Designing For How People Really Learn, At The Point-Of-Work

“We exist in a culture in which fact-based knowledge dominates traditional instruction. People who are good at “knowledge games” like Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy are considered smart. But life requires us to do, more than it requires us to know, in order to function. It makes more sense to teach students how to perform useful tasks. There is only one effective way to teach someone how to do anything, and that is to let them do it.” Schank, Berman, and MacPherson

In recent years L&D have seemed so focused on ‘delivering learning’, we’ve almost forgotten what we’re really in organisations to do.

‘Learning’ is delivered in a calendar of programmes, a suite of e-learning, and a library of ‘content’. These all live in the ‘learning silo’, separate from the ‘working silo’ where our clients and colleagues are. But that’s all changing…

According to Towards Maturity’s latest benchmark report, ‘integrating learning into the workflow’ is one of the biggest priorities for L&D, with 93% of respondents admitting this, which is important for our profession because it gets us closer to helping our organisations’ most important priorities: to improve organisational performance and increase productivity. Despite this, ‘Supporting Workplace Performance’ is one of the least prevalent skills in L&D today.

Without designing for the point-of-work, L&D solutions (macro and micro) rely heavily on hope and are costly in so many important ways. Solutions are often:

  • Expensive to produce;
  • Expensive to deliver – not just in terms of who delivers it but the cost of taking people away from their work for a period of time;
  • Rarely available when needed, due to the previous two points;
  • And (the elephant in the room) rarely solve the real performance and capability problems, after all.

We can explain away the final point by saying that the delegate didn’t transfer their learning back to the workplace or the learning wasn’t supported by the line manager, but with so much hinging on such delicate products, are we sure they are fit for purpose?

One thing is for sure, as the quote at the top explains, “there is only one effective way to teach someone how to do anything, and that is to let them do it” and people in organisations are measured and rewarded for ‘doing’ not ‘knowing’ or ‘learning’. We need to focus on supporting and guiding people at their moment of need and challenge the convention that our traditional solutions, that were developed for scale more than effectiveness (classroom training and e-learning), are ineffective as the lead mechanisms for ‘better performance for better results’.

So How Do We Design For The Point-Of-Work / -Need?

Designing for the point of need / work requires us to not think in terms of initiatives, but in terms of situations and challenges faced by our clients and colleagues: the ‘doing’. So, instead of ‘solving’ a generic Time Management problem with education on the main theories and models of this topic, it means understanding the friction that real people face, perhaps around managing their priorities; balancing projects alongside day-to-day stuff; and using a calendar app to plan. The biggest difference between these two approaches is that one relies on education – ‘learning’ – and the other on supporting people at their point of need, where the learning comes from ‘doing’, based on what they are trying to achieve, not what L&D want them to achieve.This seems like an obvious pivot but not one possible without a much higher ratio of L&D to employees or without smarter technology.

Here is a visual example of how this could look. The inner circles encapsulate employee situations and motivations with broad headings that describe a level of maturity within the organisation. This is opposed to broad topics that form the basis of a curriculum. Focusing on people and their problems helps us to address these specifically and efficiently, iterating and scaling only what works for other groups.

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 16.10.31

The circles on the outside are the interactions and activities that could be employed to address friction, overcome challenges and provide inspiration. The stories, inside the box, are the sharing of relevant experiences and expertise – in the context of the situations, friction and challenges that are experienced. All in service of supporting and guiding others and rich in the context of the organisation, it’s norms, practices and other rewarded behaviours.

Our People Want To Learn Their Way

L&D often describe a lack of engagement in their offerings (both classroom and, more likely, online). This is because the ‘learning provision’ is something separate from the work. Whereas, learning at the point of work is not separate, or superfluous. Of course, there is time for developmental conversations and individual reflection, which is aside from the day-to-day, but the rich learning is in the work itself, in overcoming real challenges, in preparing to act, and in acting itself. If we can recognise the motivations, the common challenges and the required actions, we can support these, rather than trying to generate artificial motivation for ‘learning’.

Engagement surveys and other reports inform us that people are motivated to learn at work but we often misinterpret this as: people want to go on courses and do e-learning. Primary motivators to learn at work are to do the job better and faster, and progress within the company and / or profession. For these reasons, we must scaffold and support the experience of work not learning.

Thinking like this we can support learning in the workflow rather than in event-based one-and-done training. We measure our results against what people are trying to do and what the organisation needs them to do instead of what ‘learning’ they’ve experienced.

By focusing on ‘learning’ we’ve missed the whole point of our role and our remit in Learning & Development. When we focus on programmes and content; e-learning and systems we neglect the real challenges people face and actual organisational capability requirements. But if we scaffold and support actual working we recognise how people truly learn and grow at work rather than continue the belief that people learn best in classrooms.

The point of work is where the motivation resides and where we can offer the greatest value, to our clients.

David James is Digital Learning Strategist with Looop and was previously Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.

Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.

See also:

Next Generation L&D: From ‘Learning To “Performance’

When You’re Too Busy Delivering Training To Do Digital

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