Explores what learning at work means in an organisational context, the theories behind it, and the strategic and practical issues involved
Date: 01/10/19 | Duration: 00:27:12
Learning in-the-flow of work requires practitioners to design and facilitate learning close to the workface, and that requires new thinking and tactics. We can no longer rely on 'the course'. What does this mean for L&D practitioners? And what has been the impact of technology and digitalisation?
In this episode, Andy Lancaster (Head of Learning, CIPD), David James (Chief Learning Officer, Looop Learning) and Kate Graham (Head of Content, Fosway Group) discuss what is meant by 'learning in-the-flow of work', how it differs from performance support, what it means for L&D practitioners, organisations and those who work in them, and why it is important to provide. We also look at what L&D professionals can do to ensure they deliver effective learning in-the-flow of work and the importance of evidence, data and context.
View the full podcast transcript
Philippa Lamb: If you keep track of new trends in learning and development, you’ll already know that the field is learning from entertainment providers like Netflix and Spotify. Content is curated into a series of playlists or channels, you subscribe, and that content is recommended to you depending on your job role, algorithmic recommendations or just the sort of content you consumed before. And like the entertainment streaming services those recommendations are getting more sophisticated. But corporate learning isn't about entertainment. We watch it to learn, and Josh Bersin, the internationally renowned HR industry analyst, thinks we’re now entering a new era which he calls ‘Learning in the flow of work’.
With me to talk about what that is and how it works, I have Andy Lancaster, Head of Learning here at the CIPD and David James, Chief Learning Officer at Looop. Hello to you both.
David James: Hi.
Andy Lancaster: Hello.
PL: Okay well shall we kick off by actually talking about what learning in the flow of work actually means. David.
David James: Learning in the flow of work is best described from the end user perspective. I always do a compare and contrast because it’s very easy to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of what it should look like if we start with content and programmes. So imagine that you are a front end user. Ideally you’re new to a role, to an organisation, so it’s when your eyes and minds are wide open to the challenges and unfamiliar situations that you may face. But then you are alerted to useful stuff that meets the needs that you have in that unfamiliar situation, guides and supports you to action at the other end. Now that is at a very high level and the reason I like to start there is that we sometimes lack the vision to imagine the ideal situation rather than look at our existing platforms and programmes and think ‘how could we use those’?
PL: So on the ground, what does it look like? Am I understanding this right? It interleaves tips and ways of working into the places, the systems, you’re already going to do your day job, places like Slack or G Sweep?
DJ: Ideally it will be integrated into the tools you use for work. I'm not a big fan of creating facilities, whether that be universities or academies for learning when people’s primary motivation at work is to do the job better and faster, and to improve their prospects for a myriad of different reasons, but it’s about them, their role and their career, not necessarily just about the learning. So if we can integrate with the tools they are already using for work I think, Josh Bersin mentioned previously that it’s about being where workers are or where learners are, then we can influence what they do when it’s important to them.
PL: And that sounds like good sense Andy?
Andy Lancaster: It is. We go to work to deliver something on behalf of our organisation, whatever sector we might work in, it’s actually about delivery. So for me learning in the flow of work is naturally occurring learning. This has been happening for years, it’s happening all the time and I think to one extent HR and L&D are just waking up to the fact that this is going on, but there's a skill to harness and amplify this. So yeah I think this is really exciting and because it’s happening already. this is doable. We’ve just got to get our heads around a change of mindset to support and amplify what’s taking place already.
PL: And what sounds appealing to me is it builds on the way we all source our entertainment doesn’t it, so it’s not like we’re having to learn a whole new way of doing this and that's got to be a big plus point?
AL: I think it is, and we’re naturally accessing content and solutions and we can all think of ways through technology or peers or contacts where we derive solutions to the challenges and the opportunities we have. So I think again we’re not having to equip learners for this they know to do this stuff. What we’re having to think about is, within organisations how we can facilitate this? So for me one of the big shifts is we’re moving away from the concept of going on a course, to actually having a solution which is there in the workplace. And that's a massive shift for L&D professionals. Most of us come from backgrounds where most of our time has been around designing and delivering courses where you have to wait weeks sometimes to access something relevant. So this is a timely shift to solutions where when I need them in the moment something is provided for me to be able to learn.
PL: And even when you don't know you need it, it’s certainly a little tip to make things better for you.
AL: Well exactly and often it’s in the moment that I suddenly realise I do need something.
