Integrating Work and Learning

Reshaping L&D

Jane Hart (one of my ITA colleagues) has laid out a proposal for the new services of the L&D department, and I think it resonates nicely with some thinking I’ve been having.  The point is that L&D has to shift, but the question is: “to where?” So Jane posits 3 services: Content production: designing and […]

Managing Learning?

classroomDonald Taylor recently published an article titled ‘What does ‘LMS’ mean today?’. In it Donald posited something I’ve been advocating for years.

It is this.

Learning can only be managed by the individual in whose head the learning is occurring.

Of course external factors – such as other people (especially your manager and your team), technology, prevailing culture, general ‘environmental’ factors, and a range of different elements – can support, facilitate, encourage, and help your learning occur faster, better, with greater impact and so on.  But they can’t manage the learning process for you. That’s down to you alone.

This raises an important set of challenges. One of which is “if learning is managed by the learner, what will the technologies that support her look like in the next 3, 5, 10 years?”

One thing we know for sure. They won’t look like the learning management systems installed in the vast majority of organisations across the world today. Sadly, many of these meet Marc Rosenberg’s description as ‘course vending machines’.

Keeping the CEO out of Jail

In his article Donald quotes Andy Wooler, Academy Technology Manager at Hitachi Data Systems Academy, as saying:

“LMS too often stands for Litigation Mitigation Service.”

Andy was not dismissing the need for LMSs out-of-hand. He was simply saying that often the technology is used just to keep records in case something goes wrong and there is a need to produce evidence to support the organisation’s case in court – or, hopefully to avoid court altogether.  Many organisations – especially those in highly regulated industries – take this view. In the past that strategy provided a more robust defence than it does now (see an earlier article about compliance training for a discussion on that issue). A record that someone had completed a compliance course may have won the day in the past, but is less likely to do so now. However, compliance course completion often has little, if anything, to do with learning and certainly won’t contribute much to building the high-performing cultures every organisation needs to aspire to if it’s to be successful.

A Tool for (a fading) Industrial Society

In his article, Donald also gave a pen-sketch of the origins of the Learning Management System (LMS) as training administration systems.

LMS technology emerged from a need to automate process management and record-keeping systems in the post-World War II era when the focus was on industrialisation and the development of mass production techniques. With millions of returned servicemen and women re-entering education and training there was a need to manage the process of classroom training more efficiently. LMSs appeared alongside the automation of other organisational processes – financial systems and HR management systems (HRMSs).

But LMSs were a step on the road, not an end in themselves.

The management modules of Systems such as PLATO (arguably the first LMS) the Computer Assisted Instruction system which was developed at the University of Illinois in 1960 (and finally shut down in 2006), were developed to support automated teaching operations (the ‘ATO’ part of the name) in a world where standardisation and automation were the primary goal. They were conceived and developed to primarily solve an organisational problem, not necessarily to improve the learning experience for the individual learner or worker.

We need a lot more, and a lot different, from whichever technologies we select to support the development of our workforce today and into the future

Moving to the Future

The diagram below gives an idea of challenge facing us as we move into a world where learning management is in the hands of each individual and their supporting ecosystem.

In a world where the majority of learning is in the workflow and most of it is ‘informal’ (self-directed or undirected in the moment of need), the idea of pouring large amounts of your organisation’s L&D budget into a concept and technology that was designed to make easier the scheduling of courses and programmes is not a sensible one to take.

Of course we will need technology to support learning. Even more so than ever before. But, as noted earlier, the technology we need is a long stride away from that which most organisations currently have in place.

LMS Evolution


My colleague Jane Hart has written about this challenge for some years (see here for an article by Jane from 2010). She sees the future of technologies supporting learning as a mash-up of social co-operation and collaboration tools aligned with the emerging social workplace. More importantly, Jane provides advice that L&D can’t sit alone.  Learning leaders need to work with their colleagues in IT and Business Operations to get the right tools in place. To that I’d add the need to work with Internal and Corporate Communications colleagues, Brand specialists, Knowledge Management teams as well as your extended value chain.

I think Jane’s absolutely correct. The tools that will be used to support (but not manage) learning in the future will principally be drawn not from a learning-centric focus but from other areas(although I believe the LMS will live on to support formal education and may extend to a limited extent to supporting structured experiential learning). Her Top 100 Tools for Learning is probably a good place to start looking.

The Rise of PKM

My diagram above points to PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) as an important focus area in supporting the learning-work interlink. Harold Jarche has written extensively on PKM and you can download his PKM Whitepaper from here.  If you want to learn more about PKM I’d recommend mining Harold’s blog.

There is no doubt that both social learning tools and PKM tools and processes will be vital to support learning management of the future.

However, it’s important to always remind ourselves that any technology can never be more than a supporting actor in the play.

In the end we each manage our own learning to suit our immediate and longer-term needs at our own pace, in our own time, and in our own way.


