There are times when we welcome distractions at work. For the most part, though, they take us away from the task in hand, often with disastrous results: one study of knowledge workers found excessive distractions of the kind found in open-plan environments led to a 15 per cent drop in daily productivity. Learning, all too often, represents another distraction. Not only do traditional classroom-based learning methods take us away from the to-do list but, by their very nature, they take time and effort to organise, which means they may take place long – perhaps too long – after a need to learn has been identified.
That phenomenon explains the explosion of interest in e-learning, but it is also driving the concept of learning ‘in the flow of work’ – in essence, L&D that takes you away from your regular work as little as possible and might mean not even leaving your desk. It means giving people what they need to be effective in the workplace, but also exactly when they need it, using everything from videos or content on internal social media channels, to connections with colleagues.
The idea of flow in L&D was first coined by influential consultant Josh Bersin, and there is a semantic debate in some circles about whether it encompasses all actions that take place in the working environment or only those that can literally be delivered ‘in the moment’. What’s more important, however, is the way learning in the flow of work utilises technology and bite-sized content across all channels to put the end user front and centre, answering their needs instantaneously in the same way a quick Google search often satisfies our need for fast and useful information in our everyday lives.
“Whether it’s an event, or access to resources or people, it’s getting things when you are doing your job,” says Mike Collins, senior digital learning specialist at fashion retailer River Island. “It’s a mindset shift that says ‘actually, I’m learning’, as opposed to ‘I’m going to stop what I’m doing and go to another place to access learning’.”
The River Island L&D team has been empowered and upskilled to create bespoke resources more quickly. It reflects the fact that many customers are coming into stores talking about products they have seen on social channels, says Collins. Being more reactive means the business can push out key information that empowers employees to take action and have better conversations. “Learning in the flow of work for me is the art of being able to help people perform their jobs in real time, without having to break that flow of work,” he says.
To achieve learning in the flow of work properly requires both a shift in attitude and, often, decisive action. At NHS Blood and Transplant, Lisa Johnson – OD manager, digital and people skills – says the OD team have taken a “big leap”. They’re not scheduling any more face-to-face leadership and management development training programmes while they trial a new blended approach. The organisation is also digitising detailed guides covering more than 2,000 standard operating procedures to make them more readily accessible. The aim is for the new format to be synced with voice-activated hardware for lab environments.
Development now comprises a multimedia tool that uses the Microsoft Teams platform to connect employees. Curated content sits alongside bespoke resources including videos and tips, aligned to a regime of self-assessment and a structured pathway of leadership ‘ladders’. “We’re putting people in control of their own development,” says Johnson. “Rather than saying ‘you’ve got to book on to this three-day leadership programme’, we’re going to offer them the opportunity to control their own journey, identify their needs and develop skills.”
Partly, what these ideas have in common is a focus on agile digital products. Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD and author of the recently released Driving Performance Through Learning, summarises this as a FACTS approach, comprising solutions that are flexible, accessible, collaborative and tailored, and offer a step change to existing practice.
Mostly, though, it is about a culture of continuous learning. “It’s about creating that learning ecosystem so we are empowering learning rather than having dependent learners,” says Lancaster. “Clearly not everything we do at work is learning, but there is something quite profound about understanding that the very job we do is a learning process.”
Lancaster also points out the impact on learning design, which needs to become equally responsive: “Sometimes it’s taken us long periods of time to go from analysis through to delivery. Now it is far more of an iterative process, where we’re coming up with solutions and allowing learners themselves to be part of the design process.”
And it can happen in even the toughest of environments. Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London has 12,000 staff across five hospitals serving more than 1.5 million patients each year. It has shifted its approach to learning support to a virtual mentoring scheme, which allows staff to connect immediately at the point of clinical need, alongside coaching, regular ‘lunch and learn’ events and digital tools.
“If you’re dealing with a life and death situation, you can’t really stop to pause and reflect,” says Nathaniel Johnston, head of OD, leadership and talent. But he has been able to find ways to ensure ‘never events’ that contain vital learnings are disseminated widely and quickly by shifting the focus away from more formal learning.
And in the future, the process may get even easier. Artificial intelligence – alongside better analytics – will mean our instant learning needs could be anticipated before we have even voiced them. It’s an “incredibly exciting prospect”, says Lancaster, that will further alter the role of the learning professional and ultimately offer greater measurability and opportunities. Until then, however, perhaps you ought to get off the internet and get back to work?