Learning on the job — when learning happens on time and as part of the regular work day — is important for everyone. If teams don’t find ways to learn as they work, they limit their performance. But when they find the flow of their learning, it becomes so embedded in daily routines and rituals that it is no longer labeled as “learning,” and becomes an integral part of how work happens. Here’s what managers need to know about workflow learning — and how to implement it in their teams.
When we ask teams in different companies and geographies how often they learn on the job, they usually answer “occasionally” and “rarely.” And when we ask what learning looks like, the answer is usually “when I’m taking a course.”
For many people, learning is still seen as something formal, structured, and scheduled – owned by organizations and delivered by experts. But in a work context characterized by complexity and uncertainty, it is a risky strategy to limit learning to something different from our day jobs.
The failure to incorporate learning into the day-to-day creates challenges at every level of an organization. Learning on the job — when learning happens on time and as part of the regular work day — is important for everyone. For individuals, when learning is often an extracurricular activity, it reduces employability and career stability. If teams don’t find ways to learn as they work, they limit their performance. And for organizations, the loss of learning on the go reduces their ability to respond to change and compete in the marketplace.
When individuals, groups, and organizations find their learning flow, it becomes so embedded in daily routines and rituals that it is no longer labeled as “learning,” and becomes rather it is an important part of how the work happens. Here’s what managers need to know about workflow learning — and how to implement it in their teams.
3 Principles of Flow Learning
There are three principles to keep in mind when creating a learning culture that works:
Learning is integrated.
While we go to work to learn to do a job, learning is now work. It’s not something that needs to be scheduled for one hour per week or one day per month. The priority is to increase the learning people get from the meetings, projects, and tasks that are already part of their jobs.
Learning is active.
Waiting or hoping for learning to come our way is the opposite of learning on the fly. Instead, a proactive mindset and skills are a must in learning as it happens. For flow learning to become a reality, it requires constant and consistent actions by individuals and groups.
Learning is the norm.
When learning is effective, it becomes embedded in the rhythms, routines, and rituals of the way people work. Learning is not the property of any one person – it is a collective responsibility and part of a team’s culture. This can be seen in the language used and the way people work together.
How to Help Your Team Learn to Flow
Here are three practices to help your team start learning the workflow:
Everyone makes mistakes. It is when people learn from mistakes that makes the difference in individual and collective performance. When mistakes happen, it’s easy to miss the opportunity to learn, because we tend to focus on finding solutions quickly – while simultaneously beating ourselves up for getting something wrong in the first place.
Mistakes are a simple way to learn on the fly when things don’t go as planned. This approach normalizes making mistakes, so employees are less afraid of them and learn from them. The idea is to easily share with others if something goes wrong. The question to focus on is not “What did you do wrong?” but rather “What did you learn from that mistake?”
In our organization, Amazing If, where everyone is based in different places, we’ve made it a team rule to share our wrong moments on a Teams channel the same day they happen. Role modeling is critical. As a manager, you might choose to start a monthly team meeting by sharing an insight you learned from a mistake you made. Normalizing moments of error can also be as simple as suggesting a phrase that people feel comfortable saying to each other, such as: “I had a moment of error. Do you have five minutes to chat?”
Feedback is a powerful way people can learn at work, but often, formality, time, and process can be blockers. When we find ways to bring feedback into the meetings and conversations that are already part of our work week, we increase the opportunity to learn on the fly.
Think about a meeting or project you are currently leading. A slight change in format can make feedback a part of the agenda rather than an “add-on.” For example, reducing the number of items on the agenda to create time for people to share the moment “what worked well” and what “would be better if” feedback on presentations is an easy way for of people who can learn. Or changing an existing meeting agenda once a month to focus on “challenging and building” creates an opportunity for everyone to practice raising concerns, discussing risks, and offering ideas for developing a safe way.
As a manager, another simple change you can make is to start one-on-one conversations by sharing some strengths-based feedback. The best managers actively focus their teams on what they do well, which increases confidence and motivates people to reach their potential. It could be something like, “I see you at your best when…,” “One of the ways I see you have a positive impact is..,” or “This week I really appreciated how you …”
Pitch, prototype, pilot
Experimentation is a natural opportunity to encourage learning in the workflow. What often gets in the way of experiments is how to use the concept practically and usefully as a manager of a team. Managers should be on the lookout for quick opportunities to encourage everyone to experiment as part of their roles. We’ve found that using the “pitch, prototype, pilot” framework is a great way to start.
Pitching creates a space for sharing new ideas, prototyping focuses on how ideas can be used in practice, and piloting tests an idea in a “live” environment. The role of the manager is to provide prompts and opportunities for team members to use this framework as part of their current roles, reinforcing its relevance for everyone. Managers can begin this process by asking everyone to consider three questions:
- pitch: What is an idea for improvement that can support you to achieve your goals for this quarter?
- Prototype: For that idea to happen, what needs to start, stop, or change?
- pilot: How do you test that idea right away?
Once the teams are familiar with the framework, they usually start using it actively in different parts of their role. For example, a team member might say to their manager, “Can I use our catch-up to present an idea I have?” and teams begin to explore prototype opportunities together.
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Learning on the job is essential to our roles and our resilience. If learning is always an add-on, the danger is that it never ends. Learning as we work means it becomes part of our conversations and our culture, and small changes in how we approach what we already do can make a big difference. difference in our progress.