Workflow Learning: Making It Stick

This blog is generated from the Performance
Matters Podcast episode titled “Leadership Matters: Making It Stick” in which
Bob Mosher interviews Oliver Kern, a consultant, trainer, and coach, about his deep experience developing workflow
learning solutions that stand the test of time.

Bob Mosher (BM): Mr. Oliver Kern, it’s wonderful
to have you here, my friend. Describe your journey into the performance-first
mindset, 5 Moments of Need, and performance support as a discipline.


Oliver Kern (OK): I’m currently a consultant, trainer,
and coach based on 25 years of corporate experience as a leader, as a marketer
and innovation manager, change agent, and eventually also a learning leader. I’m
not a learning person from the start, but I came to learning as a marketer. It
was about 10 years ago when I met Con [Gottfredson] in a project. I was tasked
by my bosses to produce a global marketing and sales training. Essentially, they
said, “Do a three-day training and roll it out globally to about four thousand
people,” and I had a hunch that this was not really what we needed. I had no
clue about formal training setups. I had done a lot of trainings on strategy
and markets and all that, but more from a business perspective—not from a
learning perspective. So that’s how I came to discover learning.


BM: Many of our best [workflow learning] practitioners
are not learning folks. Unfortunately, those who do have a learning background
tend to come into this arena with some baggage. We’ve talked about that on past
podcast episodes: the shift from a training-first to a performance-first
mindset is sometimes the dark side of our legacy. But you came from the
business. You understood what they wanted and therefore came to it with a much
fresher, much more performance-focused mindset.

Now, tell us about this wonderful thing called SkillCamp,
which became this brilliant deliverable and ecosystem. It’s been around for
quite a long time. Its journey and evolution have been just remarkable to watch—like
you said, from your first efforts and the instinct you had to NOT build three
days of training. Can you take us through the business problems SkillCamp solves?
What birthed this thing from the business perspective?

OK: First, I should say that this is in the
agricultural space. The time to market of those active-ingredient-based
products is about 10 years, so [there is] a very scientific, long-term business
strategy framework. Why did we need this solution? We understood that we had
been a producer over the last hundred years, and then suddenly we needed to
start thinking about marketing and sales, because competition came up more and
more. There was a lot of market consolidation—the classic story, if you look at
the hype cycle of industries. The basic idea is that 50% of success in that
market would still be [based on] having great products, but the other 50% would
be [based on being] very good at marketing and sales.

So, the solution was a training framework or learning
ecosystem for marketing and sales. The marketing and sales departments in many
companies are not the best of friends. There’s always a little bit of friction
between them: how we go to market in terms of strategies and plans and then how
we actually execute that, talk to customers, and serve them. We initially
called this framework “commercial excellence”, or “marketing and sales
excellence”. In the end, we summarized it by saying that we created a common
mindset for commercial excellence. And we did that with a common model. One of
the best models I came across to kind of frame that learning was the 5 Moments
of Need framework. That helped me as a non-learning person to really understand
what we needed. And that’s where I modeled all the different aspects into that
ecosystem. Because we didn’t have to only frame it—we also needed to create the
content. So, one task was to create that framework; the other was to actually
shape the content with a lot of stakeholders and subject matter experts to
deliver it and, in the end, build different learning modes for people to digest

BM: So, I’ve heard you tell this story before. You
constantly mention this idea about persistently asking stakeholders and those
we serve, “What do you want?” Not asking the traditional what-do-you-need-to-know
SME stuff! You’re really talking to the business about what they really want.
Why is that so important and why the persistence? Do they know what they want? We
often hear from L&D folks who say, “My line of business doesn’t know what
it wants.” I don’t know if I’ve ever bought into that. What I’ve sometimes
wondered is if we’re asking the right questions, because I don’t know anybody
who runs a business that doesn’t know what their KPIs are that they have to do
or what keeps them up at night. We’re asking, “What do you want me to train on?”
That may be different from what they want. Why was this so important to you in
your journey of being persistent with them around this question?

OK: Of course, they know what they want, or at least
what might be best for business. In that sense, they are more knowledgeable than
learning folks about all the needs. But how do they actually shape that into
learning? That’s where you can say they don’t know exactly what they want. In
our case, they said “We need a three-day training. Take all that content and
shape it into a three-day training, and then roll it out globally.” They were
ready to spend money. They knew they needed to do something about it because
they had a purpose: to become more of a marketer. But what did they really

I said, “If you really want to do that and roll it out
globally, and it should stick with people, then you need a single point
of truth or a single point of data that everybody could tap into.” [In my worst-case
scenario] I was envisioning a PowerPoint presentation that would be shown in
the training that everybody would just copy and use from there on while we had
already developed it further, and then we would have thousands of those
versions. We would never have a common mindset for commercial excellence in
that sense, right?