PL: Yeah so it’s prompting you.
AL: It is prompting and that's a huge mindset shift for learning professionals to be thinking about solutions and not courses.
PL: So David tell me about on the ground companies doing this?
DJ: So the best example that I'm aware of is Sky. Sky have been working this way for about three years. They have completely pivoted their approach but it doesn’t mean necessarily that anybody wanting to dip their toe in needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But they’re in a position now where they don't run training courses and they don't have eLearning for anything other than compliance. But they support their people, at the moment of need. They use first of all data to recognise that there is a real problem because one of the real challenges for learning and development for a long time has been engagement in the offering whether that be hits on the LMS or whether that be attendance on programmes. But if you are supporting people with what they need, when they need it, in service of what they’re trying to do, what you realise is engagement is the least of your worries.
PL: Because they don't need to choose?
DJ: Yeah they’re not choosing and then it’s not about learning in the flow of work for them, it’s about performing in the flow of work. So, to throw another phrase in, I think that what we are talking about here is L&D at the point of work because, to your point earlier Andy, people learn anyway, when they’re faced with unfamiliar situations and challenges for the very first time they will be sourcing information from colleagues, they might be Googling to try to find some expertise or something that may be remiss of the organisation’s context but still useful, and they’re looking to apply that immediately into the flow of work. Now they’re already doing that, so what’s the role of L&D at the point of work because there are still challenges that stem from ‘how do we do the right things around here in order to get results’?
AL: David, you've made such a vital point there around data because often as L&D professionals I have to confess going back through my career I've done learning needs analysis which have come up with suggested needs which actually are not really aligned to the business priority, and I think David’s point is absolutely well made - that data is crucial and to that extent L&D is shifting more towards a performance consulting approach where we begin to understand what are the key needs that are cropping up? And for that data is crucial because our systems provide us with the kind of things that people are requiring. But to that end, and I'm sure we’ll come back to this in a moment Philippa, to that end the line manager is so crucial, that we have this close relationship that we can begin to understand exactly what people need in order to deliver and perform their jobs brilliantly.
PL: I mean that's the key here because it’s such a lovely idea, you can get carried away with the delivery mechanism but the content, it’s all about the content isn't it being right, otherwise it’s a complete waste of time.
DJ: The content is in service of the problem so if we understand what it is that needs to be addressed and, yes, line managers can service performance requirements, but if we then search for the data that validates that - first of all that says, yes that's a real problem, and then speak with the actual end-users themselves and talk about what is it that they are trying to do in relation to that data? What is a critical point of failure? What do they care about as they're trying to do their work that they're not able to do efficiently or easily? Once we’ve got that understanding, and that's data and evidence, then I think we get into content. But it’s about developing the right content in order to meet the needs and then working in an agile sense, with a capital A in order to move the needle and affect the data. But the data is the canary here because without data, then we are making big bets and assumptions that have rarely been validated. But with data we’re saying there is a real problem and then people are going to care.
PL: So this is back to evidence-based which we covered in a podcast not so long ago actually, this whole idea that you don't just work on what you think you know, you actually demonstrate it before you put the budget in. And presumably the content that's tweaking all the time, that's evolving all the time in response to how well it’s working?
AL: Well it has to be and I think this is why the relationship with L&D being closer to the business, and learning being closer to the business, is so crucial and, again, David makes a great point around this agile approach - if we’re going to support learning in the flow of work, in the workplace, we need to get solutions there quickly so that people are not waiting, but then the feedback is so crucial that the learners themselves are giving great feedback about what they need and what we need to do to support that. So there's a close link between performance, support and learning. Those are different things. But in many situations people are looking for support in the moment and that's where the learning team agility is really important, that we are able quickly to iterate solutions and supply something that's really important. So I think for learning teams being very close to the business is crucial and often we’ve been in our ghetto, we’ve been in a learning or an HR ghetto, we’ve been part of the learning HR system and now we’re…
PL: This is a hobby horse of yours, isn't it? We talked about it before.
AL: Well it is, Philippa, and I think what we’re looking at, and I don't want to just throw another trendy word in here, but this is about a learning ecosystem where together we’re working with managers, with staff, right across the business to create solutions which just touch those needs. The closer we get to the business, the better this becomes and that's a real challenge in speaking on a podcast such as this to us as HR and L&D professionals that we have to get out there and get very close to the business to understand what folks need.
