Learning & development simply can’t be responsible for all the learning in the organization. While it would be desirable, perhaps, it certainly isn’t possible. There are too many people, and things are changing faster and faster. What we want is for our employees to be continually improving, but we need help. What help? To answer that, we have to explore learning, and then how learning can be expanded beyond “the course”.

Formal learning—accelerating novices to a useful level—is a primary goal. Ideally, such learning is effective. However, too often we see a goal of “til they get it right”. While expedient, this is ineffective: it’s too easily forgotten so it won’t have persistence. The oft-touted alternative is “til they can’t get it wrong”. However, this too is impractical in most cases. This would require more resources than typically are available. We need a middle ground.

What we want is to get learners to a baseline level of capability, perhaps following the Pareto rule: the 20 percent of stuff that meets 80 percent of the needs. Then we need a plan to develop them more slowly. What comes after should be continual improvement. But we can’t count on it. There’s much that can be done to facilitate that, specifically coaching and the choice of assignments. But we’d also like learners to be improving on a continual basis without our intervention. How can we make that happen?

Self-improving learners

An ideal goal is self-improving learners. That is, learners who track their own performance and then look for opportunities to get better. There are several components to this. One is a way to track self-performance, and another element is guidance to do better. It takes knowledge to support this, but we know how.

People need feedback. If employees are producing outputs, there is direct evidence. If they’re interacting with others, evidence is somewhat more indirect. It must come from their performance; tracked via customer comments, observation, or through technology like the Experience API (xAPI). And it should be clear that this data is used to the individual’s benefit. Otherwise, it could undermine a feeling of organizational support.

While this data can be fed to coaches, it can also be made available to the individual. What is also needed is a framework for evaluating that performance. Here we’re talking models. These can be formal models that describe what should be happening. Or it can be examples of what good performance is, along with rubrics to evaluate one’s own performance.

There need to be opportunities to practice that are at the edge of the performer’s ability. Vygotsky talked about the zone of proximal development, between what you can absolutely do, and what you can’t do at all. This is where learning happens. It can be serendipitous, where individuals deal with what comes and ask for help if necessary. Or it can be through a planned series of gradually increasing responsibility. It could even be adapted by systems.

Learners also need to know that they’re expected to improve and given the tools to succeed—specifically the data and the models. This doesn’t have to be totally in lieu of any intervention (again, coaching), but should be gradually occurring. The goal is to ensure that individuals are fully resourced to improve.

Other-improving learners

Guidance doesn’t only have to come from coaches or the individual. There could (and should) be feedback from others to assist the upward trajectory. This creates some additional requirements, however. To make this work means some visibility and a positive environment.

The principle of “thinking out loud” or “show your work” is a key opportunity. Here, the traces of what a person is doing are available in the organization. Employees’ current projects, status, and associated thinking are visible. This requires a willingness to share, which depends on making it safe to share.

It’s particularly important to share mistakes, but this is also quite challenging. Mistakes are learning opportunities, but if these will be held against you (ala the “Miranda Organization”), no one will admit to them. Individuals should be expected to experiment and have things go wrong to some degree.

It’s also important to have specific skills around asking for, and giving, assistance. The wrong approach (e.g., personal rather than on the evidence) can be damaging. Constructive criticism is an ability that needs to be developed, not assumed.


Note that both self- and other-improving likely happen in any circumstance, but optimizing the opportunity is a role for L&D. The goal is not to leave it to chance, but to provide the expectations and resources for it to happen effectively.

Technology plays a clear role here. The sharing of work is facilitated through social-enabled systems. The tracking of activities requires instrumentation. Access to performance guides such as models and examples can be facilitated as well through a portal of learning and performance resources. And, the participation of others similarly suggests a social media system or capability. We’re talking the “performance ecosystem” here.

There is also the need for developing and maintaining the culture and skills around an ongoing learning focus. Again, these should not be taken for granted, but made explicit and facilitated. There is no guarantee that such skills have been developed through schooling or prior experience. It’s an endeavor, but also a big opportunity.

The upside here is a continually improving organization. Investments in formal learning can be kept lean, and resources can instead be devoted to facilitating learning in the organization. The outcomes, with proper implementation, should be felt throughout.

Overall, this is a strategic initiative for the organization. The potential for continual improvement is a valuable contribution, and one that is best addressed by learning unit management and above. Ultimately, as the goal is to permeate the organization, it should be addressed at the C-suite level. It’s challenging, but the potential is substantial. And, as always, I suggest it should be going on within L&D before taking it outward. Time to improve!

From the editor

Meet Clark Quinn at DevLearn Conference & Expo. On October 22, prior to the Conference, he will lead the full-day workshop, “Learning Experience Design: Integrating Engagement and Learning Science”. At the Conference, he will participate in the panel discussion “Learning Buzzword Bingo: Making Sense of the Hype” and facilitate the Morning Buzz session, “Learning Experience Design: What’s Involved and What Works?