If you want to roll out something really business relevant to
an organization, you need to have good stakeholder management. You need to
bring these people in to understand what they want, because what your boss
tells you to do (like a three-day training) is one answer, but what the other pivotal
stakeholders are saying and wanting might be quite different. In the end, we
did a lot of interviews, and I can summarize the outcome in the sense that
everybody wanted a common language around this, because one person might say, “This
is what customer segmentation is,” but if you ask the next guy, he might say customer
segmentation is something completely different. And everybody agreed that we
needed training, so doing a foundational training was part of the show. There
was no way around that. As you constantly say, 5 Moments of Need is not “no training”,
so one very important aspect of this whole framework was a foundational
training. And when you have a common mindset and language, then you can start
talking about common processes. When you have common processes, then you can
talk about tools you use inside those processes. And when you have all that—mindset,
language, process, tool—then you can think about, “Aha! Do people behave in a different
way?” And if they behave in a different way, maybe you can measure a different

BM: And that doesn’t all have to be arrived at
through the burden of a training. That’s where the SkillCamp tool, I think,
became the tie that binds. It was the thing that brought all of that together,
including the training that we still do. I love the foundations side of it
because that really gets back to our critical skills and things that are most
important—vs. training on everything.

So, in this mindset change, you’re setting some expectations
with a question. And you’re getting them away from the expectation of having a
three-day training deliverable. So, it’s so important to manage those
expectations over and over and over again, because the training mindset is
ingrained in most organizations. It is a reflex. And so, you’re trying to turn
that around to get them to a different deliverable. How important was
expectation management to the success of this endeavor over time and in

OK: It was absolutely critical. Right from the moment
I walked into the office and got the buy-in from my boss, when he said, “This
is an important point in how we do marketing and sales. We want to do that
training,” I said, “That can’t be the end of the story. We need to actually put
in place that single point of truth and we need to put that into the training. We
need to instruct people where they can get the stuff and use the stuff that we
will teach them in their training. Otherwise, they will create their own
versions and it will be version hell.” So, expectation management started at
the very first meeting when I got the mandate to do this.

Then there was expectation management that came when we did
what we called a pressure test: when we invited all the managers to say, “Okay,
this is what we want, and this is what we want to roll out globally.” It then
came out very clearly that this was not a learning initiative, but a change
initiative. It was a massive change initiative. And that opened their minds to
actually invest in it. So, they said, “If that’s the case, we need five days
training, because in Asia, you need to train that a little more thoroughly.” Or
“In that country, they already know everything, so you train a little less, but
we might actually tap into that single point of truth a little more.” So, I was
thinking, “How do I set this up? Do I set this up in a way that is a training
with a little bit of support? Or do I want to set it up in a way that it sticks
and stays around?” And that’s what I did. I probably didn’t say that enough, but
I was aiming in that direction. And now after 10 years, it’s still running. It
doesn’t even have the name SkillCamp anymore. I think it’s called something
else, but it was set up in a way that it can evolve and shape itself. That’s
something that’s also playing into expectation management, right? You want to
have something that’s around and can grow with the organization as it learns
how to better market and sell products.

Expectation management also has to do with stakeholder
management (we said that before). As I explained earlier, we needed to also
create the content. So, you have that SME community, which is also pivotal for
success. You’re in that sandwich position between top management and the people
in training who want the bare essentials, right? You [Bob] always phrase it as
“2 clicks/10 seconds”, so just the essential information. And the SMEs want to
give you 50-page white papers and research backgrounds and all that. So, you
need to explain this whole concept to the people who are the real experts in an
organization, and even more in a science driven organization.

We also had ambassadors (coaches) and an ambassador
community. We shaped that by asking, “Who are the people who like to help
others learn in the organization, no matter where they are in the hierarchy?”
Those became our ambassadors. We shaped and built that community and taught ambassadors
what to expect from how we’d further evolve this learning ecosystem. At first,
we had the foundational training, but later on, we had focus areas, role-based
content, extended search, different languages, auto translation—all these kinds
of things were evolving. And you need to tell people [about those features]. You
can’t just roll them out and expect people to use them. You really need to
manage how the solution reaches out to people and build that ecosystem in a
sustainable way.

