How often do employees in your organization engage with L&D? Quarterly? During compliance season? Only when new stuff comes up? How often do employees in your organization learn something new as part of the flow of work? Constantly!

Learning in the flow of work” isn’t an L&D strategy. It’s reality. People learn by doing—by trying, making mistakes, and then trying again. But this realization often sparks an odd series of L&D debates. Which is more important—formal or informal learning? How do we make sure we account for the 70, the 20 and the 10 in our training design? What happens if people learn the wrong things? In the end, learning doesn’t really matter. Results—the outcome of performance—is the only true measuring stick. As long as they comply with the rules, does it really matter how people get to those results?

So, if learning is a natural part of every day, what role can L&D play in enabling employees to achieve their desired results? Some influencers contend that we should shift our focus from building training to instead helping people gain more knowledge and skill from their work. Others reason that we should move our training closer to the workflow so it can be experienced more conveniently. I say … why not both?

Learning is a very personal, task-specific thing. While we can find commonalities, we don’t know exactly when or where an employee will need help. For some people and certain concepts, formal training will do the job. For others, additional help will be needed. Rather than try to hit the mark with a specific design for every topic, L&D must evolve our approach to provide support whenever and however it is needed. This is the basis of the Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework, which addresses the idea of “learning in the flow of work” from two complimentary angles.

Channels + connections

L&D cannot control how work gets done. We may be able to advise, but we cannot unilaterally change work processes or technology. And, while we may be the “learning team,” we do not control the “learning culture.” What we can do is influence these concepts by enabling a support infrastructure that helps people find, discover, and share information as part of their work. Our position as organizational middlemen puts us in the right place to help better connect those who know with those who need. But, rather than introducing something brand new, we should start by leveraging existing work tools to bring people closer to the resources that will help them do their jobs better. For example ...

  • Does your company have a knowledge base that is designed and organized with the employee experience in mind?
  • Do employees have knowledge of, and direct access to, the go-to SMEs for important topics?
  • Have formal (titles) and informal (experience) SMEs been enabled to share their knowledge in simple, scalable ways?

By blending the popular conversations of “social learning” and “performance support,” L&D can help establish the channels and connections needed to improve employees’ ability to learn and solve problems while doing their jobs.

Filling the gaps

Now let’s go back to the question: What happens if people learn the wrong things? There’s a never-ending avalanche of information within any organization. No one can know it all. That’s why employees need improved channels—to connect to this information when they need it to either solve a problem or continue their development. But what about the information I absolutely have to remember and cannot look up when making decisions every day? What about the new information that I need to know NOW in order to do my job? And what about the topic(s) I don’t currently know about that represent the next logical step in my development? This information often gets buried under a pile of competing priorities and messages, stunting employee development, creating confusion and disengagement, and leading to potentially damaging mistakes on the job.

This is where L&D can approach the concept of “learning in the flow of work” from a different angle—by helping employees consistently find brief moments to focus on their development. No one, regardless of role, has hours to commit to training on a regular basis. But everyone has five minutes; whether it's during a commute, between phone calls, or after clocking in for a shift. L&D can take advantage of these moments and provide targeted training on topics that are critical for both the business and individual employee. Rather than removing the employee from their work to experience training, L&D can re-imagine the experience within the everyday reality of the employee—as part of the job.

  • Find the time. When and where do employees typically experience gaps in the workflow that can be used for focused training activities?
  • Find the access. How will employees simply and conveniently access training within these moments, preferably through tools they already use on the job?
  • Find the value. What training activities will fit into these moments and deliver clear value so as to motivate the employee to come back and make everyday training a daily habit?

Five minutes may not sound like much, but five minutes per day, every day, adds up to a lot more time focused on learning than the average employee spends today. Think of it like brushing your teeth. You could brush for a few minutes every day or for 30 minutes once per month. Which do you think will deliver the better result?

It may seem like everything new in L&D really isn’t all that “new.” Social learning. Microlearning. Gamification. They’re all based on well-established principles. This is also true for the idea of “learning in the flow of work.” While the concept itself may not be revolutionary, technology provides us with a more dynamic array of options for applying proven principles and supporting employees as they do their jobs. Structured, long-form, place-and-time training will always play a role, but it doesn’t match the reality of today’s always-hectic, short-staffed, constantly-changing workplace. L&D must step up and rethink our tactics within the context of the day-to-day workplace. Otherwise, our operational partners will find new options to drive results through their people.