Workflow Learning with Conrad Gottfredson

David James
David James
September 23, 2020
Workflow Learning with Conrad Gottfredson

At the beginning of 2020, David James spoke with Conrad Gottfredson, pioneer of Workflow Learning and The 5 Moments of Need, on The Learning & Development Podcast.

This conversation was an exploration of what Workflow Learning is, what it isn’t, and how practitioners can harness its power for more successful L&D solutions.

Read on for some of the insights Conrad shared in that conversation, or tune in to episode 36 of The L&D Podcast for the whole conversation.

Anytime you Touch the Workflow you Have Workflow Learning

At its core, Workflow Learning occurs in the workflow while performing work. That’s a vital distinction because the degree you step away from that, you step away from true Workflow Learning. Historically, we’ve had just-in-time learning where people can be in the workflow and they can access an e-learning course. Is that Workflow Learning? No. You have to stop work to learn at that point. To the degree that you have to stop work to learn, rather than learn while doing your work, you’re stepping away from real Workflow Learning.

But much of what is being touted today as Workflow Learning really is not touching the workflow.

There are Three Real Workflow Learning Environments

The first has to do with Workflow Learning that is an extension of Formal Learning. That is, the real environment for learning is the workflow. That’s the most perfect environment to learn. It’s where learners are highly motivated, where your work is real. 

We often look at the formal side of learning, what we do formally, and think that that’s learning. That initiates learning, but that’s not real learning. Real learning happens after people take whatever they learn in a classroom or in e-learning or whatever and they begin to apply it in their own workflow where they have to transition from just a cognitive understanding and maybe some very constrained practice activities into an environment of ever-changing, opportunity to perform.

The greatest skill or competency that any employee can have today is the ability to be adaptive, to adapt to meet the challenges. That adaptiveness should develop experience. Real experience is developed in the flow of work.

One example of Workflow Learning is where people may be trained in a formal way and then they’re given the tools that they need to be able to transition that learning and adapt it into their own work environments, and then have the support they need as they develop experience.

Conrad calls it the Accelerated Experience model, but it’s where we accelerate. We don’t just toss them over the fence and say, “Go out and now, good luck on applying it,” but we create a Performance Support infrastructure around our learners. We train them with that infrastructure in the Formal Learning, and then they walk into the workflow with that infrastructure around them, coaching them, guiding them, helping them as they develop experience again and again and developing their adaptive capacity. That is Workflow Learning, that extension, if you will. 

After the Experience Acceleration model, you’ve got the other end of that spectrum where people learn exclusively in the flow of work. Where they initiate it in the flow of work and they learn as they actually do their job. This is where we develop or we provide and build what we call a digital culture, what Gloria Gery called an EPSS, an Embedded Performance Support Solution. An EPSS enables individuals to initiate their learning in their flow of work as they actually do their job. This is the heart of it. We’ve been doing this for years.

It is absolutely powerful, in that process. That is the true Workflow Learning. Conrad wants folks to understand that we can extend learning into the workflow from Formal Learning, but there are also models in place for people to be able to learn, initiate it in the flow of work, learn while they do their job, and develop that experience in the flow of work all exclusively there.

Then, in between those two worlds, there’s the Bridge model where we do this all the time in our virtual training delivery that we call GEAR. GEAR is a virtual learning model where G is you ‘gather’ online to learn in a formal learning setting. E is you ‘expand’ your understanding after that through activities. A is you then ‘apply’ what you learned in the flow of work as you do your job. You apply it in the real world. Then, R for GEAR is you ‘report back’. That’s a blend where you do some training, and then people work in the flow of work and do their activities and their ‘expand’ and ‘apply’ assignments in the flow of work, and then they return and report and receive feedback, which is a blend between the two worlds. 

