Tactical Implementation of a Workflow Learning Solution

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled The Tactical Side of Implementing a Workflow Learning Solution. In it, Bob Mosher is joined by APPLY Synergies Executive Director of Consulting Services Sue Reber. Together, they explore the tactical capabilities of workflow learning, which include the learning and job performance team, project management, and change management.


Bob Mosher (BM): Today, we are honored to speak with the best 5 Moments of Need® workflow learning designer in the world, Sue Reber. Welcome, Sue. 

Sue Reber (SR): It’s good to be here. 

BM: You’ve been at this a bit, and I think that’s important for today’s topic, which is the tactical change and mindset that designers, their managers, and other people who run teams have to keep in mind when implementing workflow learning solutions. You have been on that journey for just about your entire career, so share a little bit of your experience. 

SR: It really started for me back in 1996 or 1997 when we worked together at a company called  Element K launching what we called Learn Pro: problem-based, instructor-led training where a team was brought in to work on its real work—with guidance. It really changed the way I thought about training. Instead of developing objectives and then building down from those objectives, we would sit in a conference room and brainstorm a list of skills people needed to have in order to use whatever software was in question (Learn Pro was very software focused at that time). Then, we would build scenarios around those skills and map the skills to the scenarios. People would come to training and do their own work, but if they didn’t have their own work, they’d use the scenarios we created. The facilitator really helped them move along.  

So that was the beginning of my journey 25 years ago and that really has informed how I’ve thought about training and developing training ever since. 

BM: I remember how powerful those first couple of classes were with our gifted instructor. We were in the back of the room watching the early pilots and I was cringing, thinking, “Oh my gosh, you’re not going to cover ‘X’?” and “You should probably go deeper into ‘Y’ because I once taught that myself!” We didn’t know it then, and I don’t think we knew Con Gottfredson at the time, but there was a critical skill element to what we were doing, because we decided that the instructor would only teach certain things and let others be discovered. This is the idea of the Critical Impact of Failure, even though we didn’t know it then or have the rigor of its current rubric. We were in the early days of that, and I remember coming out of those first classes—as painful as they felt—thinking, “This is different.” The energy in the room, the impact on the learner…even though we were just scratching the surface, it was something significant. 

SR: I first noticed it was something different when we rolled it out to the Element K salesforce at the Grand Ole Opryland Hotel. We trained our salesforce using Learn Pro, and if anyone has ever trained salespeople, they walk out of the room all the time. They are on their phones constantly and they’re rarely paying attention. They just have so much that they’re trying to do, so I was shocked because there was not a single person that left our room while we were doing that training. They were completely engaged. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, and that was what really made a believer of me. I thought, “Oh, wow! I think this will work.” 

BM: And here we sit 20+ years later with the gifts of Dr. Con Gottfredson and lots of good work with some amazing clients. With those gifts comes some remarkable rigor. For example, we have EnABLE, our instructional design methodology, and Rapid Workflow Analysis (RWA) as a discipline.  

Today, Sue, the pivot is on tactical implementation, and that’s really the world you just described. For so many instructional designers and their managers, this is a pivot. It is tactical and emotional in some ways, so let’s get into this. In the context of our world of workflow learning design and 5 Moments of Need design, what do we mean by tactical? What are the related components or competence? 

SR: As a frame of reference, for strategic implementation capabilities, we mean business partnership, governance, measurement, and change leadership. For technical implementation capabilities, we mean content development/maintenance, content delivery/ongoing optimization, and tracking/measuring/reporting. For tactical implementation capabilities, we mean the learning and job performance team, which is a new phrase that we coined, because we really want people to think beyond just the learning team. It’s the learning and job performance team. That’s a really critical pivot. We also mean project management, as in the people on the learning and job performance team who do the work, how that work gets done, how it is managed, and the implementation. And finally, we mean change management: how we get people to actually adopt. 

