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Workflow Learning Gets Real
Monday, February 14, 2005
I got a great Valentine's gift today.

My wife Uta gave me a replacement for a purple shirt I loved but destroyed last week. My fountain pen had leaked during a flight to Washington and, once again mistaking myself for MacGiver, I tried to rescue the situation with pure Clorox: the shirt now sports an oddly tie-died collar and breast pocket, okay for Berkeley, but unwearable elsewhere. Great gift, but that's not the one.

She also gave me a zany pair of boxer shorts. But that's the gift I have in mind, either.

Someone called to tell me their organization was all a-buzz over the cover story of the February issue of Training magazine, a piece titled Workflow Learning Gets Real by Jay Cross and Tony O'Driscoll.

Here's the really cool part: our article is the free download, so you don't have to be a subscriber to get it. Naturally, I'll save you the trouble:

Workflow Learning Gets Real

Given That… Workers in most American factories spend just 20 percent of their time making things. Supervisors spend no more than 20 percent of their time doing things that appear in their job descriptions. Knowledge workers spend just 20 percent of their time adding core value; the rest of the time they're looking for information, re-writing reports that have already been written, trying to get their computers to work, or attending meetings.

And That… This same 80/20 rule applies to training. Ask workers where they learned how to do their jobs, and 80 percent of the time the answer is "at work." Most learning takes place on the job, outside the purview of formal learning. When we do conduct formal training, 80 percent of it is wasted effort: Workshops progress at the pace of the slowest participant, content is dated, the learner needs little of what's being delivered, the method of delivery is not tuned to the needs of the individual worker, motivation is absent, or timing is off. The half-life of newly learned material is three days; if learners don't use it immediately, they lose it.

At the same time that… Networks are spewing tidal waves of information that workers must absorb to make sound decisions, yet their minds process no faster than in primitive times. As if speeding things up weren't enough, the world is growing more complex. The collision of complex systems yields unpredictable results. A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and causes three hurricanes in a row in Florida. Boundaries between disciplines crumble. We can no longer rely on specialists who "know more and more about less and less." We must all be generalists who must know more and more about more and more.

It all adds up to… An era of real-time enterprise that will set the 80/20 rule on its head. Changes afoot in commerce, information technology, network interoperability, and how work is organized will wring much (though never all) of the slack out of work. After decades of job stress, frustration, wasted effort, and disengagement, we have an opportunity to rewrite all the rules.

The New Imperative

All humans are learners—and workers learn every day. If the training organization in every company evaporated into thin air or disappeared through a wormhole to teaching heaven, individuals would continue to learn.

We are not the reason employees learn; we are here to help them learn more effectively. But instead of helping them where they are, too often we make them come to a class or interrupt their work to engage in content they find frustrating. Traditional courses are an albatross around our necks, and if we don't change our delivery mechanisms, we will be sidelined.

We are in the midst of the greatest migration of labor in the history of the world. Service work is crowding out manufacturing, much as manufacturing replaced farming in the last half century. We don't mean service work as in hamburger flippers or janitors; we mean everyone who creates an offering that is consumed as it is produced. Doctors, lawyers, system administrators, and police officers are all service workers.

We are more accustomed to production workers who have job descriptions and follow a script. Future workers will be value-driven because there is no script. Everything will be improvised. Learning will be fused into work, delivered in small fragments ("right size") on whatever device tethers them to the Internet ("right device" and "right place") just when they need it ("right time"). In other words, we will have what we call workflow learning.

How does this vision of workflow learning differ from Gloria Gery's concept of electronic performance support systems (EPSS)? The philosophy is exactly the same: performance-centered design. Workflow learning is networked EPSS, operating in an environment where the worker is plugged into the job and learning is delivered in small chunks as it is needed. Workflow aggregates at the work-process level, while EPSS largely compensated for poor application design. By moving up the value chain, we can dramatically increase workers' productivity while simultaneously reducing their frustration.

HP's Carly Fiorina suggests that the future will be digital, mobile, virtual and personal. John Chambers of Cisco asserts that Internet technology will change the way we work, learn, live and play. Terry Semel of Yahoo! contends that search, personalization, community and content is the future of the Internet.

In the not-very-distant future, workers will:
    •Have a unique, personalized view of their work, based on their role in the enterprise.
    •Have learning snippets embedded in work.
    •Be alerted when needed.
    •Directly connect to experts as necessary.
    •Have easy access to peers.
    •Have smart FAQs and simulations for guidance.
    •Be location aware (GPS).
    •Always be online wirelessly (ambient computing).
    •Have support for understanding work in its strategic context.

Networks Rule

Networks come in many forms: the Internet, intranets, financial networks, the human brain, social networks, communications systems, the central nervous system, and more. The value of any of these networks increases exponentially with each new member.

In The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), Thomas W. Malone observes that all networks are alike in that they form and grow in similar stages. At first, nodes are unconnected. Then, when communication becomes feasible, they evolve into a hub-and-spoke arrangement around a single source of power. As communication becomes cheaper still, all nodes begin to take on power.

For example, early humans organized in bands of 30 to 40 people (larger groups would have over-hunted the local area.) When spoken language and writing came on the scene, kingdoms formed. And when printing and mass communication appeared, democracies replaced them. Similarly, business networks evolved from mom-and-pop shops to national chains to today's decentralized behemoths. Computing evolved from standalone mainframes to client-server networks to the distributed Internet and what IBM calls On Demand computing.

Training is no exception to these network rules. In past times, training was individualized; people learned at grandma's knee or in the studio of a master craftsman. With printing came instructor-centric schools. As we enter an age of informal and workflow learning, authority is less centralized than ever before. "Learning is best understood as an interaction among practitioners, rather than a process in which a producer provides knowledge to a consumer," says Etienne Wenger, a social researcher and champion of communities of practice.

