What Is Workflow Learning?

Lifelong learning is a quintessentially human pursuit.

We’re innately curious and driven by an intrinsic desire to learn, grow, and develop. In 2016, Pew Research published a comprehensive report on learning and technology that found that three-quarters of U.S. adults consider themselves lifelong learners. Some learn for the joy of it; some for professional advancement; and some for both.

Back of a travelling woman wearing a large blue backpack, looking out over tree-covered mountains.

Although nearly two-thirds of Pew’s respondents who were employed had done a class or other training in the previous year, many workers find it hard to squeeze training into a packed work schedule. Research by Deloitte found that typical workers spend only about 1% of their time — that’s 24 minutes in a 40-hour work week — focused on training and development.

One solution to the dilemma of wanting to learn but contending with a serious time famine? Moving learning into the workflow.

Moving learning into the workflow is a way to provide job aids, resources, and self-directed learning materials that employees can access on demand, anywhere. This strategy is sometimes termed workflow learning or performance support.

Employees can search for the answer to a question, look up the steps of a process, or refresh their memory on details of a product or service — and find what they need in a few minutes, without interrupting their workflow to take a class or “go to” training.

In 2018, Josh Bersin, the founder of Bersin by Deloitte, called learning in the flow of work a “new paradigm for corporate training.”

Workflow learning uses short, accessible formats

Workflow learning can take many formats: video, text, PDF, podcast, and more. It is often digital, but it doesn’t have to be. An infographic, poster, annotated illustration, or even a brochure can serve as an in-the-workflow job aid or training aid.

Microlearning is an ideal vehicle for delivering workflow learning. Each short, focused nugget of content addresses a single concept or idea. Most microlearning platforms offer robust, intuitive search abilities, so workers can quickly find the precise information they need. And most microlearning is mobile-first or mobile-friendly, so workers can access it when they need it, whether they are at their desks, on the retail floor, or out on a customer call.

Workers already engage in workflow learning

Man holding up his smartphone in his right hand, close to his mouth, as if preparing to ask a question. His other hand rests gently on his temple.

No doubt your workers and learners already engage in workflow learning. If they get stuck and Google something or ask Siri, they are using workflow learning. The problem with that is, you don’t know what sources they’re relying on or that they are getting “good” information.

Providing performance support and workflow learning tools enables managers and training professionals to create and offer vetted information from SMEs — subject matter experts. In-house approved workflow learning aligns with the organization’s values and goals while providing accurate and up-to-date information.

Is workflow learning actually learning?

Many learning and development (L&D) professionals argue that workflow learning is not actually learning. In a strict, formal sense, they may be correct. Quick review and look-ups of information are unlikely to lead to lasting behavior change, of course, and workflow learning tools are often unconcerned with learning objectives and assessment.

The term performance support, often used interchangeably with workflow learning, may offer a better description of what many workflow learning tools provide: They support performance, in the moment, to promote success. Repeated exposure may lead to stickiness — that is, workers who look up the same information over and over might remember it. It could also spark workers to engage with training materials on the topic.

According to Bersin, though, workflow learning reflects a focus on continuous learning. With workers, the goal is to get people “to learn something, apply it, and then go back to work,” he wrote. By providing tips and tools “that help us get better at our jobs,” he wrote, bringing learning into the workflow offers an approach that workers want.

It’s a response to the perceived lack of time for training, learners’ desire to learn at their own pace (58%), and employees’ preference to learn at the moment of need (49%), preferences identified in  LinkedIn Learning’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report.

While it might not be feasible to move all learning into the workflow, this new paradigm is likely to become part of the learning strategy for many innovative companies that value employee development.

  • Runs polls
  • Shares slides and the whiteboard
  • Watches the chat box for questions
  • Watches for learners using the “raised hand” icon to signal a question or problem
  • Monitors for technology glitches — remaining alert for any learners reporting problems on their end.

Poor Use with
Adult Learners

Effective with
Adult Learners

Games

Simple games layered on top of content

Scenario-based games that use the content

Leaderboards, competition

Fan excessive competition among employees or teams by offering large prizes for top performers and/or shaming those with lower scores

Challenge employees to beat their own past performance, or design a leaderboard that shows each employee only the four scorers above and below them

Points, rewards, badges

Award points or levels for completing sections of training or playing for a set number of minutes

Award levels, badges or points for recalling or applying content correctly, demonstrating mastery

Written by Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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