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PHOTO: Hans Vivek

When Microsoft President Brad Smith announced the global software giant is developing a new app to integrate workplace learning directly into Microsoft Teams, it marked a potentially exciting new phase for a still emerging learning approach.

For years, a vocal group of workplace learning experts have been trying to dismantle the dominant classroom and course-based learning model and replace it with learning in the flow of work. They’ve had some success. Integration with a widely adopted collaboration platform like Teams could push the concept even further forward.

“In Microsoft's case, given that they are an owner of a primary collaboration platform in Teams, their engagement in this could potentially be a game changer,” said industry analyst David Wilson, CEO of Gloucestershire, England-based Fosway Group. “Depends on obviously, how well they execute and ultimately what their agenda really is.”

As Wilson indicated, a note of caution is warranted, something that's uncommon in the excitable edtech industry. Success will require knowing what workflow learning is, and isn’t, and how technology can support it.

Microsoft Teams Takes On Training

Microsoft’s agenda is tied to a broader push around digital skills that the company announced on June 30. As part of the announcement about a global initiative to help 25 million people acquire digital skills, Smith said the company is developing a new app to integrate learning assets and content into Microsoft Teams, the company’s enterprise collaboration tool.

The aim, Smith said in a blog post, is to create a “system of learning” that will provide a “continuous feedback loop between the work, skills and learning required to succeed at the task at hand.” Microsoft declined to answer any further questions about the announcement.

“People are already using Microsoft Teams for meetings, chat, calling, collaboration, and business processes, and we are planning to extend that to include learning,” Smith wrote.

The learning app, which the company plans to roll out this fall, will integrate content from Microsoft Learn, the company’s online training platform aimed at developers and system administrators, as well as a broader set of courses and content from Microsoft-owned LinkedIn Learning. Users can also bring in their own content as well as assets from external providers in a variety of modalities from instructor-led training to microlearning.

“The app will make it easier for employees to find and access relevant training content wherever they are, allowing them to have conversations around that content and earn certifications and recognitions for their skills,” said Charlotte Yarkoni, Microsoft corporate vice president for cloud and AI, in a separate video announcement.

According to Yarkoni, the app will have a broad set of uses, such as onboarding a new coworker, delivering training to frontline employees, and developing managerial and collaboration skills. It will also give managers the ability to assign and track learning progress within Teams. The goal is to make learning a part of work instead of a separate task in an employee’s day.

Microsoft’s not alone in seeing the opportunity to bring learning into the flow of work via collaboration platforms. “The idea that the collaboration platforms, whether that’s Teams or Slack or whatever it is, are a target for point of delivery is a pretty common trend within all of the HR and learning vendors,” said Wilson.

But activity doesn’t equate to effectiveness. Learning in the flow of work is a simple concept that’s actually quite tricky in practice. And as big technology companies like Microsoft make it a priority, it’s critical that end users get it right if they hope to see results as they go with the flow.

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What Is Learning In the Flow of Work?

Learning in the flow of work builds on a history of programs that have sought to tie learning ever closer together with how work gets done. In traditional learning, employees are pulled out of work for training in a classroom or have to set aside time to click through an e-learning course. Workflow learning aims to break that paradigm.

“Workflow learning, or learning in the flow of work, is learning while I'm in my work process,” said Bob Mosher, CEO and chief learning evangelist at Apply Synergies, a workplace learning consulting firm.

For example, an employee may need support while they’re in conversation with a team member, or tips for how to close a deal while they’re on the phone, or how-to guides while they’re handling a customer service complaint. Whatever the performance issue being addressed — what Mosher calls the “moment of need” — is where learning assets should be available to help.

Context Is King

A common feature of many learning programs is that content  — courses, e-learning modules, videos, slideshows — is the focus of investment, both in terms of money and people. Workflow learning flips that on its head.

“One of the things that's most interesting about the flow of work story is it makes context king,” Wilson said.

The aim of workflow learning is to put learning right where employees already are so that “in the context of what you’re doing, I’ll guide you, teach you, remediate and at the end you’ll have learned or been caught up, but you’ll also have your work done,” Mosher said.

Rather than focus on what needs to be taught or the content to be produced, a workflow learning approach first analyzes the workflow itself, identifying tasks, what employees need to know to accomplish the task and resources they need to access. Just because it sounds like common sense doesn’t make it common.

