Work Context: The New Classroom

After 22 years in the telecom industry, all but four of them with AT&T and Sprint, I had a very humbling experience. Fifteen of those years were spent living out of a suitcase as a roving sales trainer and then as a manager. My “humbling” may more accurately be described as an epiphany. It was shocking to me because I had convinced myself – after more frequent flyer miles and Marriott points than a human could use – that I had the sales training gig figured out. And I did. I mean how could you not know it inside and out after so many road miles and so many successful classes? The epiphany came in the form of a stark realization that my stellar sales training efforts had virtually nothing to do with sustaining stellar sales performance.

At AT&T and Sprint our training impact was masked by the size of the organization. The companies were so big, with so many sales representatives, that visibility of our impact was lost in the sheer mass of the machine. To further mask our impact, the success of our training mission was validated (and compensated) on metrics that had nothing whatsoever to do with successful sales performance. If we averaged 4.75 out of 5.0 on our Level 1 classroom evaluations and sales reps graduated from product sales training with Level 2 test scores of 80% or better – we “earned” our annual bonus. Training was deployed. Learning was not implemented, but we earned our bonus.

In short, our training effort was not linked to mission-critical business outcomes – driving sustainable sales performance. I am confident we can all agree that linkage to business outcomes is important, but that is only the obvious part of the story. Never mind that we could not see evidence of our results; we could not see our biggest mistake. We were actually focusing well over 90% of our efforts on the wrong learning context. (See Figure 1.0) We were entrenched in our pursuit of formal learning [training] opportunities, and we should have had a larger focus on the downstream, post-training work context where informal learning is most impactful.

Learning Opportunity Imbalance
Figure 1.0

Back to the epiphany…the last four years of my telecom tenure were spent with a start-up last-mile telecom and internet provider. The sales force numbered 250 at the largest point. I followed earlier success and trained to the best of my ability. We ran a new hire products sales training program (8-day boot camp) every two weeks. We average 30 to 35 butts in seats every two weeks. I maintained platinum status in every manner of frequent flyer, sleeper, diner, this or that. Life was good…until about 9 months into our “successful efforts” and we saw the size of the sales force. It had grown by 125 sales reps over nine months. What happened to the 500 plus we had just trained? They failed. They did not meet sales quota, and they got whacked. Did they own that failure or did we? Sad to say, I believe our sales training leadership was stuck in the paradigm of train-our-way-to-competency. The only thing we were sustaining was 167% turnover. Yup…and that would be my epiphany. We had to get out of the classroom and move our efforts closer to the point of work…which just so happened to also be the point of failure.

Moving Downstream

This became a turning point in my “training focus”. That was ten years ago. The company I was with did not adjust their training approach. They stayed linear. They stayed in the classroom. They filed Chapter 11. The Dot-Com bubble burst, and I was back in the job market with no plans on ever being there. Within 60 days, I landed a director-level training role with a large medical device manufacturer. Within 65 days I realized I had to act upon “my turning point”. The company had recently deployed SAP – 7-modules of SAP to be exact, and had completed hundreds of hours of classroom training to prepare the user population of 6,000 for successful implementation. It was not happening – the training did – the successful implementation did not so much. It was not happening for the same reasons sales performance was not sustained in my former job despite the best of training efforts.

All the training effort was focused on the 5% slice of the learning environment pie illustrated in Figure 1.0. I had to get my team downstream to head off failure. The classroom had proven to be ineffective – not because the training was poorly delivered, but because the learners could not retain the knowledge and skills they gained long enough to integrate them into their workflow – into their work context – in the 95% slice of the learning environment pie. Significant learning retention falling off the radar in as few as three weeks (See Figure 2.0) was at the root of our challenge. Prior to my arrival they had even switched to an e-learning blend to mix asynchronous learning with synchronous, and it had not worked either. Users were failing to accurately complete workflows in most of the SAP modules.

