At the Edge: Chasing Learning Micro-Systems

A colleague who owns a successful training company recently contacted me with a question that triggered the writing of this post. She described their very solid approach to training [on-line systems focus] and shared some doubts that they are able to reach the “edges of the ecosystem” with their efforts. The question she asked was, “How do you propose to get to the edge?”

This is an awesome question that took courage to ask, and at the same time, demonstrated a spirit of innovation necessary to ask it. It is refreshing to find someone who also has the vision to recognize that formal learning is not enough, regardless of how well done, and that a critical opportunity to learn is downstream in the post-training work context – which is, incidentally, located at the edges of the learning ecosystem. Could it only be that simple?

My response went something like this…including embellishments and inspired bluster added just now:

Consistent with a good performance consulting practice, my only answer is, “It depends!” And it does, mainly because every ecosystem is comprised of multiple “micro-systems” that carry unique learning performance attributes that often differ from the rest. It sounded like her company has the Prepare & Deploy phases of the Learning Continuum framework well in hand. The opportunity, as I suspected she recognized, most often lies within the Reinforcement phase in the PDR Learning Continuum. This phase represents the 95% slice of the learning ecosystem pie served by informal learning.

The Reinforcement phase is inclusive of the diversity of learning moments that manifest at the “edges“. My tactic to service that part of the ecosystem includes a process of drilling down into each “micro-system” that has performance gaps and/or opportunities that require impact at the point of need…and I mean real-time impact…in the context of their respective workflows.

We must fully understand business outcome requirements in each of these micro-systems, and then address the obstacles or opportunities that prevent them from happening. This effort is broader than a root cause analysis because we are not focusing exclusively on what “needs to be fixed” as much as we are focusing on how to “maximize workforce performance outcomes in the context of work“.

Pure and simple, learning at the “edge” is a Performer Support (PS) intervention. What baffles some is that they treat PS as something that happens after training, when in fact, PS serves as a foundation upon which we design and develop formal training assets. The baffling part of that approach is that we cannot base PS  on linear design conventions. So how does a non-linear solution that works at the “edge” translate back into the traditional linear training methods we know and love? This excellent [and appropriate] question yields and answer that poses a threat to many training purists.

I have personally witnessed this concept promote an elevated threat status in the ranks of traditional training organizations because it inverts the design approach. Instead of beginning with a Training Needs Assessment [“A” in ADDIE], I suggest it should begin with a Performance Capacity Assessment. In other words, our focus should START in the work context and work backward into whatever training content can deliver on the knowledge and skills components found in a holistic learning solution. If I cannot visualize several key influencing components from the “edge”, I am only going to be able to put knowledge and skills on the table of learning. By starting in the work context, I need to have in hand several things including:

  • What work must be done flawlessly by the workforce?
  • What are the business risks of less than flawless performance? [awesome seeds for Level 3 eval]
  • What are the environmental attributes in which this work must be accomplished?
  • Where is the worker at their moment of need – both geographically and within the workflow?
  •  What is “just enough” learning in terms of timing, amount and format?
  • What technology closes the loop between workers in need with appropriate learning assets?

Obviously, there are more things to know, but note that I have not included knowledge and skills in these early questions. Why? It is too early. I am not designing training at this point; I am defining the attributes in which flawless performance is facilitated by consumption of appropriate learning assets. I am considering the urgency and business risk associated with that performance and the associated cost of failure to perform. For this camper, those attributes alone clearly tag what is important from what is not. And that plays in to the “just enough” and the “just-in-time” learning solution methodology. It also paints an accurate picture of the degree of workforce mobility I have to support with my design/development decisions. As such, it defines “appropriate learning assets” that have both human [SME/expert/community] and technology [devices/network] implications. Still, I am still not targeting knowledge and skills, and I know that is torqueing a few of you down really tight.

But, what ho!  There is light. Knowledge and skills will indeed have their traditional role; it just will not be our starting point any longer. It cannot be the starting point because the majority of our solution targets informal learning in the 95% slice of the learning ecosystem pie and that represents the “edges” where work gets done and tangible value is generated.

The “edges” present a set of challenges that an effective learning solution may actually need to become dynamic [different time, different point in the workflow] for each worker in the force. That is the phenomenon driven by “convergence” that I write about on the blog. Actual work and learning moments are converging. Training in the formal sense does not…and cannot…address this requirement. We [Training] have a responsibility [via the Reinforce phase] to support those moments to ensure flawless work performance is achieved in the context of work.

The velocity of work demand and the critical need for flawless performance in the work context are two key drivers that point to the “edge” and say, “Here are our greatest opportunities to support our performers and add tangible value to the business.” The composite of these “micro-systems” that exist out on the “edge” should define how we approach design, development, delivery, and continuity of learning. Training, for the most part, is MIA out on the “edge”, despite being the best-equipped part of the organization to be out there. Training is chasing knowledge and skills [the hammer and nails] when they should be ensuring that the house gets built through the effective use of both hammer and nails.

As always, I welcome dialogue from those of you so moved to share your thoughts!

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
LinkedIn Profile
Twitter: Gdogwise


Twitter:  Gdogwise