Monday, 17 November 2014

Embedding Learning in Work: The Benefits and Challenges

(a version of this article was originally written as background for an #OzLearn chat held on Twitter, 11th November 2014)

The Power of Embedded Learning

A common finding that has emerged from study after study over the past few years is that learning which is embedded in work seems to be more effective than learning away from work. If people learn as part of the workflow then this learning is more likely to impact performance in a positive way.

The Research

imageA 2009 study by the Learning & Development Roundtable, a division of the Corporate Executive Board, reported that on-the-job learning had three times the impact on performance improvement over formal training programs. The same study found employees with high exposure to on-the-job learning activities were 262% more engaged than those who had no exposure to on-the-job learning. ‘High exposure’ in this study was defined as being engaged in ‘11 or more on-the-job learning activities during the last month’.

A further 2010 study of manager development activities by Casebow and Ferguson at GoodPractice in Edinburgh, Scotland reported that informal chats with colleagues was both the most frequently used development activity and was also seen as the most effective by the majority of managers.


imageYet another study by Bersin & Associates (now Bersin by Deloitte) published in March 2012 reported that “Organizations with strong informal learning capabilities, including the adoption and use of social learning tools, are 300% more likely to excel at global talent development than organizations without those competencies.” By their very nature informal and social learning is embedded in the daily workflow.

An earlier study 2003 by the Corporate Leadership Council identified 15 leader-led activities that improve performance and found that learning through workplace experience was at least three times more effective than simply ensuring that workers had the necessary knowledge and skills to do their jobs.


There are many other studies with similar findings, and more being published on a regular basis.

Learning in Context

These findings are not at all surprising.

imageAs long ago as 1885 Dr Hermann Ebbinghaus published his treatise Über das Gedächtnis (On Memory) that suggested context was critical for effective learning. Although Ebbinghaus’ experimental research was limited, his theory and results indicated that context and the spacing effect are key contributors to effective retention, learning and performance improvement. It could be argued that context is best provided by embedding learning in work.

Recent brain science work is filling in the gaps and we now know a lot more about the way the brain modifies itself in the light of experience and both the neural and behavioural differences between people who approach learning with ‘open’ or ‘fixed’ mindsets. The work by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has enhanced our understanding about learning, context and mindset considerably. Dweck’s research suggests that experience and practice combined with a growth mindset are critical ingredients for effective learning and development. Each of these is more powerfully experienced in the context of the workflow rather in the more sterile atmosphere of a classroom.

The benefits are clear, but what are the challenges of embedded learning in work for L&D departments?

The Challenges

imageOne of the major challenges is the fact that until recently L&D professionals have seen their primary role as instructional designers and creators of learning content and experiences where this content and these learning experiences are separate from work. ADDIE (or some other instructional design approach) ruled. The learning needed to be designed, managed and measured.

Of course some effective learning experiences can be designed, managed and measured, but they tend to be in the minority. The majority of learning occurs naturally as part of the workflow. This type of learning is ‘designed’ by the individual (sometimes with input from their manager), it is self-managed, and the measurement is in terms of outputs – not by passing a test or some form of certification but by demonstrating the ability to do work better, faster, more accurately, with greater agility and levels of innovation if needed.

imageThe challenge for L&D professionals is to develop ways to support, encourage and facilitate these ‘90’ types of learning (through the 70:20:10 lens) that occur as part of the daily workflow. This learning can’t be ‘managed’ by HR, L&D or by any of the processes and technology systems they put in place. It can, however, be supported, facilitated, encouraged, exposed and shared by HR and L&D with the outcome of improving not only individual performance, but team and organisational performance as well.

A second significant challenge (and blind spot for many L&D departments) has been the provision performance support. The lack of understanding and failure to use performance support approaches and tools has created a significant barrier for supporting the learning that is embedded in work. Performance support is a sleeping giant that has only recently been nervously prodded by some L&D departments, despite the fact that ePSS has been around for at least 25 years, and other non-technology supported performance support approaches for eons.

imageGloria Gery published her seminal ‘Electronic Performance Support Systems’ book in 1991, yet these powerful systems and approaches have only marginally entered L&D’s mindset. This will no doubt change in one respect as the ‘rise and rise’ of social learning further impinges on organisational learning cultures and people turn to online communities and expert location tools to help them improve their work and to learn more effectively in the workplace. Together with ‘point-of-need’ performance support solutions (Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson at ApplySynergies are doing a great job on this, as are companies such as Australian organisation Panviva and others in Europe) the whole gamut of performance support opportunities are an open goal if only L&D can evolve from ‘course’ to ‘resource’ thinking.

A final challenge facing many L&D professionals is that embedding learning in work almost always requires the active support of executives, business managers and team leaders. This means L&D needs to engage these groups and work closely with them. This inevitably requires the provision of a clear set of business imperatives for embedding learning in work delivered in a way that is meaningful and compelling to these busy stakeholders. L&D professionals need to step up to the plate with their consulting and interpersonal skills if they are to enrol the critical support from these groups. This can be a big challenge but it is one where success is critical if learning is to be effectively embedded in the workflow.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this Charles - while learning professionals can get passionate about the best ways to embed a culture of learning in an organisation the thing that makes the real difference is hard data that can be used to sway those whose opinions are a little... stagnant.