Learning in the flow of work…

Helen Daniels
GCLearning — ApprentissageGC
4 min readMay 4, 2021

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There isn’t much debate in the learning industry that learning in the flow of work is what people want and need[1] but it is possible that you’re not sure exactly what it entails. I’m going to try to explain it here because I think it might be helpful for us all to understand where we’re heading.

In brief, learning in the flow of work means having the tools, guidance, and information you need accessible (or even pushed to you) in the exact moment that you need them as you complete your tasks. It is based on the notion that real learning is a continuous process of improvement in the face of ongoing change.

I’m pretty sure you already experience learning in the flow of work, especially at home. Here’s an example you might resonate with:

Imagine that you want to bake a Black Forest cake this afternoon…

One way you might get started would be to scroll through Pinterest to find the perfect recipe. Now imagine the recipe might include few obstacles: 1) the recipe uses Imperial measurements, 2) you’re unsure how to “sift flour”, and 3) you’re out of the buttermilk the recipe calls for.

Here’s how you could solve those obstacles in the flow of your work; you could use an app on your phone to convert the measurements into metric, then you could view a 30 second YouTube video to learn how to sift flour, and lastly you could Google “buttermilk substitutions”. All of your obstacles can be solved using a tool you always have at hand (in this case your mobile device) allowing you to succeed at baking your cake. Yum!

Baking a cake with AI support

If we project that same scenario into a future that is further enabled by artificial intelligence, we can imagine that your workflow may look something like this:

You’ll say to your smart fridge “find me a Black Forest cake recipe”. The fridge will recommend a recipe personalized to your preferences based on your previous searches. Since you’re in Canada, it will automatically convert all measurements to metric while scanning your fridge contents. When it notes you’re out of buttermilk, it will order some from the grocery delivery service and automatically suggest the replacement. Once you get to the flour sifting step, you can ask the fridge for guidance and it will play a 30 second video demonstration. Your obstacles are all overcome, in most cases without any effort or involvement on your part and you’ve baked a delicious cake. Yum!

The current state of workflow at your workplace

(This is the reality in many workplaces with a legacy of analog training, maybe not yours, but I’m trying to make a point.) Imagine if you will….

You’re tasked with making a cake. You are sent on a training course where you are taught the basics of baking, watch some demonstrations, pass a quiz, and leave with a 50-page Powerpoint “manual” of recipes. A week later when it’s time to make the cake, you can’t remember exactly which recipe to use so you spend an hour scrolling through the manual. At last you find the recipe and realize that the measurements are Imperial, so you search your intranet for help and eventually find the Policy on Measurement. You read the full policy to locate the formulas and then you create an Excel spreadsheet to help you calculate the conversions. You vaguely remember the sifting demonstration, but you’re not confident about your technique and hope for the best. When you realize that you don’t have buttermilk you can’t turn to Google since it is blocked and your colleague doesn’t know what to do either, so you wing it. Your cake is mediocre and it took a really long time to make.

Does anything resonate in there? Perhaps you’ve wondered why it is so hard to find the information that you need when you need it, or why you’re recreating an Excel tool that many other people have likely created before you? [2]

How do we get there from here?

By now, you’ll probably recognize the many places in your life where you already learn in the flow of your work. Have you noticed how whenever an app updates on your mobile device, you receive a popup instruction (if you need to do something different)? Or even better, that there is nothing for you to do, because the tool has anticipated obstacles and designed solutions seamlessly? That is what we want for learning in the workplace: frictionless support to help employees succeed in work tasks in the face of ongoing change.

If that sounds like a desirable future, then let’s roll up our sleeves. Getting to an AI enabled future won’t happen by accident.

Part 2 in this series presents a simple decision-tree that will help content owners get organized for the future of learning.

[1] There are many articles about workflow learning available on the internet. This one by Charles Jennings explains the shift from training courses to workflow in simple terms. https://trainingindustry.com/magazine/issue/extending-learning-into-the-workflow/

[2] Our research into the current state of learning showed us that a lot of employees struggle to find resources to guide them through their tasks.

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Helen Daniels
GCLearning — ApprentissageGC

Former #GCAgent on Algonquin Territory. Practitioner. Systems, deschooling, ecology, people, deep listening, presence, joy, failure and messiness 🌎 🌈 🌱