PL: And it’s about the mindset of the entire business isn't it? It’s not just about the L&D, it’s not just about people learning. You become that learning organisation don't you?
DJ: Yeah that's right it’s when learning is absolutely integral to performance and it’s not just via rhetoric in which you’re creating a learning organisation in order to drive traffic towards programmes and content, it’s creating a learning organisation that is focused on guiding and supporting people to do the right things at the right time, learning from their actions. And once you've got that base level of sophistication and competence and confidence, you can grow from there.
I always use the examples of induction and new manager training, two things that organisations are always trying to improve or overhaul because induction is usually too much content in too short a space of time and then people are left to figure out the rest themselves. Whilst new managers aren’t provided with any guidance or support for sometimes weeks, months or years after they’ve already made that difficult transition. With both of those situations, imagine guiding and supporting people to do the right things, to get results from day one, to build up their confidence and competence and for L&D’s case build credibility and trust with the learning and development function because they too are focused on what the individual’s trying to do.
PL: So it’s a bit like having an experienced colleague sitting at your shoulder all the time isn't it, just assisting you if you need it?
AL: Yeah and organisations have always had those. I can think back through my career to the ‘go to’ person, you knew who those people were. And I think part of our role now as learning professionals is to harness that. But I think with that comes empowerment of learners which is really crucial. This is not about learning practitioners being the centre of the universe, the learner is the centre of this universe. And we need to empower them through all manner of things, that can be technology, we need to look at how we can leverage the technologies that people have. And you mentioned the ‘go to’ person, this is about communities of practice coming alive with those kind of contacts in the business.
And we’re looking at the emergence of things like augmented reality. I think that's one of the most crucial things that we’re going to have now, where using AR we can actually put solutions right into the workplace, accessible, in the workplace, those kind of solutions naturally occurring.
So I think if we can empower learners to take greater interest, control in their learning then this just becomes a new culture in the organisation rather than I go on a course and I haven’t done any learning unless I've been on a course, to actually I am owning my own learning and empowered to make this happen.
PL: Can we talk a bit about different sorts of learners because we hear a lot about millennials and how it’s different for millennials and obviously we’re talking here about learning throughout organisations, all sorts of people. Works for everyone?
AL: We love to stereotype, it’s such a natural thing to do, but I think what we’re seeing is this is about prevailing culture. So the younger people coming into the workplace, let’s not brand them as millennials or Gen X, Y, Z or whatever that is, let’s look at the prevailing culture. My Mum, bless her, at 84 now uses technology to track my flights when I travel.
PL: There you go.
AL: There you go, Mums will always be Mums. But it’s about all age groups embracing technology, so I think at CIPD we’re very reticent to stereotype that, this is not the way we should be going but we should maybe be looking at the way younger generations are leveraging technology in their lives as the prevailing culture and trying to replicate that within our organisations. So yeah let’s not look at labels, let’s look at prevailing cultures and see how we can leverage them.
DJ: Can I just add one more thing here, I think that sometimes millennials and those coming through maybe tarred with a brush because it’s seen that they have less patience for traditional learning and development methods. But I think that it’s more about there is an intolerance for having to wait for the stuff that they find valuable. So whether that is something as intuitive or predictable as a web search, whether that is waiting for attendance on a programme for which that's when they get their formal development, I think there is an intolerance because the expectation now is that you can get what you need when you need it in order to perform and move on, and I think that's what we’re facing and the resistance might actually be from L&D professionals who aren’t willing to adapt their approach.
PL: Yeah, that impatience and that’s society-wide isn't it because we are all learning to expect instant gratification? We need to wrap this up but I just want to go back and you talked about Sky, obviously Sky - giant budgets, huge company, it’s great they’re doing this. But thinking about L&D and HR practitioners on the ground in rather smaller organisations, what sort of steps can they take towards this, because this isn't a thing where you have to step off a cliff is it, you can work towards it?
DJ: The ethos behind this is experimentation because you have to be working towards affecting data and affecting performance, that can't come top-down in an organisation where it’s a system implementation or programme rollout upon the, either assumed or aggregated, needs of an entire population. This is understanding what individuals are trying to do in relation to data, so that validation part, and then using an approach, learning in the flow of work, in order to move the needle and experiment with folks. Then you can scale with the right technology and then you can go on and automate to make a new smart in that regard.
