Supporting work groups

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Written by Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas on 1 September 2014 in Features
Features

Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas explains why personalised learning and performance support is better than traditional courses

In an era of uncertainty, how relevant are many training and development activities, whether face-to-face courses or e-learning, when in some fields the life of a technology may be just a few months? A five-year investigation into the most cost-effective route to a high performance organisation that can simultaneously deliver multiple objectives has produced compelling evidence of better alternatives to widely used approaches.

The investigation suggests there are cheaper, flexible, more focused and less disruptive alternatives to the general, expensive and time-consuming approaches being adopted in many organisations. Change is occurring but training teams, learning centres, educational institutions and professional bodies are missing opportunities to provide the more personalised 24/7 learning support that could massively increase their relevance and contribution.

The investigation’s findings, set out in three reports Transforming Knowledge Management, Talent Management 2, and Transforming Public Services1 & 2, show that the provision of personalised 24/7 learning and performance support could transform many aspects of our lives. The ‘new leadership’ advocated works with existing people, cultures and structures. It puts greater emphasis upon integrating learning and working and helping front-line and customer-facing communities to excel at important tasks.

This article will examine the implications for activities undertaken to develop and support key work groups and communities of practice. It will consider how learning and performance support can ensure knowledge workers and practitioners remain current and excel, especially in roles that impact upon customers and clients. Providing better support, especially to those in the front-line, can also be the key to transforming public services3.

Supporting knowledge workers and professionals

Separate initiatives, including many traditional learning and development activities, can now be replaced by a simpler and more flexible approach that can boost performance, speed up and personalise responses, increase engagement and understanding, allow flexible working and learning, ensure compliance and reduce stress by making it easier for front-line staff to do difficult jobs. Learning and performance support can develop people, keep them up-to-date and enable them to remain relevant, current and competent and compliant with relevant guidelines and codes.

Much training and development is concerned with general principles and knowledge about things rather than of how best to do particular jobs. It may also take place apart from the location of work. Content sometimes appears abstract, general and concerned with the interesting rather than the relevant and important, and with principles rather than specifics of ‘what to do’ in certain situations.

Many practitioners have individual development needs and particular challenges to address and problems to tackle. There is little point in principles, laws, policies and rules that are not implemented; hence a requirement for proven, sustainable and affordable ways of ensuring compliance, changing behaviours and supporting responsible decision-making.

Speed of response is also important. Companies in competitive markets have to address current issues. In rapidly changing contexts, and when future requirements are difficult to predict, remaining competitive and addressing contemporary challenges with an existing team may be a more pressing talent management issue than preparing a cadre of future leaders4. Integrating social networking into learning and performance support can enable advice to be rolled out internationally the same day that a problem or opportunity first arises.

Focusing on particular work groups and communities 

The focus of job-centred learning and performance support is on understanding, capturing and sharing how high performers do things and how best to tackle certain problems rather than knowledge per se. It can be delivered online and by mobile devices to provide help as and when required on a 24/7 basis, including on the move, and build understanding, confidence and competence with each use.

The provision of personalised assistance is particularly relevant to scattered communities of practice composed of people of different abilities, backgrounds and experience. It can use the knowledge base of a work group, community, network or profession to support training, assessment and qualification, continuing education and development, communications, updating practice support, compliance and standards and other activities. 

The approach makes it easier for people to handle complex tasks and enables average practitioners to emulate the approaches of top performers, whether within the community or elsewhere. Evaluations have shown that high and multiple returns on investment have been quickly obtained when only one or two of a number of possible outcome measures have been used5 & 6.

Providing accessible and usable support

Some corporate learning centres are like chapels of rest, while many updating facilities are not used. Too often e-learning and other forms of help fail to engage, are not relevant to problems that arise, or they are not available 24/7 at a point of need when required and they do not quickly and directly impact on performance.

Individual practitioners are not always systematic in their attendance at courses and meetings and in perusing professional journals. Even when they do notice and read a relevant briefing, they may have difficulty in remembering it, or relating it to particular situations and future decisions.

Performance support can provide easy access to the information and knowledge people require and day-to-day support to help them adopt the approaches of high performers when confronted with difficult tasks. The general overview of an article or course can be supplemented or replaced by a support package, including checklists and templates, processes and procedures and documentation that can be bespoke for individual users, customers and clients.

Such support can build confidence and equip a user to assess and address an unfamiliar situation. Performance support can be used to capture and share good practice and built-in checks can ensure compliance with relevant standards7 & 8. Support can also be designed to raise standards by ensuring that users learn with each application, while online updating can ensure they remain current with regulatory, policy and other developments.

Education and training

A similar approach can be used to support induction, initial training and professional preparation as one of its strengths is helping people to understand complex requirements. Self-assessment tests can enable users to judge their understanding and assess their readiness and suitability for a particular role or area of practice and its relevance to their personal aspirations.

