Learning vs. Doing: The Great Divide
I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now because I want to address something that bothers me about traditional approaches to maximizing employee productivity. Two common technology-based approaches are Business Process Management software, which allows you to automate anything that your employees shouldn’t have to do, and Learning Management System software, which enhances your employees’ human capital so that they can be more effective at the work they have to do. BPM places great deal of focus on successfully executing the process, but not a lot of emphasis on learning the process. LMS software is great for fostering learning, but doesn’t directly help people complete the work they’re responsible for on a day to day basis.
There are decades of historical context in the US for the separation of learning from productive action, and this seems to be yet another example. Of course, most people I know wouldn’t agree that learning how to do something needs to be distinct from actually doing it. After all, in most cases you can’t do something without learning how to do it, and doing something is actually the very best way to learn it. The two are clearly deeply related.
But I invite you to take a step back and look at how far back the cultural assumption that learning and doing should be separate actually goes. In the US, formal education generally concludes before the beginning of a professional career. Of course there are a few exceptions, including part-time high school or college jobs and those brave few who venture out into the workforce and then return to school for a master’s degree or Ph.D. In fact, “Formal” education is defined as something distinct from “informal” education primarily by the very fact that “formal” education happens in a classroom setting where it’s divorced from the world of practical application.
We start kindergarten, and those among us who go into highly skilled or technical trades go full-tilt in the formal education system for the next twenty-two years or more before heading off to begin a “career.” Although work-study programs have gained some traction in the US, they’re nothing like the well-developed apprenticeship system that exists in Europe, and the vast majority of college credits are still accrued sitting in a classroom.
Similarly, when you begin a new job, you’ll generally spend a period of time in “training” before you’re expected to do anything that’s really productive. As I mentioned above, the same dichotomy exists in the software world. Business process management software handles process execution and Learning Management System software handles training. Both BPM software and LMS software are powerful, valuable tools in the right context, but there’s something that neither does particularly well, and that is to enable hands-on, active learning of a real world process.
Productivity Optimization: Education vs. Execution
If you think of an organization as a series of complex human-machine interactions, it’s easy to see that BPM software is all about optimizing the machine component of the human-machine system and LMS software is all about optimizing the human capital side of the equation. Both are extremely useful tools in the proper context.
The Value of Traditional BPM
Business Process Management software is all about routinizing and speeding up the machine side of the human-machine equation. With BPM, you identify routine work that doesn’t need to be managed or completed by a human being and offload it to technology through automation. So long as the process in question isn’t very variable and doesn’t require any significant amount of discretion or judgment to execute successfully, a machine can usually complete the process more efficiently than a human being. I’ve already written a lengthy blog post about when it is and isn’t appropriate to automate a process. Here it is in case you’re interested. The reader’s digest version: A process accepts inputs, implements a series of steps using those inputs, and creates outputs. The greater the variability in either the inputs the process is expected to use or the outputs the process is expected to produce, the harder and more time consuming it’s going to be to automate. If the process genuinely is routine enough to automate and you expect the process to be highly stable over time, go ahead and automate away. Otherwise, look for a more flexible solution.
Because BPM software doesn’t exercise discretion in the same way a human being does, it’s great for strict business rule enforcement. Sometimes, what you’re solving for is to have a process executed exactly the same way, every single time, with zero variation. For example, accounting software packages that automate the double-entry bookkeeping process won’t let you create debits without balancing them out with equivalent credits. In this way, the system enforces the rule that your ledger book stay balanced. I used to be an accountant, so I can testify that there is never a case where a bookkeeper or accountant would want the ledger to be out of balance.
BPM is all about automating processes with hard and fast rules. It’s capable of delivering execution, but it’s not useful at all for delivering learning. When employees interact with a BPM system, they’re generally only exposed to a small snippet of the broader business process in question. It’s highly efficient in creating productive output, but employees who use it aren’t really going to walk away with any skills they didn’t have before.
