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Parkin Space: The Culture of Workflow Learning


Godfrey ParkinContinuing the theme of his last column The Future of Training, Godfrey Parkin explores the implications of workflow learning for organisational culture, HRD and the way people learn.

The concept of workflow learning is hard to grasp and harder to explain. Providing examples of workflow learning in practice tends to diminish its significance, and can trivialize some of its implications. Workflow learning is not a substitute for formal learning, which will always have a place. But it is a lot more revolutionary than it first appears, and it requires a couple of supporting cultural revolutions to become mainstream.

I am no expert on the subject, and indeed the concept appears to be continually evolving, so defining workflow learning is as futile as defining e-learning. But it does have some distinguishing characteristics. Here are some of the differences between “traditional” formal training (be it classroom, online, or blended) and informal workflow or embedded learning.

Management often regards traditional training as a burden – it’s expensive and takes staff away from their tasks. By contrast, managers encourage informal learning, largely because it takes place in small chunks of time (minutes instead of days), costs nothing (or nothing you have to budget for), and, typically being a response to a current performance problem, it has an immediate impact on performance. Where traditional training is disruptive of workflow, workflow learning is supportive. It’s different from prairie-dogging (popping your head up above your cube divider and yelling “Does anyone know how to…”) which elicits random help from questionable sources, in that it is designed to reinforce proven best practices and to distribute knowledge and skills from expert practitioners to those who need it, when they need it.

Culturally, there is a shift from “me-focus” to “we-focus”. Workflow learning is as much about contributing to individual and team growth as it is about learning. Instead of focusing on what a learner can remember and apply (traditional training metrics), it focuses on actual at-work performance (level three and four metrics, traditionally ignored). Instead of trainers being evaluated by their own activity (such as number of course-days run), they are evaluated by their effect (such as productivity or performance of their learners).

While traditional training requires people enterprise-wide to have the core skill of being able to learn (though we rarely teach people that skill), workflow learning requires people to have the core skill of being able to train. That’s a problem for many professional trainers, who, despite their feeling comfortable running two-day courses in skills such as selling, project management, or communication, believe that training skills can not be developed without years of study and experience.

While on the subject of sacred cows, traditional training (be it online or in class) is typically designed as a formal event with a focused objective of developing specific skill or transferring specific knowledge, all pre-conceived and packaged with a fixed carefully crafted mode of delivery. Workflow learning is an organic cluster of informal processes that will leverage any content that is available, that facilitates collaboration, self-generates in real-time, is inescapably pervasive, and has the single purpose of improving an individual’s performance immediately.

The major advantage to the worker of such informal learning is contextual immediacy. You are never more motivated to learn how to do something than when you are stuck in the middle of trying to do it. You are never as able to transfer the theory to the practice as when you are facing a real deadline or working on a real issue.

An obstacle to all of this is organisational culture, however you want to define it. In most organisations, people have a “me-focus” instilled in them, instead of a “we-focus”. It is understandable that individual employees jealously guard their expertise and their time – to secure your job, and to get ahead, you have to be better than your colleagues. There are few corporate review/reward systems that encourage sharing, and most discourage employees from doing anything other than focusing on their task. So individual attitudes and values have to change, and they need the context and pressure of a changed corporate culture to provide a context for that evolution. That’s a lot easier to say than to do. But I guess that’s the mission of the workflow learning evangelists.

And technology? It is available, inexpensive, and barely worth mentioning, because workflow learning is not about technology, it’s about learning processes and policies. And relative to the cultural obstacles, technology presents no challenges at all.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's thoughts on training and development here.


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