Learning in the ‘flow of work life’

Yes, the new buzzword in the world of learning and development has arrived: ‘learning in the flow of work’. David Kelly of the eLearning Guild revealed his definition for the term ‘buzzword’ earlier this year:

“A buzzword is a word that spreads many times faster than the term itself.”

Brilliant. So, let’s dissect ‘learning in the flow of work’ as a buzzword. As a trend catcher, I bet that in early 2020 this word will enter the results of Don Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey, which is the ultimate annual L&D-buzzword chart.

Learning in the flow of work is of course a very good idea. It can easily happen that you’re at work, you encounter an issue, a challenge or a hick-up that causes you to not know what to do at that moment and therefore you cannot carry on with your work.

Then what?

Get some support from your supervisor. He or she is very good at the open door policy and adopts it consistently. That in itself is not a shocking achievement if you are in a meeting somewhere all day as a manager. Your colleague has just set up her red clown’s nose: the recently introduced symbol for a ‘don’t-bother-me-colleague’.

Now what?

You’re already enrolled in the training that deals with this particular case. It’s scheduled for next month. Is there perhaps an e-learning module hidden somewhere in the lms, the learning management system? But where? A YouTube video then? Everything is on YouTube, right? That is indeed correct when it comes to fixing bicycle tires or baking apple pie, but not when it comes to the specific and specialist work you do.

In such a situation you are looking for learning in the flow of work. This can be as simple as a post-it sheet with a mini-reminder step-by-step plan, attached to the right place in or near the workflow. And then you just have to hope it sticks well. A chat box or chatbot, which appears on your screen with a maximum of one click, could also be nice. Maybe it can help you very quickly. Or have you ever seen the video about augmented reality, where the car mechanic looks at an engine block with special glasses? Through those glasses, he sees a video instruction as an ‘extra layer’ projected on the engine, so he can see what to do and how to do it. Of course, there are also low-tech applications. Think of the safety instruction in the aircraft. Sometimes it’s stuck on the back of the seat directly in front of your nose – immediately available in the right place if you need it. My favourite is that of an American pretzel brand that has incorporated the length of the dough rope into the pretzel maker’s work surface. It also shows the shape of the perfect pretzel with a sublime result if you aim well. Or it directly ‘gives feedback’ if it’s not good enough.

The cure-all?

In all these examples of learning in the flow of work, two things are essential. Firstly, the ‘tool’ has to be integrated into the work process as much as possible or preferably it has to be accessible with as little effort or disruption to the work process as possible. Secondly, the tool ensures that you do not have to remember the information: it is always available through the tool. In that sense, it has little to do with learning. On the contrary, the intention is not aimed at learning – that is actually a waste of effort with a good tool.

A good tool leads to less learning. Learning is at most a ‘positive side effect’, a nice bonus. If you do the task often enough, you no longer need the tool. It is a real art to design learning properly in the ‘flow of work’. If that succeeds, it can have a great added value. Much more than a course, education or training has. That’s why I understand very well that learning in the flow of work gets so much attention. To me it seems completely justified. Yet I do have a problem with learning in the flow of work. This is mainly due to the suggestion that it is the right solution for everything. That’s quite a recurring theme in our field. Supporters of a certain solution tend to push that solution like Haarlem oil, another cure-all or the silver bullet.

Or do you need more?

However, that’s not how the world works. Nothing solves everything. ‘Learning in the flow of work’ is short-term, prevents learning and is very transactional, which means it is focused on a specific transaction. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, because transactions are often an important part of work. But more and more aspects of work are becoming transformational: changing, designing, experimenting, finding solutions, integrating and synthesizing. Then you will not be able to get there with ‘learning in the flow of work’.

If we look at the long-term, too much emphasis on learning in the flow of work is a risk. We know that knowledge, methodologies and some skills are ageing faster and faster, the expiration date is getting shorter and shorter. We also know that people’s life expectancy is increasing. That is why we have to work until an older age. If you combine those things, it’s virtually impossible to do the same task or job all your working life. Everyone will have to make one or more big switches. You won’t be able to achieve that with transactional learning. It actually calls for serious transformational learning. Learning in the flow of work is great, but at the same time literally short-sighted.

In the flow of..?

Luckily, I recently read about learning in the flow of life. Well, that’s another story, though maybe a little too pretentious. It combines long and short term. I like that. Maybe learning in the flow of a career is also sufficient.

Let’s have the ambition to provide professionals with support that is meaningful and important throughout their careers. Focused on the short term and the long term. Let’s look at the ideal combination of transactional and transformational learning per situation, per phase. Yes, and. I often miss that. I want more and. So the title I have chosen is not correct. It should have been ‘Learning in the flow of work, career and life’.

I wish you good luck with learning in the ‘flow of work’, where it is logical and useful. Beware of the buzzword pitfall. I wish you also a lot of and.

About the author – Ger Driesen: 

Think of someone connecting people, ideas and inspiration in the global L&D community and you’ve just created a good description of Ger Driesen. He is the Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring, the provider of a learning experience platform. In this role, he focusses on sharing the latest insights with L&D professionals to inspire them to design, developed and deliver learning the best way.

During his career, he has had a variety of L&D roles, from L&D consultant, trainer and facilitator, to L&D manager and entrepreneur. He’s known as ‘the Dutch L&D trendcatcher’ based on his articles, blogs and tweets on L&D trends and he is a regular speaker at international conferences.

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1 Comment
  1. Thomas Dobrydney 1 day ago

    I’d like to make the observation that learning in the flow of work is something that employeesdo themselves. Many will do it whether or not L&D is involved. L&D can enable and enhance a employee’s ability to do more of it. In some cases, L&D may be a critical partner.

    Perhaps what I am suggesting is that L&D can (should) focus on helping employees develop their self-learning skills in the context of work, at some times providing content, at other times directing to opportunities for self-directed learning.

    But how about when employees engaged in learning by extracting insight from the information they work with? The kind of learning in the flow of work that only they can do, and L&D cannot figure out for them before hand?

    I generally agree with the points made in this article. Just point that L&D contributions to learning in the flow of work aren’t sufficient in and of themselves.

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