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Delivering Authentic Experiential Learning “In the Workflow” - Is It Even Possible?

Delivering Authentic Experiential Learning “In the Workflow” - Is It Even Possible?

In our October blog I talked about the features that allow us to recognise whether a learning environment can authentically be recognised as Experiential Learning. This definition largely depends on whether we can recognise David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (ELT) as the core model being utilised.

“The ELT is usually represented as a cycle in four stages—concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. The first two stages of the cycle involve immersion in an experience, the second two focus on transforming that experience into knowledge.”

I went on to (somewhat simplistically) define the key requirements of experiential learning as:

  • all 4 stages of Kolbs Cycle are designed into the learning and executed by the facilitator with equal emphasis.
  • impactful, preferably shared, experiences are at the heart of the learning
  • the central aim of the learning experience is to improve personal, or organisational agency and effectiveness - making people proactively better at doing what they do.

I closed with this somewhat provocative statement:

“if anything is represented as Experiential Learning it must deliver against these key requirements - quite simply if it doesn’t meet these criteria, it isn’t experiential learning.”

My intention with this follow-on blog is to look at whether Experiential Learning (EL) can be made to meet the demands of “In the Workflow” pedagogy. I’m going to draw on my own Doctoral research monograph “Towards the development of guidelines for the design of experiential learning environments 2010” and suggest that the effectiveness of EL is heavily dependent on these factors:

  • creating the right environmental conditions for learning (physical and emotional space)
  • having clearly defined learning outcomes
  • utilising appropriate tools and responsive review questions that address all 4 stages of the ELT
  • utilising a design that includes multiple cycles through all 4 ELT stages

From this it’s fairly obvious that effective EL needs a human agent, a facilitator, embedded in the process to ensure the right environmental conditions, structure and to adapt responsive review questions, decide appropriate transition points between stages and cycles of ELT etc. This is the key reason why I’d suggest that effective EL that happens In the Workflow ISN’T possible - if your In the Workflow learning depends on having a responsive facilitator it isn’t In the Workflow.

Learning in the Workflow simply means having the ability to access an answer or a short piece of learning content, quickly and easily, that doesn’t disrupt your workflow.

In his 2020 Bizlibrary blog, ”The Future of Learning: It’s in the Flow” Tony Perry provides a good overview of current thinking on Workflow Learning and its enablers:

For workflow learning to take place, a few things are needed.

  • First, the learning content must be easily accessible. This means that the information being sought after is easy to find.
  • In addition to accessibility, content must always be available on any device, and at any time of day.
  • One last component to workflow learning that cannot be overlooked is relevancy and engagement. Its highly important that the learning content selected is relevant and engaging to the learner. This ensures a positive learning experience and maximum retention of the information.

It’s clear that these enablers are heavily focused on cognitive learning i.e. the distribution of ‘information’. As a designer of learning environments it’s very clear to me that creating EL pedagogy purely to deliver cognitive learning is simply not appropriate, nor is it efficient.

Even the leading thinker on Workflow Learning, Conrad Gottredson, admits:

“Not all learning can be learned exclusively in the workflow. But on the average, about half of what we take people away from the work to do can be learned in the workflow. We know that from about 20 years of gathering data on that.”
Workflow Learning and the Way Forward After Re-Opening 

So what’s the other 50%? What learning is needed in the workplace that isn’t cognitive / information based yet is vital to efficient performance?

Essentially it’s anything that’s important to smooth business process and requires people to constructively interact with one another to achieve a particular outcome. It can’t be assumed that people will get these constructive interactions right first time, it takes a bit of practice to determine how to get the best out of the situation and each other. Experimentation is the beating heart of EL, experimentation takes time and it needs people to be in the same space at the same time (face-to-face or virtually). By definition this puts the deployment of authentic EL outside the scope of In the Workflow learning.

By all means invest in In the Workflow learning, but recognise that this at best will check the box for 50% of your organisational learning needs. There’s still the need to offer learning to your workforce that will allow them to operate as effective members of your organisation, rather than highly-informed individuals. And when it comes to a question of how to build on the development of highly-informed individuals to turn them into high-contribution members of a human organisation there’s no more effective way to do it than getting them to temporarily step out of the workflow and into an Experiential Learning environment.

In next month’s blog I’ll take a look at some designs for EL sessions that complement your existing or planned In the Workflow learning offering.

Dr. Geoff Cox

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