“I Just Had a Heart Valve Replaced”

When Conrad met with his surgeon who was going to replace his heart valve, his question wasn’t, “Tell me about your formal learning. Tell me, what was your last E-learning course?” He wanted to know his experience. He wanted to know the experience of the team, and then he wanted to know their success rate. He wanted some measurement data. Those were the three things that he needed.

What we’re talking about is really the transition from what we generally call training and learning into the workflow where people actually ‘do’ where real learning occurs, where experience is developed. That is one aspect of Workflow Learning. Not the only. There are the two other aspects of Workflow Learning, but that’s very important. We can’t just stop the Formal Learning event. We’ve got to extend that reach into the workflow to assist in that transition and then to build, at an accelerated rate, the experience level of people because that is what is vital to an organisation: The wisdom and experience of their folks. Just like Conrad needed wisdom and experience when he had his heart valve replaced.

We Don’t do Anything that Doesn’t Have Applied Research Behind it

Conrad has a PhD in Instructional Psychology & Technology and Instructional Learning Theory was a foundational part of that. There are three fundamental schools of Learning Theory. There’s Behaviourism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism.

All of these have been around a long time. When we build a Workflow Learning solution, we’re pulling from the best of all three of those worlds. The least understood, Conrad thinks, in our world is Constructivism. Behaviourism was all about training and principles of training. Cognitive Learning Theory came in and said:

“Well, we need to focus on the learner.”

Sure we do. There are cognitive constructs that we need to have, all of which applies in the world of Workflow Learning theory.

The great gift that Constructivism gave us is a whole body of research around Experiential Learning. That’s been the piece that has been slower in being recognised. Most L&D teams are highly steeped in Behavioural and Cognitive psychology Learning Theory principles, but it’s the Experiential Learning theory, where the research and the work about how we have to tie what we’re learning into the real world and to experience all of that. There’s a remarkable body of research behind Constructivism to help us understand, but Conrad thinks it’s important.

It’s not one of those worlds. It’s all of those worlds that we draw upon to build a true integrated 5 Moments Of Need solution, which extends learning into the workflow.

Find out more in episode 36 of The L&D Podcast. 

Measurement: Why Don’t We Just Weigh Them?


Conrad read an article by Gloria Gery, written in the early 1990s. In that, she was heading up an L&D group and she had been asked by her leadership to report using traditional learning metrics. The whole butts-on-seats and all of that. She wrote an article, Why Don’t We Just Weigh Them?

What she did was reply to her leadership saying:

“I have a better idea. Let’s bring in a cattle weighing machine and we’ll just weigh our students before we teach them, then we’ll weigh them after. I’ll give you those metrics because that will be more helpful than what you’re asking for.”

Gloria had insight that the rest of the learning world didn’t. What she understood was the discipline that she had created – that she was pioneering – which is the discipline of Performance Support.

What she knew is, when you build an infrastructure that’s supporting people in the flow of work, that carries with it the ability to gather data about how they are doing, that is the missing link. That trying to bridge from learning to actually business impact is difficult because you’re missing the very tools that can measure the connection that needs to be made between learning and performance.

As she proposed this novel idea of an EPSS, a digital tool that provides you access to just what you need at the moment of need to get the job done, and all the resources, she knew that you could build into that the ability to measure. What we’ve learned since then is that when you build a digital coach and you implement that, people choose whether they use it because of that very issue, if they choose to use it again and again and again, it means that it’s successfully helping them and that has opened the door to our ability to truly target performance and performance impact which is at the heart of everything when it comes to measurement.

The exciting part of measurement for me is that we’ve been able to move beyond ‘why don’t we just weigh them?’ to true measurement, the measuring of impact in every way possible. There’s some suggestion that organisations waste a lot of time searching for the right tools and resources to do their job. McKinsey had a research report where they suggested that that’s one-fifth of a person’s time. We don’t know what it is really for any organisation, but wasted time searching for things is stupid. We can certainly measure that time to competency, time to effective performance. We can measure that.