BM: And our colleague Carol Stroud has made the delineation between change leadership, which has a strategic bent and is more about the enterprise view, and tactical change management. It is an intentional difference.  

If people are familiar with me, they know I am obsessed with vocabulary. In that vein, our industry handles two things quite poorly: 1) we like to make stuff up and then don’t define it well, and 2) we tend to share it before we can provide a comfortable understanding for those we serve. For example, take microlearning (my favorite thing to pick on). I always say it’s not that I disagree with or hate micro learning. It’s the fact that I still, to this day—and it’s been around for years—can’t get a group of people to agree on just what it is.  

So, let’s dig into the learning and job performance team, which I love, because the name states what it does, right? It is focused on job performance and the learning that surrounds it. I love where you’ve taken this because there’s an acronym that helps us tactically peel back the onion here.  

SR: Yes. As you said earlier, we have the EnABLE instructional design methodology. We’ve added a little bit more structure around that and have also pulled together some guiding principles that help in the tactical area, which form the acronym that you’re talking about: ADAPT. We use that to help inform what we’re doing. The first A stands for “Aligned to the workflow.” Aligning to the workflow is so important, because how learners encode what they learn into long-term memory determines how efficiently and effectively they can apply that learning to their work. That’s the whole idea behind Rapid Workflow Analysis (RWA) in which we’re trying to make the work visible and align it to what people really do on the job. So, we engage the people who actually do the work, right? I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone into an RWA and only the learning people are there. We have to say, “No, we need people who actually do the job.” When done right, the RWA is eye-opening to the learning people and to the managers of the people who are doing the work, who often say, “Oh my goodness, we didn’t realize what people are actually doing.” 

BM: I think sometimes even the SMEs who are invited to the RWA aren’t the right people. The organizers will say, “We’ve got two people who do the work. They’re the managers of the sales reps for the CRM”, or “We’ve got the ‘hi-po’ (high potential) folks who’ve done it for 20 years in the room.” Help us understand how even those folks who we’ve typically used in training design might not even be the folks you’re describing here. 

SR: You literally want your target audience to be in that RWA, because they are the ones who are actually doing the work. Managers might have done the work at one time, but maybe they didn’t. Maybe they think they know what the people on their team do, but usually they don’t. So, it’s really important to get the right mix of people together and to keep that initial team small, but you can then go out and validate what they produce with everybody else. For the initial RWA group, we like to bring together the people who are actually doing the work (that might be subject matter experts as well as business matter experts, who tend to have more of a process view into how the business itself works).  

Then, we want to articulate that workflow. In the RWA, we begin at the task level and work up, which is totally the opposite of how we did things in the old world of ISD. Then, we determine the workflow logic of the tasks. We group those tasks together into the processes that make sense for the workflow, and we put together a map to connect the encoding with the retrieval. The other thing that we do, which is critical and something people have a hard time doing, is distinguish knowing from doing. We focus on what people need to do first, and then we identify the things they need to know in order to do what they need to do. We call those things that people do “tasks”, and we identify and organize those first. Then, we identify and organize the things that people need to know, which are called “supporting knowledge”. The last thing we do in “Align to the workflow” is balance cognitive load. If you think about what we can remember and grasp, we apply the chunking principle to that: seven plus or minus two optimizes working memory and helps people with encoding and retrieval. We take a look at everything and try to group it in a way that’s not going to cognitively overload people… 

BM: …which we do in training all the time. What’s so wonderful for me about this letter ‘A’ (Align to the workflow) is that if you’re going to do workflow learning, if you’re going to use the 5 Moments of Need and focus on Apply first, you must understand the workflow. It’s funny. I think a lot of designers have a hard time with this because they think, “But I’ve always done this. I got people in a room. I asked them what they did.” But the truth is that no, you really didn’t. You often didn’t have the right people there. You might have said the words, “Tell us what you do,” but as we both know, SMEs love the “know” thing, as in “they must know” or “before they do anything they should know” or “this is important to know.” That really does create a very different outline that doesn’t help balance cognitive load, because we don’t know and don’t truly see the workflow at the literal operational level. 

