Learning Discovery – The Art of Defining Work Context

Work context? Why not the art of defining knowledge and skill requirements? After all, we are talking about learning here, and training is obviously a part of that, right? Certainly, it is…and that is exactly the point of this writing – training is indeed a part of learning – and in some cases, only a very small part. Josh Bersin of Bersin & Associates referenced in July 2009 on the “The Future of the Business of Learning” webinar that training organizations spend upwards of 80% of their time and resources focused on formal training activities. He also noted that there was a dramatic increase in the use of informal learning. Training organizations will not keep pace with that trend unless their discovery efforts include the work context where informal learning opportunities surface.

Discovery – Learning Moments of Need

Training (formal learning) takes place in controlled environs that can include classroom (face-to-face and virtual distance learning) and/or asynchronous on-line, self-paced events. Nothing wrong with any of these methods. Unfortunately, these formal events equate to a mere 5% (+/- depending on your industry) of a learner’s 2,080 hour work year – another Bersin research finding. That equates to about 100 hours per year spent in training.

Work context represents the other 95%. Are we spending 80% of our training dollars on only 5% of a learner’s work year? Work context, therefore, represents our greatest opportunity to leverage informal learning. In order to include the other 95%, it becomes important to include key attributes exclusive to the downstream work context where the learner actually performs their work.

To include these attributes, we need to consider expanding the scope of our discovery beyond the knowledge and skills components in the “A” phase of the ADDIE instructional design model. I feel strongly that the emphasis of the discovery effort needs to expand beyond what knowledge and skills are required to do the job – to what is the capability required to perform the job flawlessly. Flawless performance happens in the work context – not the classroom. What are the influencing factors – the attributes of the work context that the learner must contend with when confronted with a learning moment of need? We all contend with five such moments as we perform our jobs. See Figure 1.

Moments of Learning Need
Figure 1

I have used a variation of this diagram in earlier writings; however, in this version I include an overlay of where both work context and the PDR Model used in the Learning Continuum, fit into the split of both formal and informal learning. The lion’s share of learning opportunity, at least to me, seems to be south of the formal efforts (learning moments 3 thru 5), exactly where we are NOT spending a majority of our time and focus.

The first two moments of learning need are well under our care through our mastery of planned, controlled-environment, structured, formal learning events. Yup, we’re nailing 5% with 80% of our diligent efforts. I do not discount the importance of the first two moments, but what I challenge is our approach. Formal learning is the precise opportunity to build capability using the tools required downstream in the work context. The obvious methods are insertion of work context tools into experiential learning activities like simulations or job emulations. The challenge we must overcome is “what tools” and in “what work contexts” they are utilized. The work role involved and the task-level activities flavor the enabling criteria required for the desired performance outcomes.

Downstream Work Context – Expanded Discovery Targets

Downstream is where we wrestle with a common reality – rapidly evaporating learning retention. See Figure 2.

Learning Retention Implications
Figure 2

There is too much for our learners to remember, their brains are not capable of handling the volume. Add to that overwhelming volume, additional variations within the work context where things are constantly changing, or there are failures that require break/fix decisions by our learners. We cannot realistically expect they will remember what to do. The inability to retain learning that is not reinforced in the work context implicates that reference knowledge will better serve the learner in their workflows than recall knowledge. Recall knowledge is most effective in the training context – it is still fresh and applied with activities before diluted by time passing. As a result, remembering where to find what they cannot remember (when they desperately need it) is a much easy memory burden to retain. Again, this goes back to “what tools” and “what work contexts” are most likely required.

This shift is yet another indicator that our discovery needs to better define the work performed – even better, understanding what flawless performance means in terms of critical knowledge, skills, AND capability. Knowing the intricacies of the work context helps us (training) to better anticipate learning moments. If we understand workflows, we can recognize what implications process changes may require in terms of just-in-time performer support. We do not traditionally build training for minor changes, but if they imply business risk for failed performance, who is to blame?

It is my contention that the training organization is to blame. That statement goes against about everything I believed as recently as a few years ago. We always found ourselves tangled up in the argument that communicating new information does not a training course make…and that was because we viewed our job as building training courses. That was our only job. Let Information Services (IS) build their change communications for the new process. It is not training! That argument still rages in some organizations, and I am in total agreement – it is NOT training. BUT – at the same time, it DOES stand to adversely impact performance if our learners are not competently equipped to address the change. Who owns that? IS is not equipped, nor are they tasked with that responsibility. Training is…or it should be – and that, my friends, is why we must expand our thinking and our discovery to downstream work context where training does not exist – but informal learning increasingly demands our attention. Without expanded discovery skills within the training organization, will we meet the challenge?

Discovery – the Learner’s Environment in the Work Context

There are three clusters of attributes specific to the learner and the environment defined by their work context to include in our expanded discovery efforts. See Figure 3.

Environmental Attributes
Figure 3

These three clusters, Space, Media, and Systems have an interdependent relationship with Space representing foundation. Where the learner is physically located, as well as proximity to workflow must be defined before accurate media decisions can be made. Unlike the classroom simulation environment, the work context has very real implications of business risk and urgency to perform flawlessly.

Media decisions require accurate definition and consideration of the variables of Space. The most appropriate mode and venue, as well at choice of authoring platform and granularity of design will have direct impact on future re-use and/or re-purposing. Without fully considering Space variables, the potential for re-work increases when building performer support tools. The primary objective in media development centers upon the tenant of Create Once – Use Many Times.

Systems can include both the utilization of technology and/or “human systems”. Variables related to the most appropriate end-user devices, network access, bandwidth requirements, content repository selection, delivery systems, tracking, and reporting fall in line behind the selection of Media.

Can you see where variables of Space having high degrees of risk and urgency could influence the delivery system of choice? The immediacy of the learning moment of need may indicate the LMS is not the preferred delivery tool. Without considering the work context influencing Space and Media, we can easily default to the wrong delivery system.

Summary Thoughts

When you recall the phases of the PDR Learning Continuum, the Reinforcement phase represents where we focused a majority of the expanded discovery. That should not be too surprising when we look back at the 95% slice of the learning environment we needed to address. I hope you can see where decisions we make to reinforce learning in the work context have linkages to decisions that can influence design for both the Prepare and Deploy phases of the Continuum. Does your training organization have the competencies to expand your scope of discovery effectively?

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise