5 characteristics of how knowledge workers like to learn at work

Last updated: May 27, 2014 at 20:54 pm

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From the Learning in the Workplace 2013 results and my analysis of the 8 features that smart workers use social media to work and learn today, 5 characteristics of how knowledge workers want to learn at work have emerged, Here they are in no particular order.

1 In the workflow Workers don’t want to leave the workflow unless it is absolutely necessary for them to do. This means EITHER physically to go to a classroom OR virtually to work on an online course for an extended period of time (i.e more than about 10-15 mins) and/or which is more than a couple of mouseclicks away. (Taking a course at your desk, doesn’t mean it’s in the workflow!) Workers prefer to learn as an integral (NOT an extra) part of their daily job and not separately from it, either
2 Continuously Workers prefer to learn continuously from the constant flow of information they encounter – which may come from both internal and external channels.
3 Immediately Workers want to be able to find answers to their learning and performance problems as soon as they encounter them – not have to wait for an extended period of time to go on a course or get some other response. They want to solve their problems immediately and get on with their jobs – wherever they are.
4 Socially Workers like to learn with and from others – not just in formal learning contexts, but as they work collaboratively with their internal teams and also in the external networks and communities to which they belong – where they learn from the links, resources, experiences, ideas, etc that are shared.
5 Autonomously Workers like to have a high level of choice and control over what they do and learn; they are self-directed, self-organised and self-managed. The less control they have the more disengaged they are with their organisation.

Let’s look at how other approaches to learning at work match up ..

CURRENT training and e-learning solutions pretty much fail on most of the counts

1 In the workflow NO – training takes workers physically out of the workflow, and e-learning takes workers virtually out of the workflow. When training is “embedded” into the workflow it is  “added” into as an extra rather than being part of the work. (Note: Out of the workflow in a virtual sense means more than 1or mouse clicks away so tucking stuff away deep in a LMS is not in the workflow)
2 Continuously NO - training and e-learning is event-driven – even if it takes place over a period of time
3 Immediately Mostly NO - although sometimes e-learning is available on demand, although this is rarely in a format that makes for use to find answers to problems
4 Socially NO - although classroom training is social, e-learning is a solitary, self-paced experience
5 Autonomously none or very little - e-learning courses offers very little autonomy, at best probably limited to being able to chose a path through a defined set of materials.

 Performance support, ie creation of job aids and resources, fares better

1 In the workflow YES – job aids etc are available to use in the course of doing a job
 2 Continuously (YES) – in terms of being continuously available
 3 Immediately YES – job aids are available on demand, as and when required
 4 Socially NO - if they are created top down by Training Departments; YES - if they are co-created and shared by other colleagues
 5 Autonomously some  - although workers might be able to select the job aid they need from what has been created internally, they might not be able to find their own (perhaps external) resources.

Learning as a part of team collaboration ticks all the boxes

1 In the workflow  YES – knowledge-sharing happens as an integral part of working together with a team
2 Continuously  YES – it happens all the time as people work together
3 Immediately  YES – workers can access what they need from one another – either as a response to questions or by sharing resources with one another
4 Socially  YES – by working alongside others in their team both face-to-face and in online group spaces
5 Autonomously  a lot  - workers make their own decisions about what to share and how to participate in a group or productive collaboration within the confines and context of the organisation and the team

And independent personal and professional learning ticks all the boxes too

1 In the workflow YES – it can become part of the workflow, provided managers don’t see use of external social networks as “time wasting”
2 Continuously YES – it provides a continuous drip feed of new information and knowledge from both internal and external sources
3 Immediately YES – through web searching they can find what they need when then need it
4 Socially YES – through their connections with people in networks and through shared content
5 Autonomously high level – they are in control of now only what they learn, but when and how they learn it – it may be through formal online training or via informal networks and other resources.

So for workplace L&D department it means that ..

  1. just converting face-to-face courses into page-turning online formats (e-learning) isn’t enough
  2. trying to make online courses “engaging” and “fun” isn’t the answer either – since most find interactivities “trivial” at best and “insulting their intelligence” at worst, and
  3. adding in (or blending) informal, social or mobile into current training practicies, just because it is the current fashion to do so – won’t make a lot of difference either

Rather it means working in closer partnership with people managers and ..

  1. supporting the continuous development and performance improvement of their people through both team collaboration and independent professional learning
    AND
  2. helping to address specific performance problems in the most appropriate way by first undertaking a performance analysis. This will ensure that a training solution is not automatically assumed to be the solution to a problem. But where it is identified as the right solution –  for Knowledge Workers, ensuring that a solution that incorporates as many of these 5 characteristics as possible, is offered.

So what does this all mean?

This is the reason why a large percentage of Knowledge Workers don’t rate current training/e-learning approaches very highly, and why they think other ways of learning – performance support, team collaboration and professional learning are more important to them – as summarised in the diagram below. (You can find a more detailed explanation here).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 07.59.40

So for workplace L&D departments it means that for Knowledge Workers …

  1. just converting face-to-face courses into page-turning online formats (e-learning) isn’t enough
  2. trying to make online courses “engaging” and “fun” isn’t the answer either – since most find interactivities “trivial” at best and “insulting their intelligence” at worst, and
  3. adding in (or blending) informal, social or mobile into current training practicies, just because it is the current fashion to do so – also won’t make a lot of difference.

Rather it means working in closer partnership with people managers and ..

  1. supporting the continuous development and performance improvement of their people through both team collaboration and independent professional learning
    AND
  2. helping to address specific performance problems in the most appropriate way. This means first undertaking a performance analysis to ensure that a training solution is not automatically assumed to be the solution to a problem (so is not the same thing as a TNA). But, where some form of training is identified as the best  solution, or
  3. it is a regulatory or mandatory requirement, then, for Knowledge Workers, ensuring that the solution incorporates as many of the 5 characteristics as (relevantly) possible.

How can organisations best serve their own organisations?

Simple! Ask the people themselves!

Here is an example of how to do this that I came across on a discussion thread on the Programmers Stack Exchange.

Here I found a question from someone who explained he was not an engineer, but “just someone who works with them full-time, in a learning and development capacity“.  The question he asked was:

“Given that, one of the comments I get regularly from the engineers I’m tasked with developing is that they feel that they’re having solutions (both technical and non-technical) for development “pushed” at them vs. anyone from my field consulting with them to determine what they really need. So my question is – if you could give your company a list of the top 3-5 things they could do – in a classroom, or elsewhere – to develop meaningful skills that would help you be a better engineer, a better employee, and one more likely to STAY with the company for the long haul, what would make the cut and why?”

What a great question, and as you can see, there were some great responses too.

© Jane Hart, The Workplace Learning Revolution, 2013