On Demand Learning

The following is a guest blog by Tom Molyneux. Tom is a business process consultant at some of the largest enterprises in the world. His experiences in the strategic use of technology give him thoughtful insights into the rapidly changing world we live in. Tom is stepping in while Chris climbs in the Himalaya.


Old School Learning

Over a decade ago, my company sent me to a two day training course for a particular project management software package.  The scheduling was based on the existing course schedule, and HR selected a slot for me based on availability.  Great course – knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructor, interesting and motivated peers, good hands-on lessons.  By the end of the second day I thought, “Wow, I really know this stuff – it’s easy”.

Then two months passed before I actually had to use the software in a project.  When time came, I found that I was a beginner again – I had forgotten virtually everything I learned beyond the basics covered in the first half hour introduction.  In a sense, my company could have obtained the same outcome by sending me to a half hour training session minutes before it was actually needed.  We’ll come back to this point a little later.

Lest you think that I’m particularly forgetful, studies of the brain and how we learn and retain knowledge show this to be the norm.  Indeed, as John Medina points out in Brain Rules, research shows  “People usually forget 90 percent of what they learn in a class within 30 days.  He further showed that the majority of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.  This has been robustly confirmed in modern times.”

The Future

The 1999 movie “The Matrix” gives us an idea of one vision of the future of learning might look like.  In one scene, Trinity, the heroine, needs to fly a B-212 helicopter.  She calls in the requirement on her somewhat retro cell phone.  Two seconds later she’s hovering outside a skyscraper office unleashing a torrent of machine gun fire.  What I think is really interesting about this, beyond the ability to “download” skills, is the idea of a system that delivers the required skills just before they are needed.

Right Now

How might we move from the first example towards the second?  If you’ve read The Two Second Advantage, you’ll see that this fits in with a much larger trend in how businesses and society are starting to use real-time information for a competitive advantage.   In the old “database” world approach, companies would seek to provide mountains of training –  90 percent which research shows will be forgotten by the time it’s actually needed.  In the real-time approach, the objective is to try to provide just the right training to the right person at the right time.  How?

This is where process plays a critical role.  It also gets to the heart of why training is provided in the first place.  Most training is required to allow individuals to perform a specific activity (or set of activities) in the context of a process.  Because BPM lets us know both the process being performed and who’s performing it, it’s not much of a leap to see how it also tells us what training must be provided at that specific point in time.   This training could be as simple as the clearly readable process itself or as complex as a required certification or an existing course in an LMS.  In this view, every process could not only have an input and output, but also some way to attach, embed or otherwise enrich it with “how” to perform the process itself.

BPM has the inate ability to answer the critical question that leads to 90 percent of the waste in training – “When?” Have you seen BPM systems used to enable on demand learning?

Categories: Disciplines, Future of work, Learning

Author:Tom Molyneux

A business process strategist with a focus on real-time event management.

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4 Comments on “On Demand Learning”

  1. Sam Lorio
    October 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    Tom – your perspective, which I relate to from my own similar experiences, reminded me of a model I learned about many years ago. The model refers to three different ways in which we can access the information we need. One way is by learning – committing something to memory so we can recall it when needed. Another is by collaboration whereby others who have committed knoweldge to memory that is useful to me can be shared with me. And the third is what I learned as performance support – access to content and knowledge that is stored in a system and is retrievable at the time of need in a form I can use. Some BPM platforms can deliver this and more with both process context and collaboration. A fine combination indeed!

    • October 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

      Sam — thanks for your feedback.

      I like the model you refer to. The idea of collaboration was something I left out of my original post, but it definitely makes sense in this context. As you say, part of this is knowing, when you get to a process step you don’t know how to perform, who you might go to that already has that information. I think that’s really one of the most powerful arguments around social bpm. The challenge is being able to quickly locate that tribal knowledge in near-real time so that it becomes a usable asset.

  2. Craig J Willis
    October 25, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    This is related to a post I made recently ( http://wp.me/p1KGaW-1U ) about how the right level of process direction can be used to augment the physical environment for knowledge workers. The basis of the argument is that in many industries the physical environment (the layout of equipment, rooms and the workplace) provides clues to how things should be done. We essentially re-learn what we need to do immediately before we do it, we do not store all this information in our memories.

    Of course the accurate reconstruction of this knowledge is dependent on how well the environment is laid out, our previous experiences and skills. Training should be about the development of skills, most enterprise software does not require skill but requires knowledge of how to use it and which buttons to push. Therefore traditional classroom training is normally unsuitable for software training.

    Process can be used to provide context to the user so that they know when and, more importantly, why they need to be in the software in the first place. This information, along with a cultural knowledge of common software field names and buttons, will often provide more than enough information for the worker to reconstruct, or re-learn, what they need to know to complete their tasks at the point of need.

    • October 25, 2011 at 9:26 am #


      Thanks for the reply. You are absolutely right about how the phyiscial environment (if the layout is done in a sensible fashion), gives clues, reminders, and hints about how to perform the task that are often not available in the virtual world. Process can absolutely provide that context. Here’s an example – you never “interview potential hires”, “onboard new hires” outside of the context of a process such as “resource the business”. The “when” thus provided by process is critical to providing the context.

      You are also right that often using enterprise software correctly really boils down not to learning concepts or new ideas, but which buttons to click. I can even provide you with an example – think about correctly filling out time sheets – something common in almost all businesses. If it isn’t done right, it causes all types of costly problems – late (or missed) billable hours, rework, inaccurate product costs and accounting, customer confusion. To do this correctly, employees need to be “taught” where to go to fill out the time sheet (often navigating within a larger intranet), what billing codes they should use, how to find a billing code if they don’t have one, what the various task or project or other codes might be and which are appropriate, what type of description or comments are appropriate, etc. Often, none of this is particularly intuitive.

      So, not a particularly difficult task. It is, however the type of task that is hard to learn in a traditional training because a) it’s pretty boring (as Brain Rules points out, people have trouble learning boring things), b) it requires pulling together a lot of small details that may not be related in an existing mental model – this may be amplified if the emplyee is new and doesn’t know where to go for many of these resoures, c) if it’s given too early it may be out of context – the forgetting rate is extemely quick for this type of thing.

      An activity like this would be a great candidate for using process as the on demand learnng mechanism – assuming the process was captured in the first place, it’s just a simple matter to build a step-by-step wizard or checklist that walks the employee through the execution. With the right plaform, it’s even possible to include branching – so, if the employee gets to step 3 and they are supposed to enter a billing code but don’t know it, they can clearly see what the next step is to find it and move forward.

      Best yet, this is the type of task that really shouldn’t be memorized (at least not with intentional effort) – save that for value creating work. What’s called for here is the deliveriy of on-demand learning at the exact minute the employee needs it. Then let it fall out of memory for another week.

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