During the Q&A at a recent conference session on Social Learning, a retail industry attendee asked “I have to train 300 store level associates in new product knowledge in the next three months.  Is social learning really what I want?”  What would your answer be?

I get as excited about social tools as you likely do, but it’s not a panacea for all learning woes.  The current zeal around social learning solutions can distract from real performance needs (we’ve been distracted before). But, set aside your biases one way or the other for the moment and simply think of the roles and functions you support in your organization. It will vary by industry of course, but your list is going to be some subset of the following:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Product Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Operations
  • Administration
  • Service Delivery
  • Order Fulfillment
  • Information Technology
  • Procurement
  • Management and Leadership

Now think of the jobs or roles within those functions…the engineers, technicians, account executives, managers, IT specialists, health care workers, service specialists, and operations staff you support.  Do they demand a singular approach to developing skill and capability necessary for their job?  Is social learning or traditional skills training the most appropriate for all job types?  I hope your answer is no.

Consultants have been telling us for years that traditional, mechanistic organizations are disappearing, and with them linear and routine work.  There is no doubt that is the economic direction, but look around you…at the auto assembly lines, big box retail, supermarkets, call centres, healthcare technicians, administrative clerks in government, insurance, finance and elsewhere. Think about the jobs you support and you’ll see many examples of traditional work where social media based learning will simply not be feasible to quickly develop skills.

Task variety and standardization: Routine vs. knowledge work

Instead of over generalizing the value of any solution it’s best to truly understand the skill and knowledge requirements of the jobs, roles or initiatives you support.  I’m not talking about task or needs analysis (through both are valuable tools).  Instead go up one notch higher and categorize the types of “work” you support in your organization.  Almost all work, indeed entire organizations and industries, vary on a continuum of two broad factors: task variety and task standardization.

An approach for categorizing jobs, roles and work environments

In between these ends of this spectrum is work that combines standardization and task variety to different degrees. The following framework provides a classification tool to place work types, jobs and roles. It’s an adaptation of the work of Yale Organizational Sociologist Charles Perrow.  Jeffrey Liker and David Meier used a different variation of this model in Toyota Talent.

Work Types, Task Standarization and Task Variety
Routine work

Routine work is highly standardized with little task variety. Job fundamentals need to be learned quickly and performed to company or industry defined standards. There is little room for variation and the skills that need to be learned are narrow and focused. Progressive workplaces will also involve workers in problems solving and continuous process improvement where experience will result in tacit knowledge in problem recognition and problem solving than can be shared with others through informal vehicles.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Assembly line workers
  • Bank teller
  • Data entry clerk
  • Oil and gas well drillers
  • Machine operators
  • Fast food server

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured, job specific skills training, performance support tools that enable standardized procedures
Technician work

The work of the technician is less standardized and includes more variety in the tasks and skills required by the role. Work still has many defined procedures and processes. However, they are more complex and often based on sophisticated systems and technology. The sequence can vary depending on the situation so employees have more autonomy in selecting appropriate procedures. There’s also greater variety in the procedures and tasks to be completed and as a result the learning programs need to consider problem solving, decision making and continuous improvement. Tacit knowledge will be needed to solve real technical problems that arise and there is often a service element in technician work that can benefit from informal approaches to learning. Performance supports system are a natural fit for technician oriented work as is mobile learning for customer support technicians often working at customer locations.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Lab analyst
  • Quality Control Specialists
  • Radiation technologist
  • Maintenance workers
  • Technical support specialists
  • Most “trade” occupations

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured learning for required procedures, performance support systems. Informal learning and apprenticeship approaches for building “know-how” and problem solving
Craft work

Craft oriented work introduces even greater amounts of variety in tasks, skills and knowledge, but retains significant amounts of standardization for optimal performance. While there is a definable number of tasks, each situation faced by employees is somewhat different, and each requires creative and slightly unique solutions. Over time patterns in problems and solutions emerge for individual employees and this becomes valuable experience (tacit knowledge) that they can pass on to novice employees through informal approaches. Basic skills and procedures are most efficiently taught through formal methods but the most critical parts of the job are learning through years of experience facing multiple situations. Management is more flexible and with fewer rules and formal policies. Teamwork and communications are paramount.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Nurse
  • Sales professional
  • Call centre agent
  • Graphic designer
  • Air traffic controller
  • First level supervisor
  • Insurance administrator

Learning approach:

Formal learning for foundation procedures and skills. Informal learning and deep work experience and mentoring models for tacit knowledge.

Knowledge work

Finally, knowledge work involves little task standardization (although there is always some) and a great amount of task variety requiring a wide range of skills, knowledge and collaboration. Professionals move from task to task and each situation is unique calling for spontaneous thinking, reasoning and decision making. Knowledge workers must adapt to new situations, assess complex data and make complex decisions.  They also need refined people skills.  The most critical aspects of what experts and knowledge workers do (after formal education) can only be learned on the job over time through experience, mentors and knowledge sharing with other professionals.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Professional engineers
  • Middle and senior management
  • Professions: Law, Medicine, Architecture, Scientists, Professors etc.
  • Software developers
  • Creative director

Learning approach:

Professional education, extensive job experience on a variety of situations and work assignments, action learning, mentorship, Communities of Practice.