The Value of Traditional LMS
Part of the reason why we have a tendency to bifurcate education and execution in the first place is that it’s really hard to successfully complete some processes without the proper education. No matter how good the instruction set, I wouldn’t want someone who hadn’t gone through medical school to perform surgery on me. Period. That’s because it’s impossible to embed all the necessary contextual information that a doctor has into an instruction set for a surgical procedure. LMS software is extremely effective at delivering the contextual information that someone needs to succeed. It’s great for broad-based development of human capital.
LMS software is focused on the delivery of one-size-fits all information. If what you’re looking for is a way to familiarize your employees with your mission, vision, and values, or if your employees have to meet a statutory requirement to participate in continuing professional education classes, LMS systems are the way to go. Sometimes what you’re solving for is to ensure that everyone on your staff has the same contextual understanding of a subject. However, because the contextual information needed to succeed in a particular vocation or industry doesn’t really vary much from employer to employer or from situation to situation, LMS isn’t very good at delivering step-by-step instructions or process knowledge. That is unless there is genuinely only one “right” way to complete the process. LMS software is good at holistically increasing the skills of your employees, but they won’t necessarily walk away from an e-learning more equipped to crank out productive output. At least not in the near term.
The Missing Link: Business Process Guidance and Training
What seems to be missing is an effective and cost-efficient way to help people learn new, unfamiliar processes in a hands-on, actively engaged way. The missing element in the equation is a way to empower people to move step-by-step through real world processes that are too variable to be executed by a machine or taught in a one-size-fits-all online training course. You might wonder what falls into that bucket. Well, simply put, it’s every single process in the world that a human being is responsible for. These processes are easy to spot because they show up as questions that start with the phrase, “How do I…”
Context-specific, human centered processes are everywhere. Whether you’re trying to learn how to operate an unfamiliar machine at work, program a device you just bought, configure your router, put together something that was labeled “assembly required”, get a diagnosis for a sick loved one, apply for admission into a school or program, or train for a marathon, you’re trying to learn a variable human centered process.
We’ve got a million different solutions for communicating human centered processes, but none of them seem to work particularly well because they separate the learning and the execution. In-person training seminars don’t work well because you’ve forgotten half of what you learned before you’ve made the short walk from your classroom to your car. Standard operating procedure manuals and those ubiquitous training binders that everyone has been given nine or ten of gather dust on the shelf. They’re out of date within weeks or months, and trying to use them to actually cobble together a process when you’re in the thick of it at work feels like a forced march thorough the world’s most convoluted and least interesting choose-your-own-adventure book.
Happily, technology can still do a great job of bridging the gap. There’s an emerging field of thought in the BPM industry called Guided Navigation. Here’s how Gartner Research defines it:
“In this process style, software guides the participant through alternative workflows to arrive at a satisfactory outcome… newer workflow technology leverages declarative models, explicit rules, context metadata and other techniques to simplify the creation and maintenance of the “if-then-else” logic that drives the guidance.”
It’s a bit wordy, but what they’re getting at is that guided navigation technology can turn the one-way information flow of a training binder or standard operating procedure manual into a two-way conversation between the user and the technology. By using a question and answer format, guided navigation training software can walk someone step-by-step through the unique set of tasks and workflows that is appropriate to his or her own situation.
What’s great about guided navigation software is that it re-merges learning and execution in a way that maximizes both productivity and knowledge retention. The beauty of the guided navigation model is that it leverages the 70/20/10 Model for Learning and Development. The 70/20/10 model, which is grounded in a great deal of empirical research and theory, argues that “Most learning occurs as part of the workflow and not in away-from-work training situations.” More specifically, 70% of learning happens by actively participating in a productive workflow, 20% of learning is transmitted by someone like a coach, trainer, or boss, an 10% of learning happens through reading and formal training courses.
Simply put, guided navigation software supercharges the effectiveness of the 70%, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments below. Have you ever used guided navigation software? Where?