We've essentially outgrown the definition of learning as an individual activity. We've moved back to the apprenticeship model, albeit at a higher level. We learn in context, with others, as we live and work. Recognizing this fact is the first step to crafting an effective workflow learning strategy.

We humans exist in networks. We are part of social networks. Our heads contain neural networks. Learning consists of making and maintaining better connections to our networks, be they social, operational, commercial or entertainment. Rich learning will always be more than a matter of bits flowing back and forth, but the metaphor of learning-as-networking gives us a way to describe how learning can be embedded in work itself.

Several years from now, we'll all be running personalized "workware." Everyone will have a unique view into the enterprise, a dynamic display tailored to their role, background, access rights, and real-time picture of their piece of the workflow.

This personalized dashboard will provide both push and pull resources—that is, processes initiated by the worker and processes initiated by the system. If the worker hits a bottleneck in an unfamiliar process, she can call up a chunk of information or walk through a simulation of what to do. If the workflow hits a bottleneck, and the worker sees a better solution, she can push it back into the system.

We're beginning to consider a new concept of worker. We think of a worker as the sum of employee and support systems, combining the strengths of each into a whole greater than the sum of the parts. We use the term dashboard because we picture the interface that appears on a phone, PDA or head-mounted display. Bear in mind, however, that this is a two-way dashboard. It empowers the worker to give as well as receive, to collaborate with other people and to be contacted by others.

Whither instructional design?

Business process analysts and modelers are already defining and developing the business infrastructure of the future. If you work for a Fortune 1000 company, you have a group that has described your business in workflow terms. This consists not only of defining a business process but also of defining the flow of artifacts (information, interaction, collaboration, communication) around the process.

The modelers' work is similar in some ways to the work of instructional designers. Both analyze a situation and design a solution to improve it. However, there is an important difference: Instructional designers are well-versed in what it takes to motivate learners and change their behavior. Explore working with these people to understand the learning processes that occur naturally within the workflow and think hard about how to ply your craft to amplify them.
We're going to need a much broader definition of design to support performance. How do we know how often and how much to support learners until we release control to them? What's the smallest bit of information we can give employees to get them to this point? We can't research each individual case, even if that's the ideal solution; we need principles refined over time. In the meantime, training must align with other enterprise business units working on ways to streamline workflow and foster innovation: knowledge management, business process analysis, and organizational development.

The Potential of Workflow Learning

Like atomic energy, workflow learning has the potential to do enormous good or a great deal of harm. On the one hand, we could create dream jobs for the workers of the world: challenging work, tailored to the potential of the individual. By balancing workflow and worker, we can build what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called psychological flow into the learning and execution of work. But on the other hand, imagine Dilbert's pointy-haired boss and his HR director Catbert at the helm of a system that monitors workers' every move, reports comparative performance to the third decimal, and dishes out scutwork until workers burn out.

A future that belongs to that Dark Side is a very real possibility—unless we build dynamic, collaborative learning systems. People remain the most vital ingredient in business. Their skills, knowledge, and beliefs are assets worth developing.

With the right perspective and some hard work, the training and development community can make learning a true business process. Our results will become transparent to executives and investors. And we will change the world.

Jay Cross is managing director of the Workflow Institute (www.workflowinstitute.com). Tony O'Driscoll is a consultant and researcher with IBM's Almaden Services Research group.


Blogger Ben Watson said...

Jay, your article pretty much resonates with what I believe in. The world is changing and so should learning. My only comment is that though I like the theory of workflow learning I sometimes wonder where all these bits of content will come from (simulations etc). I think that today's world is made up of many shades of gray and that the 'right' answer may not always be found in one place but that bits and pieces will have to pulled together to get the solution. That the ideal knowledge worker will have to know how to gather these things, review & cull and then assemble the final 'answer' himself. Even more so is that when everyone is moving at the speed of light that a person's social network may provide these 'bits' as there won't be time to codify them into structured content. Of course as you know, I'm pretty biased towards collaboration!

6:14 AM  
Blogger jay said...

Ben, I agree with you. The pictures in shades of gray will be amalgamations of multiple streams of input and interaction. I can't imagine this working without collaboration built-in. When I say that, I'm thinking full-blown, make-it-easy collaboration support with expertise location, presence awareness, device awareness, social capital account balance, and more. It's absolutely nuts for an organization to invest heavily in automated solutions and leave collaboration up to whomever happens to be in the coffee room when information is needed.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Mike Sivertsen said...

"I think that today's world is made up of many shades of gray and that the 'right' answer may not always be found in one place but that bits and pieces will have to pulled together to get the solution. That the ideal knowledge worker will have to know how to gather these things, review & cull and then assemble the final 'answer' himself."
Excellent point and repeatedly borne out by my experience in scanning RSS feeds and a few hard copy periodicals and categorizing the most relevant into a personal bookmark manager/PIM tool containing over 14,000 URLS and notes. Recent example of assembling the final answer: 2 x 2 matrix for problem solving is widely known but just 'discovered' by me while scanning my RSS feeds for decision-making knowledge nuggets. I wanted to use the 2 x 2 matrix for a very short fuse project requiring multiple inputs to arrive at a data-driven decision. Through another RSS feed scan I discovered an Excel spreadsheet template on a web design site that was already preprogrammed to output 2 x 2 matrices from individual scoring inputs. Downloaded the template, modified the formulas and withing two hours I had a tool supporting my task. Both management and co-workers liked the outcome. I plan to use this again.

8:08 AM  

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