Balanced approaches

Of course most work requires a combination of knowledge work and routine work. These characteristics of jobs and work environments call for different approaches to training and development. There is a continuum of learning solutions that range from formal to non-formal to informal. I’ve posted my view on this continuum in the past (Leveraging the full learning continuum).

Avoid over generalizing your solutions at all costs. Start with the functions you serve. Truly understand work that is done by the jobs and roles within those groups and the skills necessary for them to be successful. Only then create a solution that will meet those needs.

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22 Responses
  1. I fully agree that we should learn better when to use informal and formal learning interventions- it should definitely not depend on the preference of the facilitator/designers. However, I wonder whether it can be linked to routine/non-routine or even functions. That would imply that for managers and knowledge workers formal learning approaches would hardly ever work? (on the other hand it is true for myself, I don’t learn much by formal approaches .. but I do see it works for other knowledge workers..)

  2. Joitske:
    Yes, I actually am implying that formal learning approaches for knowledge workers “hardly ever work”. See How Managers Learn for some evidence to support that. But what I’m really getting at is how to design the most productive approaches to learning. In the end we are all natural learners. Put us in any environment, formal or informal and we will learn what we need to over time. But in organizations we are trying to enable people to learn their work quickly and then support them to develop over time. If that’s our goal then routine work lends itself to formal methods and knowledge work to informal. However I hope the diagram indicated that routine and non-routine elements exist to a greater or lesser extent in all jobs and therefore formal and informal methods (to a greater or lesser extent) are appropriate for all jobs.

  3. Fully agree to most of this.
    Still I am looking for ways to grab the enthusiasm and the energy that people want to put into social media and use it in formal training and in closed networks in companies and organisations. Not everything should be shared in the sky but within a close group in a safe and secure social community at job. I am now in a project with the Norwegian LMS PedIT where we try to copy the tools and mecanisms from the social web and use them for a wide range of purposes within anything from courses for boards in organisations, self-help groups, coaching and project management. Even if cources and projects contain informal and tacid knowledge they also contain a lot of formal and explicit knowledge that should be adapted.
    It is not only the category of the learning but the learning process it self that should be considered. The intimicy and immediacy from the social web can be used in communication and colloboration in learning even on the most formal and explicit tasks of learning.

    1. Gjermund, thanks for the comment.
      I think the mix of social learning and formal learning you mention is entirely appropriate and it’s being used very successfully. A number of LMS’s like PedIT are adding social features to support formal learning (see here). Collaboration tools (pre web 2.0) have been around and used effectively for a while now. My main point is that the even with the powerful draw of social media it shouldn’t be the driving factor in our decision making. Our first consideration needs to be the nature of the work, the jobs we support and the performance needed from those jobs. I like your comment on the importance of the learning process.

  4. Thanks Tom for an interesting scenario – one that we find ourselves be asked more and more.

    In response to your question: “I have to train 300 store level associates in new product knowledge in the next three months. Is social learning really what I want?” What would your answer be?

    My answer would be that social learning could absolutely be part of the learning solution you end up with, so long as it has a specific (i.e. planned) role to play. In the example above, my first question would be “What are associates going to do with this knowledge?”, and that would be where I put most of my effort in designing a suitable training solution, ensuring that knowledge acquisition was only the first stage of the process, and application was the second, evaluation probably being a suitable third stage of the learning process. If associates were being asked to offer product advice to customers using social media, then social media would be a central tool in the learning process; if the company uses social media actively as a forum for experience exchange, mentoring, etc. then it would also form a central part of the learning process, whereas if social media was just seen as a trendy medium for social, informal learning, then I would be inclined to leave it as that – a peripheral tool, not a central tool in the learning process.

    A good question, raising again the central issue of having the pedagogy, not the technology as our starting point for instructional design. The pedagogy has to be sound, the technology fit for purpose.

    1. Marcus:
      Thanks for your comment. I was hoping someone would answer that first question. In that particular scenario, the short time frame and specific knowledge and skill that needed to be learned would not justify social learning as the primary vehicle. I agree with you that it could be considered supporting and even a way to socialize the “hard” knowledge they might learn through formal learning. Informal learning will occur whether we “design” for it or not. However, in this case, and in may others like it, floor associates did not have access to computers or mobile devices, other than one system in the administrative area of the store. That system was actually used for a e-learning program and the eLearning had a discussion list (which was wildly under-used). The irony is that many of those same floor associates may immediately jump on Facebook or Twitter as they walk off the store lot. We often assume social media is everywhere, when in many workplaces and for certain jobs it has not even made a dent. And in others it simply is not the quickest or most productive route to a performance need.


  5. Hi Tom, I too thought I’d take a crack at the “300 store level associates” situation by sharing an anecdote I heard many years ago from the training director at Ritz-Carlton. As context, remember that there are three levers by which we may affect performance: the worker, the work, and the workplace. Any intervention we propose must take those factors into account.