The incorporation of social networking can speed up feedback and response times and facilitate interaction within a community of practitioners. Those with relevant experience can comment on issues raised and questions while they are still current. Direct access to continually updated knowledge and best practice ensures exposure to current thinking, enables people to stay up-to-date, and can generate evidence of their commitment to continuing professional development (CPD).

Growth and development within a role can be an alternative to advancement by moving between jobs. Learning and performance support can address the lack of promotion possibilities in slimmer and flatter organisations. It shifts the focus to building capabilities and enabling individuals and teams to understand ever more complex situations, and handle ever more difficult problems.

Continuing professional development

The value of an expensively acquired and developed talent pool may quickly erode if its members are not kept current and their knowledge and skills are not relevant to contemporary issues. CPD is increasingly important and this is an arena in which the latest approaches to supporting work-groups and communities of practice excel, particularly in inherently complex and rapidly changing fields.

People can be provided with relevant support as and when they need it, wherever they might be. Help and updating can be sought and provided at whatever time is most convenient for a particular individual. With applications that can be delivered via laptops, tablets and the latest generation of mobile phones, support is available at the point and place of work, even when people are travelling.

Most existing methods of updating are relatively ineffective in comparison with the use of learning and performance support tools. Events and courses can be difficult and expensive to organise and run. They require people to leave their place of work and inputs provided are often quickly forgotten. The relevance of what is read or said may only be perceived after the event, as and when certain situations arise. By then what was imparted may have been forgotten.

Integrating learning and practice so that support is available as, when and where required can increase understanding, raise standards and directly benefit customers or the public. An earlier study clearly showed that employers favour bringing working and learning together9. Learning and performance support can achieve this and its use can also build confidence and competence rather than de-skill as some other approaches do.

Communication within communities of practice

Learning and performance support can also enable the members of a network or community to help each other, for example by ensuring that effective ways of doing things are acknowledged and shared. It can embrace social networking and provide a framework for its responsible and beneficial use. As in other areas, strategic adoption and a joined-up approach can address a number of issues and simultaneously further multiple agendas.

In relation to work-group or community communication, learning and performance support can be more accessible, current and cost-effective than traditional alternatives such as journals, newsletters, reports and events. It can also be more engaging and enlightening. The dissemination of technical updates can be automatic and instant, which can speed the adoption of innovations. Mechanisms can be built in to allow instant and continuing feedback and the sharing of insights and ideas.

Speed of reaction can be critical in rapidly changing and crisis situations. Alternatives sometimes find it difficult to cope with the unexpected. Having struggled to ‘turn people on’, they may find it hard to quickly ‘turn people off’, for example to stop them doing something. Blockers and red traffic lights can be built into support tools to prevent certain courses of action and quickly followed by adding explanatory windows that open at an appropriate point.

Supporting and monitoring knowledge workers and professionals

 Far too often practitioners are offered general briefings when what they need is specific help and support that is directly related to individual assignments and particular problems and opportunities. Receiving what they need in a format that is easy to use and understand is greatly appreciated by busy knowledge workers and professionals. A one-off evening meeting at an inconvenient time and location is no substitute for ongoing day-to-day support as and when required.

Each individual may have a different requirement and many people specialise in particular areas of practice. Personalised support can reflect this. It can be designed to accommodate career moves, new assignments, policy changes and technological and other developments. Support that meets individual needs and aspirations can aid retention.

Regularly updated performance support for different work groups and distinct communities can assess the requirements of individual customers, clients and citizens, identify and select preferred courses of action, and generate any bespoke documentation that may be required. Built-in checks can ensure that users cannot generate reports, forms, proposals and other documentation that do not comply with regulatory and other requirements, and that appropriate clauses are included.

Should it wish to do so, a corporate training and development team could monitor the use of the support provided. Data generated could include the proportion of users accessing a particular update, and the extent to which they are fulfilling CPD requirements. Monitoring information could inform the updating, refinement and extension of the help provided.

Demanding practitioners expect advice given to be up-to-date. Learning and performance support enables developments such as new technical requirements, regulatory changes or legal decisions to be quickly disseminated. Users can be directed to relevant sections of content such as particular provisions in new and complex legislation as and when they are relevant to particular tasks.

In many fields innovation is relentless. Some companies have narrow windows of weeks or days in which to develop and provide the international learning support that can equip people from diverse communities to understand, sell, adopt, support and benefit from developments and address opportunities. Social networking and flexible performance support can roll out global solutions to problems and responses to opportunities that people did not know they had a few hours before.

24/7 learning and performance support across large and dispersed communities can enable activities to be undertaken more quickly and cost-effectively and provide a noticeably enhanced service to users and a new rationale and sense of purpose for training and development teams. Its strategic use could replace some services and complement others10. It could represent a more accessible and affordable channel for the delivery of core functions of corporate learning centres and professional bodies.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas is an international adviser and consultant and part-time academic at the University of Greenwich. He can be contacted via www.coulson-thomas.com

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