BM: Clearly it was [sustainable], my friend. Like you
said, not only has it been around for 10 years or so, but the brand changed,
which shows that it outlived even its original intent. Because of the way you
were intentional in setting that up, the brand evolved as it should. The tool has
evolved as it should and the technology evolved as it should, but the
principles you ingrained there and this mindset shift have stood the test of

So, describe outcomes. Looking back, what has been the
outcome of this for the organization you were supporting?

OK: We shaped the content found in roughly 5,000-7,000
slides. We had the help of a few large consultancies who identified the
competencies and skills needed to be successful in the market, and that’s what
we shaped. In the end, we said, “Okay, how can we visualize that?” And then
time was up to start the whole endeavor. We looked at our watches and I suggested
we use the watch [as a model]: take a twelve-step go-to-market approach as a
basic way to start (12 hours in the day, 12 steps for us to go to market). That
seemed like a good model to start with. It’s been changed in the meantime, but
that was a good context that everybody could grab throughout the world. And
then we learned from Con that we needed a process context model, which in the
end was not only a simpler way to digest tons and tons of competencies to go to
market, but it was also a real click map. We put it on the homepage of the
EPSS, or Digital Coach as you call it nowadays, and you could click on a step
and go into the different tasks you would need to do to complete that step, and
then drill down into whatever resources you needed to be successful. And that’s
what we taught in that foundational training. In the end, we spent the first
couple hours of every foundational training just helping people understand the Digital
Coach, which we called SkillCamp in those days.

And this was by no means perfect (just a little practitioner
secret). In the beginning, we had only the bare essential information in there.
Also, the technical system was not stable. We didn’t have the cloud services behind
it back in those days. It was all rudimentary. In the end, we knew we had to
build this plane while we flew it. And then we had this global rollout. In three
or four years, we had physically trained more than more than four and a half
thousand people. Since then, it has evolved.

You asked about outcomes. In the end, there were role-based elements,
and we had a training on how seeds are produced and marketed. We had a project
on lifecycle management in the training framework, we had different focus areas
to help with events and structures. So, it was actually evolving into a blended
learning framework or learning ecosystem that used different learning
modalities. We were experimenting with a lot of things, like how to ask the
right questions. How could we do tests in there? Could we ask small questions?
Could we use a chatbot? I’m not sure how these evolved over time, but we tried
a lot of things and built a learning ecosystem around it.

BM: And like you say, it has stood the test of time. Wrapping
that process around a lot of content made it such that it was that single point
of truth.

Looking back, what are some key success factors you can
share with others? Many who come here are very early in their journey. They
want to get their arms around where to start and hear lessons learned, so it’s
wonderful to have someone like you on a podcast like this, who has that tenure
in this experience. What would be some key things they should keep in mind that
made things work successfully for you?

OK: I think the one that [most] stands out is that
context is king. Context is king. For me, I needed to contextualize how to
bring the knowledge and the content for a new way to go to market to a lot of
people from a lot of different cultures. The 5 Moments of Need framework gave
that context. Where do people learn? We needed to teach people how to cooperate.
We had marketing and salespeople in the room together, and there was a lot of
happy discussion that we facilitated. We said, “Look, a lot of the stuff we’re
teaching you guys you already know and do somehow, but some of this is new. So,
we have a lot of new [content] and the whole approach is new that you need to
learn, and then you need to learn [even] more. There are a lot of things you
need to let go and change. You need to start to apply that.”

So, you see the 5 Moments of Need framework really being
used in the foundational training. It was also used for setting up the
technical back-end system. It was used for setting up and briefing the SME
community, for the stakeholders, and for the ambassadors. In the end, you need
a theory or a model so you can easily explain why you do things the way you’re
doing them. If you can then say, “Dr. Con Gottfredson has been at this for 40
years,” and bring him in to explain it further, which we did a couple of times,
then that’s extremely helpful. Because if you are telling internal people
about the framework, it’s much less impactful than when somebody who’s an
expert in the field and has used the framework in many industries tells the
same story. But that’s kind of the most important.

You asked for success factors. You must have the people who
are experts about the content “in the boat.” Somebody once said, “You have to
have the right people on the bus.” You need to get your SMEs on the bus! And
you are in that stakeholder sandwich when you do that: you want to reduce the
content and the SMEs want to actually tell their story and what they know about
everything. So, they are usually highly motivated to help. So, you need to
explain [why less is better], and you can use that model again: 2 clicks/10
seconds. That was that was a phrase we used a lot.