    In the Ritz-Carlton case, the work was housekeeping, food service, front desk, etc. – performed by shift workers in a generally low-tech environment. Learning had to take place locally with minimal time away from the job – and no dedicated trainers on site. (This is where I begin to see a parallel with the “300” case.)

    Okay, now before I say what Ritz-Carlton did, there’s a parallel to their solution which I think may be helpful to keep in mind: Food Service (“Mess Halls”) in the US Army. Menus for the military are established centrally, food procured on that basis, such that on any given day, at any facility around the world, you could expect to find the same meal being served. Got it?

    This is what Ritz-Carlton did:
    1. At headquarters, trainers and management (presumably) came up with a short list of topics critical to performance. I don’t recall the exact number, except to say that it was not divisible by seven. Topics were broad: food service, beverage service maybe, security, etc.
    2. Trainers prepared SHORT messages related to each topic – that were topical: “We’re introducing a new line of beverages; this is what you need to know about them”, or “Lately, there have been a number of cases where laptops were stolen from guest rooms by people posing as…”
    3. These messages were disseminated to the hotels with instructions that they be delivered one per day – and one topic per day. The same topic would be covered on the same day, anywhere in the world.
    4. It was the hotel’s practice that all employees would be gathered and inspected at the start of their shift. At the same time shift supervisors would deliver the brief message of the day, answer any questions, etc.

    In summary, the rotating schedule of a set number of critical topics assured that all remained firmly in employees’ consciousness, even though the specific message was different every time that topic came around. Because the topic list was not divisible by 7, the day of the week when a given topic was addressed changed every time; thus regardless of employee’s weekly schedule, they would eventually get reinforcement on every topic. The messages were timely and informative but not strictly training; and delivery by supervisors took place at a natural moment – not “off the job.”

    I found this approach to be very, very clever – and oh so appropriate to the situation. That’s why it has stuck with me all these years. While the details may not apply elsewhere, it’s worth keeping in mind the develop centrally, deliver locally idea – as well as using supervisors not as trainers, but as conduits to get messages out and reinforce their importance.

    1. Hi Stan,
      Thanks very much for the case study. Sounds like the perfect solution in that situation and I think that’s the key message–that solutions are most effective when they are driven by the problem they are meant to resolve and the unique context in which they will be implemented. Good to hear from you.

  6. Tom. Thanks for a very interesting analysis. The Work Types, Task Standardization, Task Variety diagram is extremely useful. However, I’d be interested to know why you didn’t map Routine Work/Explicit Knowledge to Performance Support rather than to Formal Learning. Research shows that for this type of ‘transactional’ work is often better served by smart contextual performance support (from parchment/paper to sophisticated ePSS systems) than by formal learning.

    Or is it just a step too far to suggest that formal learning has an even smaller place in the ecosystem 🙂


    1. Hi Charles, thanks for the comment. Couldn’t agree with you more. Trying to keep the diagram as uncluttered as possible, I kept the solution continuum between formal and informal. Notice that I do mention performance support as a solution type in the short section on routine work. While performance support is not training per se, it can be considered formally structured knowledge built into workflow. Although performance support is taking some nice social twists these days as well so depending on how it’s designed it could fit on both ends of the formal-informal continuum. Thanks for dropping by.


  7. I looked at your diagram again and re-read the article, Tom. I agree with you that introducing a specific reference to PS would probably cause ‘clutter’ and that ‘traditional’ PS is formally structured knowledge built into the workflow anyway – so maybe it’s best to qualify the point when explaining to people (I’ll surely use – and attribute – your diagram if I may).


  8. Tom, it strikes me that this is only a piece of the puzzle. I applaud efforts to fit informal learning to the appropriate context, but it’s more complicated than the routine/random nature of the work.

    How about the maturity of the worker? Novices are more likely to need more formal learning than old hands no matter what the category of work they’re engaged it.

    How about the context of the work? A physician practicing in isolation doesn’t have the same opportunity to learn from her peers as the worker in a crowded office.

    And how about the topics required to perform a particular piece of work? Learning a procedure is going to be different from learning the nuances of an interpersonal skill.

    And of course this is all a matter of degree, since all learning is part formal and part informal.

    I agree with your basic premise–but it covers one dimension among many.

    Nothing’s as simple as it at first seems.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jay. It’s pretty hard not to agree with your points. In fact I’m not sure how the model could be anything but just a piece of the puzzle? Novice/expert, social/isolated, task/interpersonal, among others, are all important layers in this and need be unearthed through analysis for any specific situation.

      Models serve a communication purpose and I put this together in response to what I was seeing as an over-generalization of informal learning/social media solutions to any and all types of learning/skill issues. My purpose was to call attention to the wide variety of work still being being done in organizations (not everyone is a knowledge worker) and how routine work vs knowledge work point to different broad categories of solutions. It’s a common work taxonomy so I simply applied to learning. I used the last bit on balanced approaches to emphasize that any individual solution will depend on context.

      Perhaps I’ll take a crack at the model with the extra dimensions you suggest, but it would likely require 3D glasses of my readers to to take it all in. Cheers.

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