Over the past 15 years or so, workflow learning has enjoyed varying exposure to the limelight. It’s not new, of course. In some respects, it is the oldest known approach to capability building. Apprenticeships first appeared in the 11th Century, a process which relied then, as now, on experienced individuals supervising and supporting novices as they master the skills of the trade.
Where did workflow learning come from?
The rise of workflow learning in its current guise came from two routes. The first was a sober recognition that learning skills in the workplace required an element of trial and error in the workplace. If this process could be supported by tools, resources, peers or more experienced colleagues, then so much the better. ‘Sitting by Nellie’ was suddenly cool again.
Probably in reaction to Trumpian toxicity or timelines populated by cute dog pictures, the shine has gone off social media platforms as engines of learning
The second rebirth of workflow learning came from a slightly different perspective. There arose a group of influential individuals who – to quote Pink Floyd – believed that ‘we don’t need no education’. Their disdain for formal education rolled over into anything which involved classrooms and so-called formal learning. Driven by a half-witted equivalence between social learning and social media, they believed we were to be freed by Facebook and its ilk to collaborate and learn independently of those still steeped in the elbow-patched tweed jackets of the classroom.
The sentiments which cascaded through the echo chambers devoted to 70:20:10 and its like have lost a little ground of late. In her latest Top 100 Tools for Learning, doyenne of workflow learning, Jane Hart reports that Twitter – which was learning tool number 1 from 2009 – 2015, apparently – has slumped down the charts to number 13.
Probably in reaction to Trumpian toxicity or timelines populated by cute dog pictures, the shine has gone off social media platforms as engines of learning. (Interestingly, PowerPoint – much-reviled bedrock of the 21st Century Classroom – has rarely been out of the top ten and has cemented its place in the top 5).
Despite these shifts in the perception of workflow learning, there is one constant. The belief is that workflow learning just happens. It can’t (or shouldn’t be) planned and, beyond possible coaching inputs to provide some objective clarity on priorities, it is still perceived to be something which individuals will do on their own.
This is certainly not true in all cases. We all learn on the job and are able to do things better or more quickly with practice. But workflow learning in a world which is changing exponentially is too much of a lottery to be left to chance. In fact, there is significant evidence that unsupported and undirected workflow learning merely gives us quicker ways of doing things we have always done rather than the breakthrough capabilities demanded if we are to upskill and reskill.
So how do we plan workflow learning?
If, like most of the L&D world you are focused primarily on designing formal inputs – whether courses or providing access to online modules, videos or resources – then you have a very clear opportunity to extend your learning interventions to the workplace. (And I don’t mean ten minutes as they pack up, scribbling an action plan on the foot of a happy sheet. That will never see the light of day and result in zero change.)
Simply ask: what workplace assignments would enable individuals to demonstrate their ability to do things differently and do different things?
Without imagining what people will do differently as a result of your intervention – however it's delivered – how can you possibly assess whether it worked (and why are you delivering the learning in the first place)? And if you can imagine those changed behaviours in practice, then you can design tasks and activities – and a support and monitoring mechanism – to enable people to change their practice and apply new skills.
More advanced and well-designed approaches ‘scaffold’ those workplace assignments. In other words, they build in complexity and difficulty, incrementally over time and allow for double-loop learning. Two features of the approach are required:
1. Make sure instructions are clear
The learning input needs to adequately prepare people to take action. In short, telling people what to do is insufficient without the how. They need to be able to see it, practice it and experience doing it in the course of learning the what and the why.
2. Link it to work and make it relevant
It should go without saying that these tasks either need to be consistent and congruent with the work people already do, or time needs to be given to enable them to equip themselves with the skills needed in the near future. Without that, the tasks will appear ‘extra’ and be overtaken by the current urgent pressures. In short, unless team leaders and managers are on board, nothing will change.
Creating workflow learning tasks and a safe environment for them to be undertaken and supported should be top of all of our priorities
Bring back workflow learning
Workflow learning in this sense is neither contradictory to formal learning inputs, nor is it a viable alternative to those same inputs. It is an extension and one which, inexplicably, fell out of favour (I was designing work-based assignments in my very first L&D job in the 1980s).
If we allow the misapprehension that workflow learning is unplanned, organic (and purer for it), to hold sway; then the ability of our L&D interventions to have a real and sustainable impact is diminished. Creating workflow learning tasks and a safe environment for them to be undertaken and supported should be top of all of our priorities.