But what I will say is this whole approach, technology is the cherry on the top of the cake, it’s not the cake. The cake itself is working with and understanding real business problems, looking to move the needle with experimentation to understand what it is that people are trying to do, and what they’re not able to do either at all or efficiently, and then you'll find the right tools in order to affect what it is they are trying to do. And it’s never the other way round. And that's why I always say start with the end-user because that's where it’s going to end as well and if you’re just looking for problems to solve with your existing tools and content, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be trying affect learning in the flow of work.
AL: The CIPD gave me a little bit of time to look at this because it is so crucial and here’s just some areas where I think practitioners can get some really quick wins around this. One is looking at the whole thing about communities of practice and that's that ‘go to’ person. So the whole thing that facilitates communities is really important. Coaching is important because we’ve been doing this for ages but now we recognise coaching in the flow of work is really important. Valuing mistakes is really important and we often learn some of our biggest lessons through mistakes. And if we want to support self-direction in learning, things like curation are really important, and as David said digital.
So I suppose I could be cheeky here, you know. It’s in the new book I'm writing around driving performance through learning. But there are practical things that we need to do and I think between David and I, there are some great things that people can take way. So I’d really want to encourage learning professionals - this is very doable but just think about the tools you have which can place learning right in that workflow to enable people to be empowered just to grab learning when they need to.
PL: Great discussion thank you very much guys.
We talked about the role of tech in all this and Kate Graham is Head of Content at HR industry analysts Fosway Group and she is an expert in this area.
I mean learning in the flow of work as an idea isn't new is it, but the way it’s being done, the how, is new because it’s all about tech isn't it?
Kate Graham: That's an interesting question because I'm not sure that it is necessarily about technology, I think that learning is becoming more digitally led so over the years since the click next eLearning revolution, we’ve seen organisations have realised this is a good way to scale. Technology is an easy way to scale, much easier than the classroom, so that's been the driver for it previously. But actually if you look at the drivers that Fosway is finding in our research now, it’s things like drivers for digital learning include things like increasing availability, increasing agility and speed of learning, increasing learner engagement. So these things all make sense and ultimately it’s about helping people find the right answer, in the right place, at the right time.
PL: So tech is an enabler, not the starting point.
KG: That is exactly the way that I would phrase it, yes.
PL: There is, I think it’s fair to say, quite a lot of dissatisfaction with existing L&D tech isn't there?
KG: The dissatisfaction is definitely there and there has been a lot of this it looks good on paper, whether or not it’s actually the right fit. At Fosway we always talk about context and often people will look at things like our nine grids and go, ‘Oh someone’s in the top right-hand corner, that must mean that they’re really good,’ but actually what’s the context of your organisation, how do your people work, where did they work, how did they learn? You know they might need something completely different. So something like a smaller, cheaper social learning platform for example might be more appropriate than a full blown learning management system. So sometimes it’s not the system’s fault it’s the way that it’s been implemented.
PL: Give me an example of what you mean by that, how it actually might work on the ground in a smallish organisation? What sort of systems might they use?
KG: In some of these full suite applications there will be modules for talent acquisition, performance, succession planning, things like that, which obviously in a large organisation, enterprise organisation, are invaluable and are often still overlooked actually in their importance. But in a smaller organisation it might just be that you need to disseminate information, you might not be very hierarchical, you might not need to worry so much about succession planning in such a formal way, but actually people still need to learn and they still need to be able to hear new ideas and understand. It might be new products or it might be a new piece of software that they’ve got to use, you still need to disseminate that information. But something smaller like one of these learning experience platforms that we’re seeing coming through now or you might hear them called social learning platforms. So these smaller, more nimble solutions don't have a lot of these additional bells and whistles that organisations that are smaller maybe don't need, so for their context actually it’s about the right fit for them.
Now a lot of people watched Love Island in the summer and a colleague of mine, Gemma Critchley, who works for Aviva in learning technology, she's amazing, she coined this phrase earlier in the summer about a system being their type on paper. And it ticked all the boxes that were on their procurement questionnaire etc. but the chemistry wasn’t there. And it didn’t fit.
PL: What about devices, because people don't have to be using their company PCs for this do they?
KG: No. We’ve just been looking at a piece of research that was done externally and it’s fascinating actually because a lot of assumptions are made about ‘bring your own device’. I think it’s quite an obvious, easy win in some respects because people might go, ‘Well we can't afford to give everybody a mobile or a tablet so we’ll just get them to use their own.’ But actually there are implications around storage, not everybody has the storage for these apps. How easy are they to set up? What other data does it give the organisation access to? Are there privacy issues?
