning in the Workflow, an eLearning Guild research report.