Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Being a “Learning Organization” Enough?

I was once debriefing a training class with a senior manager from an organization who had purchased a large training program from us. We were specifically discussing the results of the post assessments each student had completed. Overall the students had done fairly well. As the instructor I was pleased and anxious to hear what I was hoping to be glowing feedback from this particular manager. I was a bit taken back when he handed me the results and said, “These numbers mean nothing to me.” When I asked him to clarify he replied, “I don’t care what my people learn in training. I only care that they perform better or differently AFTER the training.”

Peter Senge and his colleagues spent most of the 1990’s helping us better understand the qualities of becoming a “Learning Organization” and many of us did our best to meet these guidelines. But after having spent the last 3 years of my professional life solely focused on Performance Support (PS) and the profound impact I have seen it have on organizations, I’m wondering if the goal of becoming a Learning Organization is enough. Should becoming a “Performing Organization” be the goal of the millennium and beyond?

The past 3 years have taught me that although learning is a key part of the overall success of any individual learner and the organization at large, sometimes learning is simply not enough. Focusing heavily on learning may play a huge part in why we don’t achieve the ultimate outcome we are striving for.

It may help if I take a second to share what my definition of learning has become. For me, the overall goal of any organization and its employees is to successfully and consistently outperform their potential. Learning is clearly a prerequisite to performance, but to have learned does not always translate into, or guarantee, performance. This is the one of the hardest things for training departments to understand. We have spent years and billions of dollars on classroom programs, e-learning libraries, certifications, and compliance training only to find that we’re still not getting the performance we need and want from our workforce. That’s because we are missing a key component! We need to be offering an intentional instructional model that takes what someone has learned and helps them transfer and adapt that knowledge into their daily workplace. This is the job of PS. Until an organization begins to create, deliver, maintain, and measure PS with the same focus, budget, resources, and rigor it has always dedicated to learning they will never truly realize the overall productivity growth they have been tasked with achieving.

In order for a learner to achieve peak performance they need to journey through two stages: mastery and competency. Each is a critical part of the journey, but in most organizations mastery is the area most served by the training organization leaving competency up for grabs. Mastery is the acquisition of knowledge. It’s what training and learning organizations do brilliantly, and should continue to do! Competency is when a learner takes what they have learned and can apply and adapt what they have learned to their unique work setting and the plethora of challenges they encounter.

This is where PS comes in. Its role is to help take a learner from mastery to competency. When a training organization adopts PS as a compliment to their learning strategy they will begin to impact both mastery and competency. At this point they will begin achieving an entirely different level if impact on the organizations they serve. In a time when training budgets and training departments are being held accountable at a level like never before, being able to show a direct impact on the competency of the learners they support will position them in a highly strategic way.

The Learning Organization of today needs to become the Performing Organization of tomorrow which includes a more robust and mature view of what is the entire learning journey. Although learning is key, it is not enough to sustain the growing and every changing world of those we support. Creating a comprehensive performance strategy which includes both mastery and competency is the only way to ultimately serve our organizations. Adding PS is a key step in achieving that goal!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why Focus on Workflow Process?

Pursuing Competency Beyond Mastery
When you add performance support to the mix, the pursuit of skill mastery changes. There are levels of mastery with performance support. Mastery obviously includes complete internalization of an independent skill. With this highest level of mastery a performer has the ability to complete a task automatically. This capacity is securely encoded into long-term memory and can be executed without conscience thought – it just happens when it needs to happen. On the other end of the mastery spectrum is the ability to efficiently complete a task using a job aid without any direct training on a specific skill. The successful use of the job aid is made possible by a generalizable understanding of how to use it.

Competency embraces mastery at all its levels. But competence is only fully achieved when performers have integrated what they have mastered into actionable skill sets within the context of their personal workflow. This generally requires integration with other existing skill sets within the performer and also with other people via collaboration.

These integrated skill sets must be internalized at the appropriate level so they can be successfully executed as needed with a justifiable amount of effort. What is more, competency always carries with it sufficient conceptual understanding to facilitate proper judgment and the capacity to adapt, on-the-fly, to the unique challenges that occur in the workflow.

Here's an example:  Suppose you completed a course titled “Mastering Spreadsheets.” The course was facilitated by a remarkable instructor who taught you all the details for using your organization’s spreadsheet software. During the class you practiced and mastered 10 fundamental skills associated with that software. Suppose, also, that your day-to-day work doesn’t require you to use that software but you do need to use it as part of periodic ongoing project work with others in your organization. In this work, you receive digital spreadsheets from several team members and you do the following:
  1. Consolidate those spreadsheets
  2. Add specific data, gathered from several other applications to the now combined set of spreadsheets
  3. Perform a number of calculations
  4. Make judgments based upon those calculations
  5. Enter those judgments into another application along with specific data points
  6. Forward the revised spreadsheets onto other members of your work team
  7. Monitor the completion of your team members calculations
  8. Reconcile any discrepancies in their conclusions via a virtual meeting
Question—to what degree do you think the “Mastering Spreadsheets” class would have prepared you to be competent in performing this specific workflow process? High chance it wouldn’t have unless the course had anticipated this workflow process and provided you practice completing it and then left you with a performance support tool to help you at your moments of “Apply.”

We once were asked to help a multi-national company design and implement an enterprise training solution for an ERP reengineering effort. The project involved completely changing the way they managed their financials. Every associated workflow process was redesigned to involve people on the front-line of the business who had never engaged in the organization’s financials before.

We opted to train on business processes. We linked business and non-business tasks with workflows and job-roles. We developed a web-based performance support system that provided access to specific task instructions via role-based online workflow diagrams. We used the online system as the primary training resource in every class. Our objective, to train everyone to use the online performance support system to help them “do their job.”

The result? The go-live day was a non-event. We had put extra support personnel at the help desk but by the end of the first week we sent the extra help back to their work areas because they weren’t needed. The company had completed changed how several thousand people performed their jobs without a hiccup. Why? Because work-flow process was the backbone of the training effort coupled with a web-based performance support “broker” that supported those processes.

Workflow process is the primary means for ensuring that performance is purposefully and effectively directed. It should be the backbone for all training and performance support efforts and most certainly is the key for any organization interested in pursuing competency beyond the mastery of independent skills.