Learning in the flow of work: best practices, techniques, and examples for 2023
Over the last few years, learning “in the flow of work” and “in the flow of life” have spread as marketing phrases. They’re often used to impress upon prospective buyers an image of learning that occurs in previously unimagined scenarios. Learning that occurs on a train ride to work. Learning that occurs walking between meetings. Or learning that is embedded in frontline work activities.
The benefits of this shift in learning consumption are clear. Learning “in the flow” exemplifies the ability of learning to “fit in” around work and life activities. Learning that occurs “just in time” with little to no time wasted. And learning provided at the “point of need” which can be more easily applied because it’s fresh in the mind.
In a time with unprecedented development needs — and learners who report only 20 minutes a week to learn — learning “in the flow” is alluring. But what many learning organizations don’t realize — and vendors don’t mention — is that effectively meeting learners “where they are” has a few prerequisites.
In this guide we’ll look at foundational concepts and tactical considerations for maximizing the benefits of learning “in the flow” and meeting learners where they already are.
Focus on accessibility
Learners report an average of 20 minutes a week to learn. Even if you are delivering learning directly to workers when they need it, 20 minutes can easily be consumed by bad user experience or unsuitable content.
In internal research, we’ve found that it takes an average of 7 clicks for learners to access learning in a learning management system (LMS). Research shows that information retrieval tasks that require more than 3 clicks are viewed as “significantly more difficult” than those that don’t. For time-starved learners, this can be a non-starter.
The most accessible learning settings are those that learners are already familiar with. Learning delivered via messaging apps or as overlays in non-learning apps they already use are two of the prominent ways to deliver successful “in the flow” learning.
Additionally, content form factor matters. Using our example of 20 minutes of learning a week, content must be “bite-sized” for it to be accessible on a regular basis.
The two focus areas above make microlearning uniquely well suited for learning “in the flow of work.” With this said, a wide variety of learning delivery methods and content types may be deployed “in the flow” with the right considerations.
Avoid one-off “in the flow” learning
Learning that is accessible and delivered in a low-friction way within work or life helps to boost engagement. But engagement is only the first step. The Ebbinghauss Forgetting Curve notes that a majority of one-off learning is forgotten within the first day. For learning “in the flow” to lead to reliable retention and behavior change, you’ll need to think in terms of more continuous delivery.
Spaced repetition is the gold standard for promoting retention over time. Teams that are able to try out different cadences in which they revisit concepts, re-test retention, and ask users to reflect on how the application of new concepts is going see the best results in this regard.
If you’re aiming for more than retention (perhaps behavior change), you’ll want to move past one-off training as well.
The Fogg Behavior Model notes that the following three characteristics are needed to effectively change behavior:
Ability to apply
“Ability to apply” presupposes retention. But prompts and check-ins regarding motivation add to one-off training to ensure that prerequisites for the application of new knowledge is reliably met. All of this is aligned with accessibility brought through the use of messaging-based or in-app notifications and “pulse checks.”
Bridge one-off learning
Most forms of one-off training are decidedly not “in the flow.” They almost always require noteworthy time — and at times travel — that occurs at the expense of whatever you were working on. With that said, one-off trainings are still the go-to methods for nuanced, collaborative, complex, or very in-depth subject matters.
We’ve talked with 1,000+ L&D leaders, and found that a majority of the contemporary learning stack is geared towards nuanced, specialist training topics. Meanwhile, the majority of topical areas that need deployment are actually action-oriented, continuous, and fundamental. These are all skills more well suited for learning "in the flow."
The good news is that “in the flow” and one-off trainings often complement one another.
Let’s take a look at an example, say an in-depth reskilling program for data science. You wouldn’t want the entirety of the data science program taught “in the flow” via bite-sized content. But one of the largest risks for resource-intensive development programs is that learners show up without the foundational skills to benefit from the program.
In the worst case learners become discouraged, perform poorly, and churn. When all they need is a bridge to help prepare them to take full advantage of more in-depth training.
In our example, small form-factor content can play a crucial role here in delivering foundational data literacy skills, career guidance, and helping future data scientists through a discernment period before embarking on a more in-depth training.
Over time, learning “in the flow” can facilitate continued retention and prompts to apply, both for our foundational content and the contents of the deep dive. Time and time again we’ve seen partners bookend one-off training with more continuous learning to great success.
Rethink needs assessment
Consumer apps have dramatically raised the bar for delivering the right content, in the right place, at the right time. Social media platforms and workplace messaging tools exemplify best practices for quickly organizing and serving up immediately actionable content within the flow of a day. And both rely on high levels of user data to optimize experiences.
Tools that deliver “learning in the flow” are some of the first e-learning platforms to provide a step change in the volume of learner data headed back to learning teams. But many learning teams still operate on quarterly or annual needs assessment cadences.
At Arist we’ve seen teams increase their ability to handle more continuous needs assessment data through mapping automations to “points of need.”
For each content access point, you have a momentary touchpoint (in the case of Arist, within messaging apps) to gather context. This context can help to map what the learner needs: be that nudges to action, more lessons on the same topics, or to move forward to new subject matter. The more learning “in the flow,” the better the understanding of what learning needs to come next.
With this many personalized touch points, content form factor matters a lot. Video or multimedia can be used when needed, but often aren’t agile enough.
Rather than get overwhelmed by gaps in coverage, we’ve seen teams start small and continually iterate with text. With an average time savings of 82% compared to other learning content types, most teams can build out a corpus of “in the flow” learning relatively quickly.
Examples of effective learning in the flow
Successfully learning in the flow requires a rethinking of what corporate training means, how L&D teams capture and utilize learner data, and what forms of content are suitable for production and consumption. We haven’t reached peak “learning flow,” but a number of use cases have reached maturity.
Use cases we’ve seen have the best success focus on the 7 moments in a learner’s year where foundational refreshers and prompts to action can drive the greatest impact. Let’s say you’re initially promoted to manager, instead of waiting for your next synchronous cohort, you can begin gaining foundational knowledge today. A time-based trigger can reinforce key learnings quarterly.
Once you’ve been in your role two years, maybe you’re thinking about next steps. An experience requiring 5 minutes a day for 5 days can easily cover a framework for thinking through career development. Monthly prompts to reflect on progress can solidify practices as well as act as triggers for further learning pushed from L&D.
When you’re entering performance review season, perhaps a more in-depth regimen is needed to ensure behavior change. Even at 10 days, 5 minutes a day doesn’t disrupt routine operations. Bi-weekly nudges triggered before performance review meetings can maximize the chances of best practices being applied.
These medium-length “arcs” of learning can then be augmented on both shorter and longer timescales. Upon updating a field in a project management tool, best practices can be pushed. All alongside — and bridging the gaps between — more nuanced one-off trainings.
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