PL: Yes, security and privacy.
KG: People are very private about how they use their phones and that's absolutely fine. And then about the types of content that you’re expecting people to engage with. So just spending the money to shrink down a 30 minute eLearning course onto a mobile device, is anybody really going to sit there for 30 minutes on their phone and do that? Maybe if they get stuck on a train, like I did this morning, but most people are just going to use that for maybe quick reference, more performance support things. So as well as thinking about the device itself, it’s also the type of materials and content that you are putting on there because you have to be realistic about people’s usage patterns and what you can expect them to do on their own data, potentially in their own time.
PL: Looking at the nuts and bolts, we talked about how you do this, should you be doing this? Evidence for working in this way actually does raise productivity, that it does bring wins for the organisation, does it exist this evidence now?
KG: It’s murky to be honest. Our Fosway research shows that less than a third of organisations are supporting learners’ application of learning when they get back to the workplace. Less than a third are looking to sustain learning in the workplace and actually only 26% are adopting multi-channel delivery, so the devices piece that we just talked about. The data basically shows just that a lot of organisations are abandoning learners actually when they need to be nurtured and helped the most.
PL: Isn't that interesting, so they spend the money, they introduce the system and then they let it fail. Is that quite a hill for L&D to climb and for management to climb, this idea that you don't get to the point where you can say, ‘Well we did that and it produced this outcome’ because it is continuous and so you’re perpetually monitoring and perpetually evolving presumably?
KG: There is definitely a mind shift for L&D here. But, by sitting back and going, well where are my organisation’s pain points? Moments of friction can occur at any point in a day and a really obvious one is something that Asos encountered. Now Asos is a fashion brand and very cool. I've been to the Asos headquarters I felt very old and very drab.
PL: I'm not going to ask you what you wore I bet that was a whole conversation.
KG: Whatever it was it wasn’t cool enough, let me tell you. And one of their main points of friction is actually in the kind of pre-boarding process because people are freaking out about what to wear on day one.
PL: Really, that's the issue?
KG: And it’s so obvious, when you think about it. It’s like of course people would be stressed about that. Now that is a moment of friction and they identified that after talking to groups, card raisers, new starters, and so actually what they built into their pre-boarding process is some tips and advice on what to wear on day one. And even just the fact that it’s been addressed in terms of probably don't worry about it, I don't know exactly what they said, but as I say it’s just such an obvious point.
And then you can carry that through the first day. People aren’t worried about the values of an organisation on their first day, where do I get my lunch, how do I get paid, all these basic things. And then when you get into that mindset you can go through almost people’s journey through an organisation, how do I get promoted, how do I go through my performance review process, how does that work? Well if you proactively build in some resources that people can check and access themselves, so in the flow of work as we’ve been talking about, then suddenly they can put their mind at rest, or they at least know that there's maybe a champion or a manager or somebody that they can go and talk to about this stuff, but there's something there that has been thought of ahead of time. So it’s trying to reduce that friction.
PL: So despite the fact that as you say the evidence that this is a useful thing to do is pretty murky and insubstantial right now. You’re confident that it is when it’s done in the right way and supported continuously. That it does produce good outcomes?
KG: Yes we do see, you know there are some great case studies emerging so as I say Sky is one of those that we’ve written about in our innovation profile series but when only 18% of L&D effort is actually going on impacting performance, you realise that we have a way to come and as I say at Fosway we talk about this habit of delivery, so it is getting into a different mindset. And you could argue education in general, I have a child who’s just started Year One at school, you could argue that there's a lot of Victorian mindset that still exists, sitting at a desk, involves learning, what’s learning? Actually is it just acquiring knowledge? The forgetting curve kicks in, what’s the point? I can't recite my periodic table anymore, unsurprisingly! But it is definitely I think there are some great thinkers out there, a lot of people talking about experience and things like that and these things have a trickle-down effect. But ultimately it’s about outcomes - how can you go to your business and say, ‘I can help impact positively something that is part of an overall business goal,’ because ultimately organisations are most concerned with performance, profitability, productivity. So how can learning help impact those?
PL: Thanks to Andy Lancaster, David James and Kate Graham. As always you can find out more about weaving learning into work on the CIPD site and we will be back with another episode on November 5th. Thanks for listening.
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