We don’t know what is truly critical and what’s not; therefore, we firehose people in training. 

Next letter in ADAPT: D 

SR: D is “Develop for job performance first.” This helps us be more effective in developing the actual solution. I’m going to call it a solution because it’s not just training. We’re going to focus first on job performance—not training. This is a big switch. This is another place where people have trouble making the leap, especially if they’re classically trained instructional designers, because we’re trained to start with the objective and start with training, and we don’t really think about the job performance piece. That’s something else. Maybe people will do on the job coaching, or maybe they’ll stop and ask people when they have questions when they get back to work. It’s just not something instructional designers usually think about. So, focusing on job performance first is a big shift. We prioritize what we do based on Critical Impact of Failure, which is also a big difference, because oftentimes within an organization, we’ll come up with an outline and we’ll just develop everything immediately. But everything doesn’t need to be in the training. We’d like to be targeted with our training, and that’s why we have a performance support solution and a targeted training solution. That Critical Impact of Failure allows us to cost justify the level of investment in developing and implementing the solution, because we can focus on high-risk skills, or those things that are going to cause big problems if people don’t do them correctly or don’t know what they are. 

BM: So often I hear from other people, “You guys are all about the workflow, and you devalue and minimize training.” It’s true that we do minimize training, but we don’t devalue it. Those are two very different things to me. In the world we live in today, what L&D professional isn’t under the gun every day to figure out how to minimize the training footprint and at the same time maximize their solution? I don’t know how else you do it than our way, but as you perfectly articulated, it starts with the workflow. Once you have that transparency, the criticality can be discussed objectively—not subjectively—by an SME. That leads to building a wonderful performance support solution, which means you can really optimize the efficiency of the training engagement. 

Next letter in ADAPT: A. 

SR: The second A is “Apply structure.” The reason we have this as a guideline is because structure facilitates learning, retention, on-the-job reference, maintenance, and transfer. It’s key for both the user and the person who is maintaining the solution. We apply structure by using templates. For everything we do, we’re going to establish structured templates for authoring the content, and we’re going to have a consistent interface on all the deliverables across the solution. As I mentioned, you’ve got a performance support deliverable and targeted training deliverables, and we’re going to implement a consistent learning path across an organization. If there is more than one performance support solution, we want to make sure there is consistency across whatever solutions someone is using. 

BM: The concept of a consistent user interface (UI) became really apparent to me when we got into eLearning in the early days. Because when people are on their own, there is no instructor up front telling them where they’re going wrong. Instead, we are targeting the workflow and a self-reliant worker. That makes consistent UI more important than ever. And no offense to eLearning, but we’re not just training here. We are supporting performance in the moment of doing, where screw-ups are bad. So, things like the consistency of that tool, the experience of seeing the same thing the same way, and navigating through the workflow the same way are critical. Mark Wagner is one of our colleagues. He has the Knowledge Management Tool (KMT) that The Hartford developed, and he always tells the remarkable story about how, when COVID hit, entire departments shifted focus to support areas they’d never supported before, but because the KMT had consistent structure, they had the ability to perform across disciplines. So, although it sounds like we’re just getting into the weeds, it’s important.  

Next letter in ADAPT: P. 

SR: P is “Provide task-level performance support.” This is another key guideline. Tasks are the fundamental units of job performance, so if we want to enable effective performance, we need to make sure that people have access to all the relevant resources at the task level. This is why a training-only approach doesn’t work. We need to address all 5 Moments of Need as they occur. We’ve talked about “Train/Transfer/Sustain” in the past. A training-only approach is only going to address Train. It might begin to address Transfer, but the forgetting curve will sharply curb that. This is why we need to provide task-level performance support when people are on the job. 

