On April 22, Conrad Gottredson contributed the story, "Performing at the Speed of Change:Workflow Learning in a Pandemic." With layoffs, working from home, and damage to the economy taking place at unprecedented levels, it is likely that the nature of the workflow in many organizations will have changed greatly by the time the coronavirus is under control. I asked Conrad for his thoughts on the effects on our approach to learning in organizations.
Bill Brandon: Do you think that this pandemic and what we're having to go through to adapt to it is an opportunity to change the way we've always approached managing work, managing learning. We've talked for a long time about the workflow, about reaching people in the workflow. Do you think our understanding of what "the workflow" is has changed?
Conrad Gottfredson: It hasn't changed my view of workflow learning. But workflow learning has been misunderstood. You know, in the initial stages of people talking about workflow learning the subject was: If you are learning while you're at your job, you go to eLearning, we create microlearning things. You can get to those microlearnings in the workflow, and you've got workflow learning.
But we've looked at it very differently. You see, the heart of workflow learning to us is learning as you do your work, not stopping your work. Microlearning requires you to pause work—maybe not as long as a full eLearning module, which requires you to stop work. Or going to a class, whcih requires you to stop work. But to the degree that you have to stop your work to learn, you're stepping away from true workflow learning.
Real workflow learning is where people are supported as they actually do their work. They learned in the process of doing and that's the world of performance support. That's where Gloria Gery, the whole EPSS thing, the principles lie, is enabling people to learn as they work. And so, how's this pandemic changed? Right now, we've been in triage mode, right? So everybody is just trying to move things to virtual formats. And that's not workflow learning. People are at homes and places but they're still in virtual learning. They're happy to stop the work to learn.
But what I hope can happen is that we can look beyond the moment here and begin to look and justify investment and making the journey into workflow learning. And that journey includes microlearning. It includes all of that, but the most powerful workflow learning delivery system is a digital coach, what Gloria Geary called an EPSS. Two clicks, 10 seconds, you get to the steps of doing something in an additional coach, and it guides you through as you do that, as you're doing your work, you're learning, you're learning through experience. And when things go wrong and you check in, you find an FAQ or you go into a policy or whatever, that's all attached as a part of that digital EPSS you're learning. You're learning as you do your job, and growing. And so that's where I'm hoping that we can go.
Not all learning can be learned exclusively in the workflow. But on the average, about half of what we take people away from the work to do can be learned in the workflow. We know that from about 20 years of gathering data on that.
Does that make sense to you?
BB: Yes, it does. When did Gloria Gery write her book, Electronic Performance Support Systems?
CG: She published it in 1991. The decade of the 90s was a glorious performance support window. There was this tremendous push to rethink learning. But because technology wasn't there and organizational will wasn't there, organizations were pushed; they weren't being threatened, they weren't being challenged. And so we just reverted back to what we do. We tend as a learning organization to fall back into what we know, to our own traditions and so forth.
But what is unique with the pandemic that we're experiencing today is it's not letting us fall back. You know, it's forcing us to go where we should have been going.
BB: Are there steps that learning and development can take to adapt and to learn to support workflow learning better, to provide the support that's necessary for learning to take place without, as you say, stopping the work?
CG: So to get where we need to go, we need to dust off the practice of job task analysis, take that practice and turn it to mapping the workflow, to figuring out what it is that people need to be able to do on their job. Instead of writing major learning objectives, we need to be mapping the workflow and figuring out what are the tasks that people need to perform on the job. This is, you know, behavioral psychology, learning theory 101. It's about performance and experiential learning theory about the workflow. So, if we’ll start to shift from a learning mindset to a job performance mindset, and realize that’s what our work is. It's not just to help people learn, although that's very important, but it's to ensure that people can perform effectively on the job. And we can't do that unless we have visibility to what the job is. And we have to have that visibility at the job task level. So if we just dust off that mighty practice of job task analysis and move in and map the workflow, and then align all of our learning, looking at our existing courses, and saying, “Okay, now I've mapped the workflow. This is what people actually do in their jobs, and I've got them grouped, applying the principle of chunking. You know, I've got these actions that people do. I’ve got them into workflow processes. And now, how do I align learning with that?"
That's been the biggest challenge that we have. Learning is a means to an end. It's a means and we have gotten caught up in the means of learning. Too often the way we teach them, when they get to the workflow, the workflow is arranged differently. Then the other people in the workflow tell them, "Just forget what you learned. I'm going to show you how we really do it." Well, what a sad deal! We should have been training them how to do things according to how things work in the workflow. That's where I would start with job task analysis and map the workflow and then align learning with that. If you're doing that, then you're going to make a huge leap into delivering value to the organization.
As I entered the real world of work, I had a "learning" mindset. But I was fortunate enough to ask myself this question: "What is it that I do for this organization that has hired me? Learning is a means to what end?" And I realized then that it was a means to ensuring that people can perform effectively on the job, all the time, anywhere. That it was my work: learning was a means to get me there. And so when a key stakeholder comes to me and says, "I want you to build me a class," I'll step back and say to that key stakeholder, "Let me just ask you a few questions. There are some challenges or opportunities that you're trying to achieve, as they relate to the area of work that you're responsible for. So what are those challenges that that lead you to feeling like we need to have a class?" That leads to a discussion on performance. And then I'm able to say, "Okay, so what you want is for people to be able to do these things." And I'll take those challenges and opportunities and convert them to measurable impact. Then the conversation changes.
We've evolved to where we're order takers rather than performance consultants. We need to step back and reclaim the ground of performance consultants. I have never met a key stakeholder that didn't agree that the bottom line was that we wanted people to perform effectively on the job. And the only way we can do that is to make sure that we know what those performances are, and then we can create a solution.