Redefining Organizational Learning (and Documentation)

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Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

At the 2014 Learning Solutions conference in Orlando, Florida, eLearning professionals explored how new technologies are changing the way we live, work, play, communicate, and learn. Presentations, centered on the theme of redefining organizational learning, provided insight regarding why both instructor-led and computer-based training programs fail to meet the goal of providing learners with the facts and knowledge required to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

To help learners memorize course content and recall it to mind as needed, traditional training programs commonly employ a pattern of “present, demonstrate, practice, and evaluate” to provide repetition and form habits. However, trainees often return to the workplace unable to apply what they have learned. Perhaps they did not have the opportunity to immediately apply their learning, and therefore the information never moved from short-term to long-term memory. Perhaps they were unable to match the scenarios of the artificial classroom environment to the stressful, think-on-your-feet situations of the real world. Or perhaps, as some presenters at this year’s conference postulated, technology has changed the way people approach learning and, as a result, formal training has become a much smaller part of the total information needs of our users.

Rote memorization vs. rapid access to information

What is 6×9? 7×8? 9×12? Thanks to constant drilling with flash cards and regular timed tests when you were in elementary school, you probably had little trouble immediately calling to mind 54, 56, and 108. The times tables are forever ingrained in your memory. You were forced to memorize this content, whether or not you understood when you would ever use it and never mind that you could easily access the information with a calculator.

Organizational training programs do not typically have the rigid requirements of our education system nor the support that mandates specific performance before graduation. Nevertheless, training professionals frequently approach training design as if they do. They expect their learners to memorize the content and recall it as quickly and easily as they do their times tables. But like their younger counterparts, adult learners look for easier solutions that require less effort on their part—the calculator or other instant access to the information they need. Rote memorization has become a thing of the past as technology has provided easier, and often more reliable, ways of accessing the required information.

Over its years of existence, the Internet has changed the way people learn. Instead of memorizing facts and figures as they were forced to do before they could access a world of information through their computers and smart phones, learners now view the Internet as an extension of their memory—an external hard drive that can be accessed at will. According to a 2011 Columbia University study, “we are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”1 In other words, learners do not commit to memory anything that they believe they can access again later.

Formal training vs. performance support

It stands to reason that if learners are not memorizing the information they receive during training, the role of formal training becomes less significant in the grand scheme of user support. In fact, Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher suggest that only 10 percent of learning actually occurs in a formal training situation.2 They divide the remainder between social learning (20 percent) and learning in the workflow (70 percent). To actively influence the learning experience of users, trainers need to spend more time influencing the information available in the workflow than creating formal training.

In other words, trainers need to redefine their roles to that of holistic performance support—providing the information that is required for the successful completion of a task at the moment of need, which most often occurs outside the formal learning environment. Gottfredson and Mosher define five moments of need:

  • When something is new to the learner
  • When the learner needs more information
  • When the learner needs to act on what was learned
  • When the learner needs to solve a related problem
  • When the learner needs to adapt to a different situation

Formal training typically covers only the first two moments, and studies show a rapid decline of retention after that training unless there is a system in place to reinforce and support the initial learning—a performance support system.

In documentation, performance support is not a new concept. The concept of “just-in-time content” has permeated our approach for years, if not decades. The training community now seems to be coming to the same conclusions and realizing that formal learning is only part of the larger support picture. It is no longer acceptable to release trainees back to their jobs and simply cross your fingers that the training will result in successful job performance. Instead, trainers must extend their reach and take an active role in supporting performance throughout all five moments of need.

Application vs. theory

It’s important to note that Gottfredson’s and Mosher’s Moments of Need occur when the user is doing something—applying knowledge to a task, solving a problem, adapting to a new situation, a key difference between training and educational approaches. In education, there is a strong emphasis on the concepts well before their application. How many of you struggled through algebra class, wondering when would you ever use algebra? In training, the focus is on doing—practicing specific tasks that you must perform on the job. Think about it this way—as parents you want your children to have sex education, but you don’t want them trained in it.

Obviously, the fact that training focuses on application is not new to trainers. Training is centered on behavioral objectives—actions that learners must be able to perform at the end of their training. However, as training turns its focus to support outside the classroom, new issues arise. Traditional support information, such as documentation, most often has no overt relationship to the behavioral objectives identified by training. Because users believe that they can find information about the objective that was presented, they do not memorize content. However, when they later search for support on that performance objective, they cannot find a direct match.

Impact on Documentation and Training

With the vast majority of learning occurring outside of the classroom from resources that learners can readily access, both training and documentation professionals need to rethink the content they are producing as well as how it is accessed. Documentation needs to recognize the role their content has in training and vice versa. Both need to stop thinking of themselves as separate organizations with different purposes and collaborate to provide an integrated system of support. The two groups must recognize that they have a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship; they need each other.

Further, with learners now relying on their ability to locate information when they need it, rather than committing it to memory, findability has become of utmost importance to both documentation and training. If the two organizations are not reinforcing each other, there is a plethora of other information available to the searching user—information that may or may not be correct, information from competitors, information that draws the user away from your company and puts their faith somewhere else.

At a minimum, training must incorporate documentation into their presentations and exercises and show learners that there is a reliable source of information they can use when they are on their own. Similarly, documentation needs to incorporate training examples and scenarios into their content to remind learners of what they experienced in class.

Beyond the simple referencing of each other’s content, however, documentation and training groups must work together to address the search strategies of the users. The groups must collaborate to use the same structures and terminology to increase the likelihood of successful user searches. With worldwide information volume doubling every two years,3 users have an ever-growing challenge to locate the right information in a reasonable amount of time. According to a 2013 study4:

  • 33 percent of workers spent between 5 and 25 minutes searching every time they wanted to find a document.
  • It takes an average of eight searches to find the right document, with only one in five searches correct the first time.
  • Time spent searching for information has increased 13 percent since 2002.
  • Employees spend 1.8 hours every day searching for and gathering information. That’s 19.8 percent of business time being wasted by employees searching for information to do their jobs effectively.

To best support the emerging learning strategies of today’s learners, both documentation and training professionals need to become not only creators of content, but curators of that information, guiding users to the right information at the right time. They must become content taxonomists, identifying the terminology learners use to express what they want to do and incorporating that terminology into the content and metadata associated with that content. They must remain aware of related content available to the user produced by other sources, both good and bad, and ensure their content is more accessible than content that will confuse or mislead.

In short, new learning strategies affect not only training professionals, but documentation as well. Roles are merging and traditional boundaries between documentation and training are blurring. It’s time to let go of the separate kingdoms and deliverables and embrace a cooperative performance support strategy.

1 Google Effects on Memory, Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, Daniel M. Wegner, Science, Vol 222 No 6043, August 5, 2011.

2 Are You Meeting All Five Moments of Need? Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher,Learning Solutions Magazine, June 2012.

3 2011 Digital Universe Study: Extracting Value from Chaos, John Gantz and David Reinsel, IDC IView, June, 2011.

4 SearchYourCloud Survey, It Takes Up to 8 Attempts to Find an Accurate Search Result, Peter Bernstein,, November 5, 2013.