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The difference between 'learning workflow' and 'learning in the workflow'

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Understanding the differences between 'learning workflow' and 'learning in the workflow' can avoid needless confusion, and help L&D professionals create more effective and efficient training programmes, writes Paul Matthews.

2nd Feb 2022
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I have noticed that there can be confusion over the difference between a ‘learning workflow’ and ‘learning in the workflow’; these are not the same thing.

All Learning and Development (L&D) programmes have an end goal they need to achieve. In most cases, the goal is to provide employees with new skills and knowledge, which will lead to them achieving better results. 

Enabling your employees to get from where they are, using their current behaviour, to where you want them to be, using the desired behaviour, is a journey. 

This journey to achieving behaviour change in a work context seldom happens overnight or indeed, at a training event. It typically takes time, practice, feedback, and a range of other inputs for people to change their behaviour consistently.

The journey

Changing from a current set of behaviours to a different set of behaviours involves a journey to achieve the change. People progress along their journey, picking up skills and knowledge along the way as they get closer to their goal.

What if you could design the L&D journey so it could be followed easily and successfully?

Left to their own devices, some learners do this journey using trial and error, and may eventually complete the journey and get to their goal. This is particularly the case for those with a strong growth mindset. Others start but never finish, and others never even start the journey.

What if you could design this journey so it could be followed easily and successfully?

Journey design

The first step is to define your goal and outline your journey destination. Think of this as a behavioural needs analysis (BNA). Consider the task that you want someone to do better, and then define the behaviours they need to consistently deploy so they get the task done to the desired standard. 

When defining the desired behaviours, be sure to couch them in terms of what can be observed by others. This is important because when you have observable behaviours, you can measure them to gauge progress and success.

Defining the status quo: where are people now in relation to the desired end goal?

The next step after defining your goal, is to understand the status quo. Where are people now in relation to those desired observable behaviours?

You now have a start point and an end point for your journey. 

The satnav analogy

When you programme your satnav with a destination, the satnav creates a set of turn-by-turn instructions for you. To do this, they need to know as follows:

  • Your desired destination.
  • Your current location.
  • Any relevant information on the landscape and possibilities between those two points. 
  • The experiences of others currently on the same journey.

The satnav gives you a set of tasks to do in sequence, and if you follow those instructions, you will get to your destination.

When you are designing a learning journey you have, or can get, a similar set of information. You can then design a set of turn-by-turn instructions.

If your design is good, and the learner follows the step-by-step instructions, they are pretty much guaranteed to get to the desired destination.

Workflow

When you talk about an orchestrated and repeatable sequence of step-by-step operations that has a defined end result, you are talking about a ‘workflow’.

The term ‘workflow’ has been around since 1921 and is defined as: the sequence of steps involved in moving from the beginning to the end of a working process.  

When the sequence of steps in a workflow has an L&D goal of moving learners from ‘not-doing’ to ‘doing’, we can call the workflow a ‘learning workflow’.

Learning workflow components

You can think of learning workflows as being made up of building blocks such as:

  • Read this document.
  • Discuss ‘XYZ’ with a colleague.
  • Consume this bit of e-learning.
  • Experiment with technique ‘123’.
  • Practice technique ‘123’.
  • Get feedback from a manager/peer.
  • Reflect on progress.
  • Attend a workshop or tutorial.
  • Watch this video.
  • Answer this quiz.
  • Complete this assignment.
  • Practice some more.

Throughout the learning workflow design process, you need to keep in mind that behaviours don’t just happen. Instead, they need to be planned and keep happening – it’s the only way they get truly learned and the new behaviour truly embedded and sustained over time. 

This means that the learners doing the workflow need to be held accountable for doing all the step-by-step activities in the workflow.

New behaviours don't just happen – they need to be planned and keep happening to be come truly embedded.

If you have a learning workflow spanning a few weeks, or a few months, with tens or even hundreds of activities, and maybe hundreds of learners, you will need a digital solution to keep track of what’s happening and to automate the necessary nudging and reporting. 

This kind of platform is a learning workflow platform or LWP.

The workflow confusion

For some time now, people have rightly been discussing bringing learning closer to its point of use. 

That is, bringing learning closer in both time and location to where people are doing their job to support their performance in the moment. This is the ‘just-in-time’ approach to delivering learning. 

We often use the term ‘workflow’ to describe the general flow of work that happens in an organisation from a more abstract or higher-level perspective. 

In effect, it is a collective noun for all the planned and ad hoc individual workflows occurring when people go about their day-to-day work.

Converting standard training programmes into learning workflows can ensure sustainable behavioural changes. 

We can now easily see the difference between a ‘learning workflow’ and ‘learning in the workflow’.

A ‘learning workflow’ is a detailed set of step-by-step instructions to achieve a specific learning (behavioural change) outcome. 

In fact, you are unlikely to achieve reliable behaviour change without designing and delivering a learning workflow, and then holding people accountable for doing the required activities.

‘Learning in the workflow’ is a generic term for the learning, both formal and informal, that occurs when people are going about their day-to-day job.

Next steps?

Look at the most recent training programme you worked on. How could you convert it to a learning workflow to ensure sustainable behaviour change?

Interested in this topic? Read 'Seven tips for developing a successful learning analytics strategy'.

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