In this current pandemic we’re being forced to finally face how organizations learn. In 1990 Peter Senge challenged companies to become learning organizations. In his book The Fifth Discipline he quoted Arie De Geus, then head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell. De Geus proposed that “the ability to learn faster than [an organization’s] competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Senge made a compelling case for changing how organizations learn but the movement fizzled.

In the shadow of the looming financial crisis of 2008, the Harvard Business Review attempted to explain why. Their answer was there hadn’t been sufficient market forces to compel organizations to persevere their way through …[all the] obstacles. Astonishingly, even the worldwide recession of 2008 failed to compel learning to shift from its deeply entrenched traditions.

Today, however, we are facing tsunamic forces outside our control. They are leaving us with no choice but to change. We now know that our world can be turned upside down without warning. It’s also clear that after this crisis abates there’s no guarantee that the forces of social and political instability, market upheaval, technological shifts, and demographic churn are going to stop. It is absolutely clear that organizations need to develop their capacity to respond to radical disruptions that can, at any moment, attack with unrelenting combinations of speed and complexity.

Performance agility

So what’s our role in all of this? Organizations can’t adapt the collective and individual performance of their workforce without the learning and development team. We are the only ones who can and must help them develop the organizational capacity to perform effectively at the speed of change. Performance agility is an organization’s capacity to respond to adaptive challenge—whether opportunity, threat, or crisis—through the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills.

The first step in getting there is to extend our reach into the performance zone we call the workflow where knowledge and skills are actually applied and where experience is acquired. We can’t risk failing to do this right now! This is where we must go for the sake of our organizations. Their long-term survival depends upon our doing this. There can be no development of adaptive capacity without this.

What exactly is workflow learning? It is learning at the 5 Moments of Need while working. Traditional learning approaches require learners to stop or pause their work to learn and then transfer that learning into how they perform in their flow of work. To the degree that you are developing and integrating knowledge-enriched skills into your existing skill set as you perform your work, you are experiencing workflow learning.

Why workflow learning?

Why is workflow learning the key to developing an organization’s capacity to perform at the speed of change? Here are six reasons:

Reason 1: Only in the workflow can an organization intentionally develop the adaptive capacity of its workforce. Why? Because any object or situation experienced by a person in the flow of work is unlikely to recur in exactly the same form and context. So as workers effectively respond to a reoccurring but altered situation, they are developing their adaptive capacity.

Reason 2: Real skill development occurs while continuously performing work (in the workflow). Stopping work to learn without extended learning support into the workflow is costly, risky, and highly ineffective.

Reason 3: Performance improvement occurs only in the workflow. The most efficient environment for developing experience and judgment is the workflow.

Reason 4: Successful workflow performance increases self-efficacy, thereby fueling greater engagement. This in turn leads to more effective performance. Albert Bandura demonstrated this reality over 40 years ago. His findings haven’t been overturned since. Here are his supporting research conclusions:

“The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the more active the coping efforts. Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior. … Performance accomplishments provide the most influential efficacy information because it is based on personal mastery experiences.”

Reason 5: The intrinsic motivators for learningAttention, Relevance, and Needare at their highest levels in the workflow.

Reason 6: Effective learning takes place over time—real learning doesn’t usually occur in a one-time event. Research teaches us that spaced repetition (distributed practice) is particularly beneficial if long-term retention is the goal. Over 800 experiments demonstrated that spaced repetition increases long-term retention in individuals by 200 percent. And, the optimal time to review information is just before the forgetting phase, which generally occurs in the flow of work.

We have a singular opportunity to rise up and contribute, strategically, at a level we have not heretofore been privileged to achieve. This strategic partnership with the business will require us to extend learning’s reach into the workflow. I’m not advocating that all learning should occur in the workflow. On the contrary, a 5 Moments of Need solution considers all learning modalities, including the workflow. What I am advocating is that since organizational performance agility occurs in the workflow, we need to extend our reach into that most remarkable learning environment.

The good news is that we actually know how to do this. For the past 15 years many streetwise learning professionals have pursued a cohesive organizational learning and performance support strategy that encompasses a critical range of strategic capabilities (including workflow learning), tactical capabilities (such as performance centered design), and technical capabilities (for example, the ability to track, measure, and report impact). We have gathered significant benchmarking data in each of these capability areas. This data, along with best practices and lessons learned, have guided the development of an extensive maturity model that can guide organizations in developing a tailored path enabling organizational performance agility. More to come on all of this. For now, just know that acquiring this agility absolutely requires our leadership and help. We can be the difference between profit and loss; success and failure; surviving or not surviving. It can and needs to be a silver lining during these most challenging times


Albert Bandura & Nancy E. Adams, Stanford University, Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol 1, No. 4, 1977, pp. 287-310.