The other thing that is a success factor is your own mindset
of looking at your learning ecosystem. We did a lot of user experience testing
that was trying to look at this from the learner’s perspective, as the person
who’s going to sit in the training or in front of Digital Coach and try to make
sense of it. From what I learned later, typically what often happens in the
corporate learning space is that they look at it from the corporate
perspective. So, how do I organize all the trainings? How do I access all the
trainings? How do I manage participants in these trainings? How do I get
locations secured or invitations sent, right? So, these kinds of things—the
learner perspective and the corporate perspective—are fundamentally different
from each other. But you need to look at both sides if you talk about a
learning system or learning ecosystem. Look at it from the company perspective
and look at it from the learner perspective. Both are critically important for
the success of your plan to establish learning in your company, wherever you
are. And don’t forget the single point of truth, obviously. Have one single
point where you put your content and maintain it—and work hard to switch off
all the others!

I can give a nice example [of switching off other sources of
content]. We decided not to present a PowerPoint in the foundational training.
We made that decision that after the first or second foundational training ran because
it was hell to produce these PowerPoints and have those printed in different
countries by different people in different setups in different languages. It
was crazy. But it took us almost three years before the last foundational
trainings ran without PowerPoint. We still had PowerPoints sneaking in here and
there, but it was more for exercises or tasks. After we had completed about two
thirds of all the trainings, we managed to completely remove PowerPoint, which
made it much more fun, much more active, much more “in the process”, and we had
much more time for practice.

Another success factor is stakeholder management. As you
asked in the first question, why didn’t they know what they want? You really
need to think about who is important for the success of however you want to
establish learning in your organization. Talk to them to understand what they
expect from this and how you can make them happy. If you can’t make them happy,
at least keep them informed. One of the biggest “presents” I received was from
the CEO in those days. I walked into her office and said proudly, “This is the EPSS,
and this is how we’re going to set it up. We have that single point of truth,
and we have the 5 Moments of Need framework behind all that. We have the 12
steps and a common mindset.” And she said, “Okay, but do you have the buy-in of
everybody?” So, I said, “I was assuming so because I talked to everybody. I
talked to you and you’re the CEO of the company. I talked to my bosses. I have
everybody on board.” And she said, “I don’t believe you. My experience with
this is that you need to have them sign almost with their blood to really ensure
buy-in because they are overseeing the business in a country, and they are
operationally driven. So, if you really want them to drive this commercial
training in their countries’ organizations, then you need to invite them to a
room and present this to them. And maybe they can still make changes, but in
the end, they will need to sign off. Have the key stakeholders sign off on what
you’re going to do so that you have a common way forward”. And we called this “pressure
testing”. I think pressure testing is one of the most valuable tips we can
share in this podcast. Pressure test with your key stakeholders and have them
sign off on the way forward.

BM: Excellent. So, what are three key takeaways for you
now that you’re looking back?

OK: The most important one is that whatever your
learning is about, make sure it’s business relevant. Why else should people consider
it? So, make it business relevant.

The second one—and not just because I’m on your podcast for
performance support—is make it workflow accessible and intuitive. It should be
really usable in the work, during the work, or at least accessible while you

And the third, which I’ve already mentioned a lot, is
stakeholder involvement. Stakeholder involvement is not only important at the
beginning when you talk to people about what they want, it’s not only important
when you really want to kick off the solution and do your pressure testing, but
it’s also important afterwards. Always make sure that the people who are
affected by the training give you feedback and that you’re involving them,
because everything’s changing faster and faster now, right? I don’t know, we
might have flying taxis soon. So, things change and that’s why you need to keep
your stakeholders involved, and maybe even get new stakeholders involved. So,
do you stakeholder management and involvement all the way through your learning

BM: My favorite question to ask those that have been
on this journey is what advice would you give your younger self before you even
start it? What would help the younger Oliver about to begin this thing 10 years

OK: It’s two-fold. One would be to ask yourself if
what’s in front of you is actually just a learning initiative or a change
initiative that requires lots of change management or even organizational
development. That’s a question I was not aware of at the beginning of all this.
That’s one thing I would talk to my younger self about.

The other is understanding learning within the context of
the 5 Moments of Need. This is where Con helped us so much. We did bring him in
when we already had a lot of content shaped, so we had these slides arranged
around our 12 steps and we were very proud of them. And then he said, “Okay,
but what’s critical?” We really had difficulties with this. We needed to go
back and redo a lot of content, which was thousands and thousands of euros. We
needed to invest to redo all that content and talk again to all those experts.
So, that’s where I would go back and say, “Look, Oliver, think about how you
can really reduce the content in the right way so that it’s digestible and
usable for the learners.”

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