Think back to the different jobs you’ve had throughout your career. How were you onboarded to these new roles? When I reflect on mine, most involved a parade of introductory meetings, a stack of information technology (IT) manuals with logins for the various systems and tools, a huge list of work examples to review related to my new job and a mentor to shadow and support in the field. It sounds comprehensive — and it was — but it was also a lot to take in and remember.

For many, onboarding can cause information overload. This can apply to new hires and people changing jobs or roles within the same company. The reality is that the purpose of onboarding is to deliver a lot of information quickly.

So, what can we do differently? As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we have to stop treating the onboarding process like a sprint and instead, treat it like a marathon. Let’s provide learners with the right learning content at the right time. This will allow content to be learned more like “water breaks” and delivered in a learner’s moment of need — in other words, deliver learning in the flow of work.

What is Learning in the Flow of Work?

John Bersin describes learning in the flow of work as informal learning that happens when people access answers or timely training snippets while working.

Bersin’s research shows that learning in the flow of work can increase productivity, retention and even engagement with formal training. It also confirms the old strategy of racing to get employees up to speed to “hit the ground running” is missing the mark.

Don’t worry, onboarding can still accomplish the goal of getting new hires off to a quick start, but we must embrace this new paradigm shift. By simply changing when and how learning is delivered, content can be timelier and learners can learn in ways more conducive to their learning style and at their own pace.

Delivering Learning Content In-the-Flow

Advances in learning technologies and platforms have made it much easier to deliver performance support and learning content directly to the employee while they are working.

Creating content for these platforms can be anything from basic email reminders, PDF handouts or job aids to embedding helpful tips, short videos and coaching in virtual learning. In-the-flow content could even include leveraging subject matter experts (SMEs) who can curate and contribute content in real-time.

Building and empowering a network of employees across every job function as learning content curators will enhance content creation and be a catalyst to increase adoption and engagement through a sense of ownership.

Identifying the most critical information and the best ways to share it in a context-relevant, just-in-time manner is the key to successfully delivering learning in the flow of work.

Onboarding with Empathy

Consider the forgetting curve, a model introduced by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus to explain how memories are lost. Ebbinghaus determined that the most significant decline in retention of information occurs right after something is learned, which applies directly to onboarding.

The lack of reinforcement of information is why the race to onboard someone only intensifies the effects of the forgetting curve. That is why L&D professionals need to onboard with empathy.

Focusing on immersing employees in an organization’s culture and sharing the most critical “need to know” information relevant to them should take place during the first few weeks of onboarding. These early lessons should also reinforce opportunities to learn in the flow, such as where to look for help videos when using a tool or a booklet of job aids they can reference in the field.

Training Gen Z

Integrating learning in the flow of work is especially relevant when considering how to onboard the next generation of the workforce, Generation Z. Gen Z team members are also generally considered more self-reliant, value flexibility, are unafraid to search for answers and prefer to learn how they want instead of being forced to do it a certain way.

This generation has grown-up consuming information in bite-sized chunks. So, if resources like microlearning — especially video — are available, Gen Z will likely use them. That is why learning in the flow of work is not just a fad; it’s a roadmap for supporting the next generation of the workforce with optimal L&D offerings.


When it comes to a company’s onboarding process, a learner’s time and ability to retain information can be seemingly impossible roadblocks to success. However, dissecting the information that needs to be shared and taking an empathetic approach that focuses on the learner’s needs are critical first steps in transforming an ineffective onboarding sprint into a winning marathon.