Ask employees where they learned how to do their job and the answer is usually some variation of “at work”. Studies like the one below usually identify “on-the-job experience” and “interaction with co-workers” as the main learning vehicles.

employee perceptions of how they learn at work
employee perceptions of how they learn at work

Informal learning tends to focus on collaboration and knowledge exchange

Although, training functions are coming around to the idea that most learning takes place informally, many seem stymied as to what to do about it. Efforts focus mostly on facilitating collaboration, coaching, mentoring, and sharing knowledge in communities of practice or informal learning networks. This targets the “interaction with co-workers”, but is there anything we can do to influence on-the-job the job experience beyond these efforts. I think so, but it means getting more directly inside the jobs.

Performance feedback as informal learning

What people usually mean by “on the job experience” is that they try something and receiving feedback to determine if it works.  It’s a natural part of our existence and essential for learning in all aspects of our lives.

We can harness this natural learning effect at work much more than we currently do. One way is to design performance feedback into jobs and roles.  Performance feedback is frequent, specific and objective information to individuals (or teams) regarding how well they are performing against job requirements/standards. I’m not talking about the annual performance review–which is anything but frequent and specific and is usually connected to assessment for compensation purposes. I mean building a reliable mechanism or tool that provides ongoing (ideally visual) feedback of performance against job standards. To build such a tool, four factors need to be addressed:

  • A focus on job output

The feedback should communicate performance against valuable results or outputs needed from a job or role. Usually “feedback” targets personal behavior, not results. (“Alison, you need to be more assertive when dealing with your co-workers”) Feedback should help the employee answer “how am I doing?” in terms of what they produce not how they behave. I understand that ends don’t always justify means. Feedback on individual behaviour is important but more suited for personal coaching and performance review settings.

  • A standard of desired performance

It’s tough to answer “how am I doing?” when there is no standard of excellence or target as a benchmark. How well compared to what? Standards can be derived from existing metrics, business goals, top performers or (ideally) receivers of the output.

  • Objective measurement

The tool must objectively measure what individuals produce–the results of their work. The best measures are organizational measures cascaded down to individual jobs or roles. They will usually be some combination of quality, timeliness, quantity or cost.

  • A meaningful communication vehicle

I don’t mean personal coaching or mentoring. I’m getting at something more like a personal or team scorecard, similar to organizational scorecards. Since most job output can be quantitatively measured, it can also be charted, graphed or visualized in way that will provide a snapshot of performance over time. In this way performance trends are made visual. Performance change over time is at the heart of learning especially in a business context. I always liked this chart from Marvin Weisbord’s book “Productive Workplaces”.

what learning looks like

Often this type of performance feedback can be team or unit based and self-monitored. If a team is responsible for producing a common result/output, then a common weekly or monthly performance chart can be both motivational and educational. Visual charting of performance for use as a learning/ performance improvement vehicle is not new. It has been a key element of team based quality improvement methods for years.

Technology and Performance Feedback

Because you are quantifying job output there is no reason performance feedback cannot not be automated. A well designed EPSS could pull existing business data and use it to automate and individualize performance feedback in visual format. Confidential behavioral reports can also be automated, as long as clear competency statements are in place. Most LMS and HCM systems already have competency analytics that can generate all the reports you might need.

I noticed an interesting web 2.0/social media application called Rypple recently that promises “painless feedback that helps you improve”. I think it has potential to turn performance appraisal on it’s head and seems to be getting some traction.


Formal training should take notes

Formal training can learning from this. The best formal training compresses experience as realistically as possible so that people can learn and improve from their errors. Excellent training should simulate work processes and allow learners to see the consequences of their decisions and actions (performance feedback!) before they start making decisions and taking actions in their real job. Simulations are a powerful approach to mimic feedback based learning in classroom or e-learning settings.

The training function needs find ways to help employees improve and develop while they work. You can’t make them learn, but you can surround them with resources and information they can use to learn and improve, sometimes without even knowing it.  Working with teams and managers to build visual Performance Feedback tools into jobs is one way to do this.

Source: Stevenson, the New Yorker Magazine
Source: Stevenson, the New Yorker Magazine
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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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