With more than 40 years of experience in learning and development (L&D), I’ve been fortunate to have seen some amazing technologies and methodologies come and go. I’ve been on the “bleeding edge,” typically by happenstance, to some incredible new approaches — eLearning, the internet and even Microsoft Windows were all launched within my professional lifetime. To show you what I mean, I vividly remember being asked, as a 21-year-old student teacher in upstate New York, to arrive at my assigned sixth-grade classroom 30 minutes ahead of anyone in the building so I could load the cassette tape “program of the day” in the TRS-80 in the back of the classroom. This allowed our 12-year-old students to get their computer time for the day. That was 1982. If you are not aware of what a TRS-80 is, look it up. Your jaw will drop. That was my foray into eLearning years before that term even existed.

It’s been a wild ride, to say the least. I’ve seen fads come and go. I’ve seen our industry enamored with what became meaningless and, in some cases, expensive trends, and I’ve seen us ignore what could have been ground-breaking methodologies. This article is about one of those methodologies that have been truly revolutionary for me and many others — workflow learning. Nothing, and I mean nothing in my 40 years of working in this field has been as powerful and impactful for my work as workflow learning. Like a dear colleague of mine says, “Once you’ve seen this in action, you can’t unsee it, or go back to the way we used to do all this.” It changes everything. Here’s why:

Understanding the Learner’s Journey to Performance

First, a definition. I’m a big vocabulary guy! Don’t get me started on “microlearning.” Not because I don’t think it’s a thing, but rather, if you put 10 L&D professionals in 10 different rooms and asked for a definition of microlearning you’ll probably get 6-7 different answers. Words matter, and when we’re trying to add a new approach, tool or strategy to our learning portfolios, we need to be on the same page as an industry around what it means.

Here’s a definition of workflow learning: Workflow learning is embedding learning and support in the workflow to be accessed while trying to perform on the job. Notice the word, “while.” There are a lot of learning and support assets available in the workflow, but the learner needs to stop working to consume them — think learning management systems (LMSs) and eLearning. Neither of these is wrong or bad, they’re just not workflow learning assets. Workflow learning is consumed while doing the work. It sits in the workflow and guides the learner to an outcome or brings them back to one if they’ve failed and need to remediate. Both instances are learning while doing.

If you look at the reason we’re in this business, which is to help those we serve to perform effectively and efficiently on the job, we need to rethink our aversion toward a training-first mindset. Years ago, I was introduced to “train, transfer, sustain” (Figure 1), and it challenged me to look at my deliverables in ways I’d never considered before. It represents the journey our learners are on when they try to become, and remain, competent at their jobs. It shows both the stages — train, transfer, sustain — and the heavy lifting around gaining and applying skills in the workflow.

Historically, we’ve lived in the “train” stage. We host learners in our training deliverables, whether live or digital, and help bring them up to some level of mastery. As you can see, that’s only one-third of the journey and it is forgotten quickly. The learner leaves our offerings and faces the two greatest performance challenges of their life — becoming, and remaining, competent by transferring that knowledge into applications on the job. The training stage is important, and often the beginning of the journey, but true application and performance happen once that stage ends and the learner is back in the workflow. In too many learning deliverables, technologies and even strategies, we leave our learners woefully unprepared to face transfer and sustain as is represented by the question marks.

Before I found workflow learning, I had little to no intentional design strategy for the transfer and sustain stages. Sure, I hoped that the resources I shared during the training stage were used beyond the event, but that’s not a strategy that targets the final two stages. A performance-first strategy begins in the workflow and works back. It inverts our thinking from one of creating training first to one of supporting performance first. We design from right to left instead of left to right. You do that by adding a workflow learning framework as the underpinning of your design approach (Figure 2).

This will require you to add two new deliverables — a digital coach and targeted training, and you create them in that order. This shift isn’t only about the deliverables, it’s about a design pivot. If you add these two tools to your toolkit but start with targeted training first, you are still designing from a training-first mindset. If you design your digital coach first and enhance that with only the critical things that need to be trained (more on that later), you have shifted to a performance-first approach.

3 Powerful Results That Will Drive This Change

Three remarkable things happen when you make this shift:

  1. Your training footprint shrinks by 50% on average.

With a digital coach in the workflow, you no longer need to teach everything. Think about how refreshing that would be! Just ask any trainer, the elephant in the room with a training-first approach is that we often over-teach. If you only build training deliverables, they must carry the day and cover everything. This has been a travesty that’s burdened our industry for years and has underserved our learners in unfair ways. If you design workflow learning by building a digital coach, the classroom no longer has to carry the day and is allowed to do what it does best.

  1. Time to competency is also reduced by 50% or more.

This is an enablement approach, not one that only drives to mastery. Notice that the workflow learning framework is the tie that binds all three stages. The digital coach is not just a tool for after the training, but rather one that is used throughout the training event. The intent is to have the learners enter transfer and sustain with the experience and confidence to use the digital coach in the workflow while they are performing on the job. This is a “teach to fish” model, not a “feed them” one. Many times in a training-first model the learners leave class overwhelmed by all the content and with little confidence in their ability to perform in the workflow. This new approach is all about building self-efficacy and best practices on the job.

  1. The learner can better manage the constant rate of change.

The third and final benefit of this model is that it helps the learner manage the greatest performance issue of our day — the rate of change in both skills and business processes. We live in a time where training has been left behind in its ability to keep our learners current and up-to-date. It can continue to help start the journey, but it struggles with sustaining it. As mentioned earlier, this is an enablement approach that goes beyond just transfer and helps keep the learner current, allowing them to sustain their professional development without the need for constant training interventions.

2 Important Design Pivots 

So where to start? What key design changes need to happen? Well, there are two:

  1. Start by analyzing the workflow.

Our designs need to stop beginning with what subject matter experts (SMEs) feel are important and begin by analyzing the workflow itself. You can’t design workflow learning if you don’t know what the actual work is. What are the tasks involved, the supporting knowledge to perform those tasks, and finally the overarching process that defines the workflow itself? Until we see the workflow for what it truly is, you can’t design target training and a digital coach to support it.

  1. Look at workflow tasks based on their impact on performance.

If we build a robust digital coach that supports performance, why do we need to teach everything? Why don’t we reserve the targeted training for those things that have a critical impact on performance if done incorrectly? The digital coach can pick up the rest after the training event!

Workflow learning is worth the journey! It allows L&D professionals to do what we’re called to do, measure the return on investment (ROI) of our efforts and, most importantly, support our learners in ways that training alone has never been able to.