BM: And I love your earlier point about aligning all the resources, too. It’s not just “here’s the task and steps 1 – 5.” It’s also the supporting knowledge, the reference material, and even learning (there could be a coach). Aligning those with the tasks being the tip of the pyramid, as opposed to some random SharePoint site or library of stuff, is really efficient. It means we throw workers in the deep end with something that helps them survive. 

SR: Most organizations have tons of resources all over the place and associating those resources with the tasks they belong to can help in a lot of ways. It can help us to figure out whether a resource is really something people need and use vs. some vestige we don’t need anymore. It can also help us make sure people aren’t off searching all over the place for information they need. We can use it in training as well.  

Providing task-level performance support entails providing access to the Digital Coach, or what I’ve been calling a performance support solution in the past. From all relevant points of work, we’re trying to achieve 10-second access to anything I need in order to complete a task I have to do on the job. We set up contextual access to those tasks and their supporting resources, which is the purpose of the workflow map. Providing just enough information is where our performance support pyramid comes in. And I know we don’t need to spend a lot of time talking about this, but we want to make sure people can get to the steps as quickly as possible without having to wade through a whole bunch of extraneous stuff that they may or may not need. So, we design everything based on the performance support pyramid. That way, people can go as deep as they need to. We also need to keep content correct and current, because if it’s not up to date, people aren’t going to use it. Having it associated at the task level makes it easier to maintain. 

BM: We made a run at content management and knowledge management years ago, and I think the reason both of those didn’t get traction in most organizations is because we didn’t have the context of the workflow and the context of criticality. Everything was on the table, and these behemoth systems were built, because there was no gatekeeper for this. I can’t tell you how many organizations we’ve gone into that have a gazillion resources, and even though we’re there designing a solution, we leave them with a wonderful gift, which is governance and an effort to get their arms around what has often grown out of control.  

The last letter of ADAPT is T, and it comes back to our earlier point about not devaluing training. 

SR: Yes. T is “Target high-risk skills.” The takeaway for this is that you don’t need to train people on everything; you need to train them on high-risk skills. And you need to have enough time during training to target those high-risk skills. They need to be given the appropriate level of instructional treatment and they need to be practiced with opportunities for feedback. People need to walk out of the training feeling comfortable and confident with how to perform those high-risk skills. This means we need to incorporate the Digital Coach in the training, because the Digital Coach comes first, and the training comes second. Even if all we have in the Digital Coach are the quick-steps and the details for those quick-steps, that information needs to come first so that, in the training, we are teaching people how to use the Digital Coach to make them self-reliant learners on the job. I think that is the huge differentiator. It’s also the thing learning professionals struggle with the most as they use this new approach to develop training. 

BM: Somewhere along the line—I think it was once the amount of information exploded and went off the charts—we lost focus on what the classroom is for and what it does best. Instead, it became this dumping ground of too much stuff to cover, so all these remarkable principles about scaffolding and guided/unguided practice went out the door. And I get it; we have so much to cover.  

Our remarkable methodology really gets the classroom back where it belongs by minimizing what’s covered, facilitating practice, encouraging safe failure, teaching workers to be self-reliant, facilitating work with peers and colleagues, and empowering the trainer to wander around (like in the Learn Pro days) and do what they do best. It’s not a gazillion PowerPoint slides. ADAPT is brilliant, and if anyone would like more information, visit our website 

Sue, when you think about ADAPT, tell me what bubbles to the top for you. For someone taking the first step on this journey, what is paramount and where should they start? 

SR: Flip your thinking and start with job performance first—not objectives. Ask, “What do workers actually need to do?” and really focus on that. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between “do” and “know”, so think in terms of action verbs. What is it that people need to DO? Organize that into the workflow and let go of the idea that you need to train everybody on everything. They need to be trained on critical skills, and they need support for those things that they can learn in the workflow. 

BM: Yes, if we flip it to, “I have to support people on everything,” I’m going to do whatever works to accomplish that. Then, training takes on a different light. It has a critical role to play, but it’s no longer the tip of the sword.