Learning Retention
Figure 2.0

Granted SAP is not the most intuitive application on the planet; unless you are a German programmer type; but it is not too dissimilar to any other complex on-line application. Failure was in the work context and we had to design just-in-time-just-enough-just-for-me informal learning assets [Performer Support] and it had to be accessible at the point of learning need. In fact, there were five moments of learning need we had to address. (See Figure 3.0) That was no small task because not every user had the same needs at the same moment, nor at the same point in their various workflows. How do you design and develop effective training when everybody needed something different…and at different times? Trust me when I say we were looking so far beyond what a traditional linear design model would support.

Learning Moments of Need
Figure 3.0

The dilemma we faced, in many ways, was a paradox. We could not abandon classroom training because there were new hires coming on board and refresher training that needed the guidance of an instructor, who in nearly all cases was a subject matter expert. Reference Figure 3.0 and note the first two moments of learning need. These needs had to be maintained, and the traditional classroom or on-line approachs still played a role. What was different was the design methodology we used to accomplish both the classroom training [formal learning] and the downstream performer support [informal learning – moments 3 thru 5] with the same content. The downstream work context required short, concise learning assets I call Performer Support Objects (PSOs).

Create Once – Use Many Times

Our credo changed to Create Once – Use Many Times. We needed to design learning in an objectized fashion. We built objects [PSOs] that were limited to screen-level application. In other words, the object was stand-alone to the extent that the learning content on a single object was only what was needed to get the learner through a specific screen or task. To satisfy the need for a larger linear training event [in support of learning moments 1 & 2], we arranged the objects to be URL addressable OUTSIDE the formal learning content. We still storyboarded to satisfy traditional design and development, but reusable content objects [PSOs] were accessed through embedded links.

The classroom event changed too. Instead of blasting through an entire SAP transaction from beginning to end, we broke down the transactions into component steps [screens] and the learners worked through each step using relevant PSOs in role-based scenarios. A linear module on a 12-step transaction consisted of a cluster of 12-PSOs. In effect, we were training the users how to access and apply the PSO they needed to accomplish the task versus putting the burden on them to remember how. We dramatically reduced the emphasis on “How do I do this?” and shifted it to “Where do I go to get the help to do this?” Classroom time went down by about 50%. Calls to the Help Desk went down by almost as much.

We realized another huge benefit – our ability to maintain and modify content as the workflows changed either by our own customizations or as a result of a vendor upgrade, patch, or new release. We only had one place to go to make our changes – our PSO repository sitting in SharePoint. An update to an object satisfied our formal, linear learning world as well as the just-in-time, PSO-based informal world. If a new object needed built and inserted, we only had a new link to embed into the formal learning flow. Certainly we had development time to add new content and new learning flows, but the rework was reduced significantly.

The learners loved it. We used a tool that permitted them the option to print a PSO if they needed it. We provided the Help Desk with access to the same PSO inventory and they could push PSOs to the learners on demand if necessary. Eventually, the approach caught on for other applications and we invested in a new technology called Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) where the PSO content became accessible INSIDE the SAP application for all the modules. By clicking on “F1 for help” the learner could invoke context sensitive help for the screen they were on.

Closing Thoughts

Enhancements have skyrocketed in the newer EPSS systems. Thanks to Web 2.0, many now integrate knowledge base management and even social media hooks. Some serve as communication hubs to push new PSO materials out to the learners and/or their managers for department or team-level training that is role specific. The more sophisticated systems allow for a multi-tiered approach to the concept of just-in-time learning. They’re less “help systems” and more “informal learning and support delivery” systems. Success stories demonstrate reduction in classroom training and much faster speed to competency in the use of complex on-line systems.

Technology gets an assist with the transition we made, but it took a new “design think” to get to the point we needed to consider a technology solution. I must quickly add that this “think” is not a silver bullet, but when learners need a thread of continuity from formal learning to the informal needs of their work context, the credo of Create Once – Use Many Times becomes so very important to consider before the first storyboard is written. Technology aside, the emphasis here is where the most effective learning actually took place. It was not in the classroom. It was downstream in the work context – in the new classroom.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise