A Frictionless Learning Moment

Sue stood in front of the expensive machine and sighed. For a while now, at the end of her shift, she’d experienced the same problem with the machine. She could never remember what to do; the class on the machine was months ago, and the instructor was long gone.

Fortunately, she had a new performance support program. An app on her phone had already “talked” to the machine and recognized her as one of its operators. She opened the app and searched for the fix for the problem. The solution came up almost instantly as the app gave her a choice: Would she like to read about it or watch it on a video? She was in a hurry, so she watched the procedure, pausing and rewinding the video when needed, and then followed the steps. It was that easy. Even writing a report, including a picture, was a snap. For once, she’d be home by dinner.

The Superforce and the Speed of Now

The forces of globalization, digitization and automation and the initial experiments with artificial intelligence all combined in the 1980s to produce a superforce that has profoundly impacted every workplace in every country. Today, it seems as if time is moving faster. Decisions need to be made on the spot, knowledge is less valuable than know-how, and the ability to perform a job and quickly move on is seen as time better spent than learning.

The impact on learning and development is dramatic. The old model of training is being replaced by the need to enable business to move at what is being called “the speed of now.”

Removing Friction from L&D

As the pace of change continues to speed up, learning something “someday” or even “soon” no longer works. The new standard is “now,” as in, “I’m in the middle of a disaster” or, “I’m ten minutes from the meeting” or, “The customer is on the phone,” and “I need to learn something now.”

Today, learning programs need to be developed overnight, provide instantaneous knowledge and know-how, rely on curation more than course design, imagine what learners might look for in the future, and search outside their own area of expertise for materials. L&D needs to identify and remove the friction between learning and work – to deliver frictionless learning experiences.

Defining Friction

The term “friction” was originally used by website designers responsible for the user experience (UX), whose goal was to reduce the amount of time (i.e., friction) spent looking for something on a website. The learning experience deserves the same consideration.

In learning, friction is what comes between the question and the answer, the need to know and the know-how, the issue and the solution, the problem and the procedure. If learning is the only real competitive advantage for companies in the knowledge economy, then, according to recent Gartner research, reducing friction will be the most important contributor to that competitive advantage.

A New Direction for L&D

It is impossible to foresee all the changes that a frictionless learning ecosystem will entail. However, some are already obvious, because a growing number of companies around the world are evolving toward a more frictionless form of learning:

Classroom Training

The formal sage-on-the-stage approach has proven to be ineffective. Unless they are quickly implemented, learning in a virtual or actual classroom is subject to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Evolved L&D organizations have replaced the classroom with structured on-the-job training and performance support. “Learning by doing,” or simply “doing and moving on to the next job,” is the new approach to a frictionless learning ecosystem.

Social Learning

In many of these companies, communities of practice (CoP) have replaced “push learning” with “pull learning.” Learners can connect to the CoP with any device, anytime and anywhere. They can ask the community a question, read the answer, listen to the answer, watch a video of the answer or look at a schematic for the answer. They can even snap a photo and show their work to make sure that they are doing it correctly. If they want to learn something in more depth, they have to learn to ask the right questions and engage in a learning conversation with the right person. Communication and collaboration, supported by the organization’s culture, leaders and technology, become the norm. L&D may be invisible, working behind the scenes to make it work.

Self-Directed Learners

Writer and consultant Harold Jarche emphasizes the critical need for companies to develop and support self-directed learners: “Management needs to support self-learning … [and] workers will also have to be their own instructional designers.” John Hagel, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, also has a take on what it really means to be a self-directed learner. Jarche, Hagel and other L&D leaders agree that self-directed learning will be a necessity in a frictionless learning ecosystem.

In companies where L&D has evolved, managers play a critical role in helping people develop self-directed learning skills, including curation, critical thinking, effective communication, active participation, self-reflection, creativity and emotional intelligence. This approach requires a culture that actively supports fearless questioning and open communication. Managers are the critical lynchpin needed to help people learn to learn in this new frictionless ecosystem.

There are many examples of this new frictionless learning ecosystem. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

  • A salesperson in the field preparing to make a presentation to a client uses her phone to quickly and easily find out what to tell them about planned changes to the product.
  • An operator in a manufacturing plant, unsure about the correct cutting speed and spindle speed for a job, quickly finds the information from the performance support system before beginning to work.
  • A new internet installation field tech working on a telephone pole needs to remember the exact procedure for connecting the local conversion point cabinet to the internet service provider fiber. He calls his supervisor and uses real-time, two-way video to review the procedure.
  • The foreman of an HVAC crew working on a high-rise wants to verify part of the city’s building code. Using the expert locator on his mobile phone he quickly finds the names and numbers of three people authorized to tell him how to proceed.
  • A manager is scheduled to hold a monthly performance review with one of her new direct reports. She visits the company’s internal wiki and watches a performance review simulation.

This new approach requires L&D to focus more on curation, communication, collaboration and performance than on courses and classes. It requires L&D to support self-learning at all levels of the organization. It shifts the focus from knowledge to know-how; promotes emotional intelligence; and develops a culture that supports inquiry, experimentation and fearlessness as well as frictionless. It’s the dramatic evolution L&D must undertake to enable companies to successfully compete in the interconnected, hypercompetitive and constantly changing knowledge economy of the 21st century.