Context-based learning

Written by Donald Doak on 1 January 2014 in Features

Enabling staff to get the information they need to solve problems as they arise is the key to sustaining learning, says Donald Doak

Imagine you are travelling somewhere unfamiliar. You attended a lecture about the area a year ago that gave you some helpful information and you read a book about it. Would you rely on that alone to guide you during your trip? Probably not. When you attended the lecture, you were not going to travel for a year and more immediate issues were probably on your mind. Now that you are planning the travel, there is a lot of information that could be helpful and when you are there, having maps and guidebooks available would allow you to make the most of your trip.

Now imagine that, instead of a trip, the information you seek will help give you the skills to improve or increase your knowledge of certain aspects of your job and career. The training classes you take and the books you read will be beneficial, but will you be able to recall that information when you need it most - when you are faced with a challenge or problem?

In today's on-demand learning environment, professionals are faced with the challenge of sustaining learning concepts. Companies are faced with the challenge of keeping their employees current with the necessary L&D, while accommodating the varied learning needs of individuals who range greatly in experience.

More formal learning environments, such as instructor-led training classes, provide in-depth information, but most people forget 60 per cent of it in the 24-48 hours after the class. But if a person goes into the class with a specific problem in mind and can relate the information to it, the retention rate improves dramatically. This is because problem-based learning is how people learn best.

So how do we sustain and extend learning beyond the classroom and strengthen concepts taught in formal training? And how do we create an environment that allows learning to be the most effective?

Companies are instituting informal ways of learning in which content with best practices and benchmarks for employees are available when and where the opportunity to use it arises. This is known as context-based learning.

Technology has made it possible to put a large amount of content in a place where employees can get easy access to it and to present it in a way that makes it part of their everyday workflow, where the problems occur.

This provides high-interest content that is easily digestible where they need it, when they need it, how they need it.

An online portal can be created providing pre-populated, highly relevant content from the industry's most respected thought leaders. It can be customised and integrated into an existing portal, LMS, SharePoint (departmental intranets), mobile devices and more. This creates the ability to provide multiple entry points into learning content in addition to the LMS and brings learning into the workflow, providing context-based learning opportunities.

For instance, an employee looking at a record for a client that he will be engaging with sees a note that the client can be difficult. If the company has integrated competencies and best practice and benchmark content from thought leaders on how to handle difficult customers, he can directly enter into a learning opportunity. The content would open him up to a robust collection of journal and magazine articles, books, videos, e-books and business book summaries with information on the topic.

One of the advantages of having such a resource rather than relying on a general web search is that the employee can be confident that the system is accessing the most updated and valuable content from leading resources instead of a search that may produce less reliable and less authoritative information. There is a risk and cost factor involved with team members aimlessly searching the web for ideas on 'how to handle a difficult customer' for the content they may find may not be reliable best practice.

The inclusion of top business sources is only one component that determines the success this type of resource can have in an organisational learning environment. The tool must include rich metadata across all the included resources so that the most relevant information is presented if the team member takes a self-directed learning approach to finding content. This allows him to find the most relevant information quickly. The metadata also helps keeps users in context if they explore within the collection for subjects, authors or publications.

Companies can amplify learning, especially for high potentials and self-directed learners, by linking the latest business thinking to organisational competencies, allowing employees to browse by the subjects that are most applicable to that industry. This was an important part of what Tessa Bedoya wanted to accomplish when she started at Rheem Manufacturing's water heating division. As the human resource development specialist, she wanted to be able to offer managers the most up-to-date resources for their development and that of their employees. "My goal when I came in was to partner with the management team to improve organisational effectiveness," she said.

One issue that Bedoya recognised as needing to be addressed was the risk of employees continuing to do their jobs in the same way they had always done because of the company's low employee turnover rate. "One of the biggest benefits of having these resources at our fingertips is that our employees learn what is happening outside of Rheem - where industries are going, what other companies are doing, what leadership gurus are saying about leadership in 2013 versus what they were saying in 1979," she said. "It shows new ways to do things, new ways to make profit, new ways to innovate, new ways to create, new ways to do all the things that we've been doing the same way for many years."

Bedoya helped to create a custom portal that could be accessed through the corporate intranet site, which offers targeted, recommended learning content that is prominently displayed for intuitive and easy access. The content aligns with the organisation's 13 performance competencies, including adaptability, leadership, productivity, teamwork, communications, initiative and self-evaluation. Resources are mapped to job function, such as human resources, procurement, sales and marketing, and users can click on any one of the competency or function areas to find related content.

Similar resources also let managers expand learning opportunities and teamwork with a portal that supports social collaboration, group learning and sharing relevant books, abstracts and articles to colleagues. With pre- and post-reading material that presents key concepts and relevant business thoughts, executives can customise company initiatives to augment leadership development curricula, to support learning activities, coaching and individual development planning to yield high-potential development.