(I have written more extensively about the challenge of ‘Managing Learning’ in the ‘The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual’ a book to be published by John Wiley & Sons and edited by Rob Hubbard)


Re-thinking Workplace Learning: extracting rather than adding

axesA decade ago the Corporate Executive Board published a report detailing the findings of a study into the role managers can play in employee development.

By almost any standards the sample in this study was large – 8,500 cases drawn from 14 organisations across six industries in nine countries.

One clear finding presented was that:

“those activities that are integrated into manager and employee workflow have the largest impact on employee performance, while those that are distinct events separate from the day-to-day job have less impact.”

In other words if people have the opportunity to learn and develop as part of their work and they are supported by their manager, then learning will be much better transformed into measurable behavioural change and performance improvement.

Context is Critical
Although the Corporate Executive Board study is a good one, it didn’t tell us anything new about the importance of context for effective learning.  We’ve known about that for 120 years or more.  Certainly since Dr Ebbinghaus’ ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’ experiments in the 1880s, and probably much longer.

Other studies have also produced similar results to this Corporate Executive Board work. The general finding is that the more tightly bound learning is to the workflow, the greater the impact it is likely to have.

Adding Learning to Work

addingMany learning professionals and training companies have taken the lesson about the criticality of context to heart and are designing courses and programmes that link learning with work more closely than was done in the past. 

Although this is a great improvement from the situation where the majority of learning activities were totally separated from work, it’s only a half-way house, if that.

The thinking is still principally about adding learning into work.

Jane Hart has observed a very similar trend with her study of the uptake of social learning. She noted (see her slides 10-21 here) that there’s a clear trend towards ‘social training’ in the professional learning and development and learning vendor communities (where social technologies are added to training events) rather than towards ‘social collaboration’ (where social technologies are used to support on-going knowledge sharing and collaborative working, and integrated with workflow).

In other words, Jane has observed that many learning professionals  link social technologies and activities to learning activities in order to support training outcomes – adding ‘social’ to learning – rather than facilitating and supporting social collaboration – where a social dimension is part of the workflow.

The latter is a whole new ball game for HR and learning professionals and involves extracting learning from work.

Extracting Learning from Work

extractingExtracting learning from work employs very different approaches to the additive form of workplace learning.

Firstly the focus is not on learning but on performance improvement from the outset.

It’s also not about requiring workers to adjust their working time and flow to include specific activities that have the explicit purpose of assisting learning.

It’s simply about developing approaches that help workers to learn more from their day-to-day work.

The impact of this latter approach is profound.

The Corporate Executive Board study found that if managers were more effective at providing workplace experiences that helped development, the impact on performance was an almost 20%1 uplift.

From this study, new and challenging workplace experiences were demonstrated to have almost three times greater impact on performance improvement than simply ensuring workers had the right knowledge and skills.

Similar results were found with the difference between ensuring that reflection occurred following the completion of a project or other piece of work, or just at regular intervals, and simply having the right knowledge and skills to do the job. there was found to be a 295% uplift in performance from reflective learning over ensuring the right knowledge and skills.

Impact on Flow and Measurement


Approaching workplace learning in this way – by supporting the extraction of learning from work rather than the injection of learning activities into work – presents a whole new set of challenges for HR, Talent and L&D professionals.

the challenges include the facts that:

  • It can’t be built into a course or programme.
  • It can’t be ‘delivered’.
  • Managers need to be enabled and supported if it is to work.
  • It can’t be managed and controlled in the way discrete training and learning injections into the workflow can be.
  • most of the learning processes are opaque to HR and L&D and can only be made explicit through observation and other field survey and data collection approaches.

Also, the flow isn’t learning > work but a different and slightly more complicated work > learning > work. This ‘binds’ the learning more tightly into the workflow and any attempt to extract it ‘collapses the wave function’  (for explanation, see here).

So traditional attempts to ‘isolate’ the impact of learning becomes very difficult and we need to adopt more holistic types of analysis to determine what works and what doesn’t.

And it changes viable measurement approaches as well. The focus can no longer be on learning and learning metrics, but on performance and performance metrics. If we can’t measure intermediate steps (the ‘learning’) then we must focus on measuring the output (performance in the workplace) only. This is another new ball game for which HR and L&D must learn the rules (and there are rules).

New Opportunities

On the positive side, the ‘extracting learning’ approach opens up a new area of opportunity for L&D – beyond the module, course and programme and into the daily workflow as a mechanism for effective development, increased performance and greater productivity.

It’s there for the taking if we want.


1This figure is arrived at as a statistical estimate of the maximum impact on performance calculated by measuring predicted differences in employee performance between direct reports who rate their managers as least effective and those that rate their managers as most effective at supporting rich workplace experiences – such as challenging projects, stretch assignments, new project work etc.


How to Replace Top-Down Training with Collaborative Learning (4)

Fourth post in a series. In case you missed them, here are the first, second, and third posts. Is your organization ready? How ready are you to tackle Big L Learning? Where does your organization fit on the progression from Hierarchical Organization to Collaborative Organization? You can take this survey online. We’ll report the aggregate results in a couple […]