Conrad just did a project with a client where his team were able to cut time to effective performance in half. It was taking them 18 months to bring people to a point where they could perform effectively on the job in all the ways they need to. They cut that in half and were able to measure it because they have this wonderful tool that is embedded in the workflow that gives insight and vision to how people are performing and lets them verify through micro-polling and other things where it makes sense.

A Performance Support Infrastructure Also Enables us to Optimise Formal Learning

You can’t have true Workflow Learning where people learn as they do their work without Performance Support done in the right way. It just isn’t going to happen without it. The mistake that is often made is that those in our discipline see Performance Support as an add on rather than using it to optimise what we do in the formal side.

Conrad has around 35 years of experience looking at Formal Learning and how much of it can be pushed into the workflow exclusively. All of that experience working with many hundreds of organisations, doing that analysis. On average, half of what is being done today in the formal side can be pushed exclusively into the flow of work.

We can cut that burden of time away from work – time stopping work – in half. That’s significant. That more than justifies the investment back into the world of Performance Support to be able to do what needs to be done. 

We Need to be Thinking About Performance and the Workflow, That’s the Moment of ‘Apply’

What is it that people need to be able to do in the workflow? That’s what you designed for first at supporting people in that workflow. Then you can go back into, to what degree do we need Formal Learning?

When Conrad sits down with a stakeholder and they say to him, “I need you to do some e-learning for us,” or, “I need a couple of more days of training,” in our methodology, he steps back and says, “Okay, let’s talk about the challenges and opportunities that you’re seeking to address, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities?”

And then you can ask the question as we identify those, “What’s the impact? What kind of impact do you need to have in the workflow?” We’re now talking about performance, where the mindset is performance. Then we’re going to put together a plan for delivering the impact that will meet those challenges and opportunities that you have. It changes the discussion to a performance discussion and that’s so vital in our journey.

We Focus on the Moment of Apply at the Job Task Level

When we map the workflow, we map the tasks that by the way is coming out of Behavioural Learning Theory, but then we organise all of those and into meaningful groups, which is called ‘chunking’, which is coming out of Cognitive Theory and then we identify the supporting knowledge again Cognitive Theory, and then we organise it according to how people do their work, coming out of Experiential Learning Theory.

Once you have that map where you know what it is that people need to be able to do, then you can orchestrate all of your resources around those tasks. You can orchestrate your training around those tasks and you can actually determine which tasks need to be learned in the flow of work, exclusively, and which tasks can be learned and merit focus in a formal way because the consequences of failure are so significant that it makes sense to do that. And by the way, when you do that rather than just chasing measurable learning objectives like we do traditionally in Learning, you find things and you deal with things that are generally missed because you’re focusing on what it is that people need to do. 

The First Step on This Journey is to Check Your Own Mindset

Carefully look at yourself and say, “Do I have a learning-mindset or a performance-mindset?” You’ve got to shift to performance-mindset. You’ve got to be thinking about the moment of apply. 

Then align everything that you do with the workflow. That is just so powerful. If you begin to align it, that means that you’ve got to know how to map the workflow and how people perform their jobs.

Then the third is to take on the challenge of figuring out how to push as much learning as you safely can into the flow of work where people can learn as they do their job. 

Organisations Waste a Lot of Time Searching For the Right Tools and Resources to do the Job

Stop pushing programmes and start using digital to solve real problems. Download the The L&D Disruption Playbook or speak to our L&D experts.

About Conrad Gottfredson

Conrad Gottfredson has more than 30 years of experience in the field of Learning & Development and holds a PhD in Instructional Psychology and Technology. His consulting work has helped governments, non-profits, and multi-national organisations wisely employ emerging technologies and methodologies to help people achieve personal and organisational goals. Conrad has pioneered methodologies (The 5 Moments of Need) for developing and delivering Workflow Learning to those who need it, when they need it, in the language and form they require. 

Connect with Conrad on Linkedin 

Connect with David James on LinkedIn and Twitter

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