“I've been doing [instructional design] for 35 years,” said Mosher, “but for probably 25 of those I literally had no idea the actual work environment and workflow that my learners went back to try to assimilate and transfer what I taught them.”

In traditional workplace learning design, content drove how learning happened. It was about what you needed to know, Mosher said. “Workflow learning pivots on first understanding what that workflow really is and the dependencies, which is a very different design than we traditionally did,” he said.

Marrying learning together with work is the optimal learning environment, Mosher said, because it keeps learning closer to the moment of discomfort or uncertainty. “Every degree, be it cognitive, physical, contextual, that I move you away from the stimulus, it makes it harder for you to put those two together,” he said. “So workflow learning is the sweet spot if you can do it.”

Related Article: Establish KPIs for Your Learning Management System

It’s Not Just About the Technology

At a swipe, COVID-19 cleared the way for a digitally-driven learning strategy, Wilson said. Fosway’s research shows that only 5% of learning organizations expect things to go back to the way they were pre-pandemic.

Further, 84% of L&D leaders say it is now more important to integrate digital learning into collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack and Trello, and more than one-third reported collaborative learning as being most successful in supporting their organization through the pandemic.

Learning in the context of collaboration, like Teams is doing, is promising, Mosher said, but it’s also important not to ignore the underlying methodology and design for how users will interact and share. Sharepoint, another Microsoft product, offers an illuminating example.

“There were no constraints around [SharePoint sites] and so they ended up being a dumping ground of stuff that no one could find or keep current. My anxiousness is are we going down that same path without an architecture? Are we going to flood Teams like we did SharePoint with every PDF, every Powerpoint, every video, every document. It will literally die under its own weight in a matter of days.”

Organizations have to think clearly about the design and architecture of the content that will be shared so that it is minimal, effective and most of all, relevant to users.

“And if you think just letting the learner decide those things or pick, they're not going to,” Mosher said. “They're just going to pile everything up there. And it will not take long before the end user goes ‘OK, stop, nope. Tried a couple of times ... old, too big, not the right stuff ... and I’m not doing it anymore.”

What to Consider When Implementing Workflow Learning

Mosher offered three tips for organizations considering workflow learning:

  1. Focus on performance: “We have to pivot on what are the performance issues that people have and we've got to stop relying on subject matter experts alone for the creation of that content because an SME has already arrived at the end game.”
  2. Include learners in the design process: “Include what we call ‘business matter experts’ in the design process, people that are the actual learners ... to understand the world in which they come from so that we can design the right environment for them to learn in.”
  3. Be careful what you teach: “I'm the first to say that everything should not be learned in the workflow. There are things that are too dangerous or could hurt people or you lose your job or you lose confidence because it's too abstract or too complex.”

Mosher uses a 7-point rubric to assess criticality of tasks. A high score means that task should be taught in another modality such as the classroom, virtual setting or via e-learning. “Even though workflow learning is great and it should make sense, if someone gets hurt then what’s the point?” Mosher said.

Also consider the outcomes you’re trying to achieve with workflow learning. Wilson recommended defining whether outcomes are operational and skills-based in nature or more strategic and capability-focused.

“What's the measure of success here?” Wilson said. “Is it just being able to answer that one question? Or is it about building a broader capability set because ultimately the ways you address those are going to be quite different.”

Slick technology can help bring the promise of workflow learning closer to reality. But it’s important to remain focused on learning objectives, Wilson said. He recommended assessing vendors on these criteria:

  • Insight: How much do they understand the learning problem?
  • Maturity: Does the vendor understand deeply what issue is being solved or is it treating it as a fad?
  • Ability to execute: How are they bringing the technology to bear to solve the problem?
  • Alignment to outcome: Does the technology serve the purpose?

Microsoft’s entrance into the workflow learning conversation has the potential to accelerate progress significantly. But just because Teams has become a primary collaboration platform does not mean it will automatically be a good tool for learning.

“Just because you own it doesn't necessarily mean you're good at it,” Wilson said. “We've seen plenty of examples of that in the past where somebody who owns it turns out to be not very good at delivering targeted solutions into it, particularly for learning.”