Learning in the Workflow

The environment for commerce is changing. Change is happening faster, and this impacts both expectations and ability. Customers expect that staff can provide answers ‘on demand’, and employees expect support in the moment. We’re moving learning to the workflow, and this has some important implications. Major factors include moving from learning beforehand to supporting in the moment, or a blend, making those performance moments also learning ones. Another is using interstitial opportunities to learn or extend learning. This entails some nuances.

Customer experiences, of course, can span a range of environments. Situations range from asynchronous communications like email, through technology-mediated interchanges such as chats and phone calls, to live interactions in person.  It is the immediate ones that are beginning to see the benefits of new technologies and new ways of thinking about thinking.

‘To Hand’

There’s a notion from philosophy of tools being ‘ready to hand’, that is they’re not even perceived but instead just used as a means to an end. When you’re practiced with the tool, use is automatic without conscious thought. An example would be driving. The use of steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake (even turn signals, though that seems to be diminishing 😉 are, for the experienced driver, unconsciously used. Instead, the focus is on how fast I should be going, or the need to stop.

This is part of our learning, to make automatic the things we don’t want to have to consciously execute. What we prefer is having our use of certain tools (for instance, my use of the keyboard as I write) to be directly connected between intention and action, without conscious action required. Thus, I can intend to write this sentence, and I don’t have to contemplate searching the keys to type individual words; consciously I think about the words I want to include and my subconscious executes the actual actions. This happens as an artifact of our cognitive architecture, optimized through the choice of challenges and feedback.  (In fact, it’s so powerful, experts can’t tell us 70% of what they do, because it’s compiled away inaccessible to conscious reflection. Which is a problem for working with subject matter experts as our source for what learners need to know!)

We want certain things automatic, so we can focus on the conscious problems we have to face. When customer-facing, for instance, we would like our cheerful helpful manner to be ingrained, so that we can focus on their issues and concerns. Tactics like restating what they tell you and acknowledging their feelings should happen without thought, so we can process what they’re actually saying.

And we can use training, properly done, to automate the desired behaviors. And here I mean the big picture of training, including follow-on practice and coaching, not just ‘the course’. Automating behaviors is hard, depending on the complexity of the task, because it requires considerable practice to make it habitual.  

However, other things just can’t be so practiced. Customers find unique ways to struggle with their purchases. Products and features change. So, too, does the competition.  While it would be desirable to be able to have that all well-practiced, as things move faster this is decreasingly possible. We need another approach.

In the World

Another way to view this automation of aspects of performance is putting it ‘in the head’.  And, as suggested, it’s valuable for things that aren’t likely to change. A rule of thumb is that things based upon how our brains work is a good starting point. So, dealing with customers is an outcome, again, of the findings on interpersonal relationships.  But what’s an alternative when that’s decreasingly possible?

We can also put information ‘in the world’. For things like products, rather than expecting people to memorize the features and keep up with the increasing changes, we can put information in the world. Imagine having brief information on a card near the product, but with a way to pull up more information on your device, say by scanning a code. And equipping the sales staff with this capability, whether the customer has it or not, is another solution. The point is that the information is ‘to hand’.  The changing information doesn’t have to be learned, doesn’t have to be ‘in the head’, because instead it’s in the world. This does, however, require automating the behavior of finding the information.

So, in addition to training on the customer skills, as an example, we can also develop the ability of the employees to access the information. We work backwards from the ideal distribution between head and world, develop the ‘world’ solution, and then develop the training to include the way to work with the tools. It’s a mix between learning and performance support.


Which doesn’t preclude also providing a way to facilitate the information getting into the head. So, along with the product information, the sales staff might well have received training about the general category, and what’s presented is what and why this particular version has the capabilities it does. It’s developing the staff’s mental models about the product category, not the specifics. This strengthens their ability to use the information while still meeting the customer’s immediate needs.

A second opportunity is using the time in-between the business tasks, to provide learning. If you have access to a device that provides ‘in the moment’ information, whether at a desk for a call center, or a mobile device on the floor, learning is also ‘to hand’.  You can build and reinforce the models around the details, so that the learner is more facile using them (I won’t use the term ‘microlearning’ here, but you can :). This can be done with re-activation: re-conceptualizing (a different model about how to perform), re-contextualizing (a new example of it in practice), or re-application (a practice opportunity, where the learner must perform like they should).  

There can be performance support about the generic skills as well. For instance, when you pull up the device info, you might include the primary product differentiator, or a reminder to inquire about a particular feature of the customer experience or needs. The goal should be the least information to achieve the goal, given the right distribution between head and world.

In general, we want the least in the head we can, because that’s hard to do reliably.  However, we need to balance that with creating the optimal customer experience. There’s also the need to determine what will be changing, and not, going forward.  Going forward, we’ll be able to track individual interactions and recommend or provide coaching opportunities ‘in the moment’. With the right balance of initial preparation, tools in the world, and the environment of support and development, a stellar customer experience can be reliably delivered efficiently. And that, ultimately, is what we need. Cognitively informed learning and performance design, and powerful technology provide us the opportunities. It’s up to us to make it happen. Let’s go!