Portals can be set up to feature particular articles, books, summaries or videos of interest chosen by the training professional, and supply them via email alerts or RSS. They can, and should, also include support for social media within the learning environment to provide peer-level contextual insights on specific assets employees have found helpful. The 'who' in learning is no longer just an instructor and a student, but extends to the organisational community.

Consider an employee who has been given the task of giving an important presentation, and wants to brush up on his presentation skills. If the company has integrated a learning resource, learning competencies can be mapped to information, directing him to best practices and information on communicating effectively in a presentation. Post-presentation, he can further the discussion by adding comments to particular content items to make the learning experience a more collaborative one. By accessing the learning content when he needs it, where he needs it, and how he needs it, the learner will improve his on-the-job performance and retention is likely to be increased.

This customisability allows training professionals to present the most relevant information in a way that works best for their company. Companies can then integrate the content into an LMS as a course providing multiple entry points into this type of learning content.

Besides the improvement in applying what has been learned, there are a number of other benefits to using this approach. Unlike classroom learning, which may be limited because of size or funding constraints, there are no limits to how many people can use the system for training purposes. In a world of distributed workforces, the information can be made available to everyone in the company in a cost-effective way.

Context-based learning does not seek to replace formal learning efforts; instead, it complements formal learning by providing a way to sustain it throughout the year.

Dan Pontefract, senior director and head of learning and collaboration at TELUS, a leading Canadian telecommunications company, and author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization, instituted a context-based learning resource to augment the company's organisational model of interconnectivity and unity. "Learning is not just an event in a classroom," he said. "Learning is part formal, part informal and part social."

TELUS has incorporated the learning resource into its corporate internet site. There is a customised search box on the home page and users can enter keywords that sift through content specifically selected as relevant to TELUS' learning needs. Content is also mapped according to TELUS job families so an executive assistant can click the 'administrative' link to peruse relevant articles on topics such as time management.

Additionally, employees can select any one of 11 "values attributes" or defined leadership behaviours such as collaborating, communicating and initiating. For example, a manager who wants to learn about coaching and mentoring his employees can click the value attribute "developing team members" for applicable articles.

This more informal approach must also be accessible via mobile devices allowing instant access to information wherever an employee may be. This becomes more important when a company has a distributed workforce. Take, for instance, the oil and gas industry: providing workers on off-shore rigs with formal learning opportunities would be difficult and cost-prohibitive, but a tool for context-based learning would give them access to the same information as those working in the company's head office.

People who travel a lot also need to have a reliable information resource. Bedoya recounted the experience of an executive who frequently travels: "When I told him he could download articles onto his mobile device, he got really excited. Now he emails me about what Harvard Business Review article he read on the plane this week. He just really loves it."

The convenience of content resources is beneficial even for those who may be based at a company's headquarters. "People like the fact that they can read the article online or on their mobile devices. They can print it out and take it home, or plug their phone into their car and just listen to it," says Bedoya.

In addition to providing the content where an employee is working and how he wants to access it, this solution also gives options for what type of content the person wants to view. The content can include book summaries, journal and magazine articles, e-books, videos and comprehension texts so learning professionals and end users can choose what works best for their particular learning style whether they prefer to delve into articles about the subject, watch a video or glean the key messages of a top business book by reading a summary.

At TELUS, the implementation of the learning portal has been a success. "Our resource helps us extend our informal learning options to our 40,000+ team members by providing pertinent articles, periodicals, journals and the like in digital formats that are accessible at work, at home or on the go," said Pontefract. "It's a wonderful extension to our world-class line-up of learning options."

All of this integration into workflow and customisation can be done using a simple application programming interface so there is little engagement needed by a company's IT department. Instead, learning professionals can work with stakeholders to figure out exactly what will work best for their employees, given their departmental and company goals, and how best to integrate it into their system.

This context-based learning approach is not new in some professions. It is already in wide use in the medical field. A doctor or nurse who has a challenging case could certainly go to a medical library and delve into the thousands of studies on a given subject to learn what the latest ones have shown but technology has integrated the information into electronic medical records systems. Since an electronic medical record is a key element of a health provider's workflow, tools that allow doctors and nurses to search within that system, and receive alerts when there are potential practice-changing studies available for a diagnosis, promote better outcomes for patients.

This approach is accepted by the medical professional associations such as the Royal College of General Practitioners, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Nurses Credentialing Center as well as training organisations such as the International Association for Continuing Education and Training as well as others for credentialing.

As the need for on-demand learning increases in a world that requires on-demand access to information, imagine what this resource could do for your company.

About the author

Donald Doak is senior vice president at EBSCO Information Services. He can be contacted at

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