Consider this: If it’s true that on average 50 percent of transferred knowledge is lost in a month if not applied, and almost all of it in two months if not applied, what are the chances that your doctor will recognize a disease out of the ordinary at your next visit? In fact, each year there are about 400,000 articles added to biomedical literature—much more material than any doctor can possibly hope to pick up through required continuing medical education courses. The same is true for most dynamic disciplines.
How can you deal with this information and knowledge overload? The answer: A major shift in thinking. (It’s already happening in leading health care institutions.) Accept the fact that we are dealing with adults, not children, and that in a complex work environment, there are far more problems and procedures than can be addressed by a library of courses based on pedagogic principles (the teaching of children)—no matter what the size of the library or the quality of the courses. Nor can the challenge be met by collaborative systems in which the most competent workers are transferring knowledge to colleagues. These systems lack the critical vetting and chunking functionality built into course development and therefore run the risk of being persistently skewed toward preference, rather than best practices.
The challenge is to establish a system of enterprise knowledge management and transfer that retains all the relevant qualities of a library of courses, with a delivery component that’s both easier to use and more useful than putting in phone calls to more knowledgeable colleagues. It’s the second part of this equation that represents the greatest challenge. It’s also the second part of this equation that requires a learner-centric approach.
While it’s tricky to create a knowledge-transfer system accepted by users as both useful and easy to use, it’s not necessary to completely reinvent the wheel. But it is necessary to accept the fact that being learner-centric essentially means exactly the same as being market-oriented, which in turn means to let potential customers propel sales by catering to their already-established concerns and desires. In fact, since more education takes place through advertising than takes place through schooling in a person’s life, it’s worth paying close attention to how advertisers educate their audiences. This multibillion-dollar industry already has the learner-centric approach down to a science.
Understanding the Motivation to Learn
In the world of goal-oriented paid communication, any good campaign starts with defining the target audience. This typically involves some market research and psychographic profiling, which is first used to define the “process of purchase” for the product and target audience in question. Then different tools and designs are used to make sure the communication closely matches the target audience’s preferred style of learning.
The process of purchase can roughly be divided into four phases: feeling a need, research, purchase and post-purchase activities. The length of, and the effort put into, the various stages depends on the product and the psychographic makeup of the audience. Perhaps the most important lesson that transfers directly to enterprise learning is that in most cases, advertisers consider it too expensive to initiate the process of purchase. Instead, they opt to take advantage of a potential customer’s forward momentum by entering an ongoing process.
In the pedagogic model of learning practiced in most enterprises, the art of entering the process of purchase is almost never practiced. Instead it’s almost always initiated. That is, an attempt is made to initiate the process, which in the case of enterprise learning could be defined as feeling a need for knowledge, knowledge transfer, task execution and retention. Because so many learners fail to “feel the need for knowledge” on the training department’s demand, whole industries have grown up to deal with learner motivation and knowledge retention. It doesn’t help that many regulatory compliance departments and regulatory agencies concern themselves more with certificates of completion than with actual transfer of knowledge and task execution.
The difference in approaches can be illustrated like this: If one morning you wake up to find that the refrigerator died the night before, you immediately find yourself in the first phase (feeling a need) of the process of purchase. When the mail arrives at 11 a.m. with a flyer for a local appliance sale, you are already in phase two (research/knowledge transfer). By nightfall your kitchen has a new refrigerator and you know more about cooling groceries than you ever thought you would. On the other hand, if you wake up that same day with the refrigerator humming along as usual, the flyer arriving at 11 a.m. is merely an annoying recyclable, and you are in no particular mood to spend time learning about the cubic inches of ice coolers, no matter how hard someone tries to convince you otherwise.
Enterprise learning is no different. Time-pressed associates like to see the immediate relevance in what they are doing. They also like to have some measure of control of the knowledge transfer. Both issues can be solved by a just-in-time, dynamic knowledge-transfer system.
True Just-in-Time Knowledge Transfer
While the concept of just-in-time knowledge transfer has been around for a while, it is only recently that true just-in-time systems are being developed. This could be because in the past they were not driven by the needs of associates, but by the thinking of instructors. One example of the former happening right now is the very real need for medical doctors to reduce insurance premiums. This need has prompted a look at what can be done to reduce mistakes in medical procedures. (According to the Institute of Medicine’s report “To Err Is Human,” more than a million injuries and 90,000 deaths occur annually in the United States as a result of avoidable medical errors.) This, in turn, has led to the development of new just-in-time knowledge-transfer models, such as hiring NASA engineers to implement checklist procedures.
In a true, learner-centric, just-in-time knowledge-transfer model, it’s not enough to simply take a course and deliver it closer to the time of execution of a task—even if that course is delivered online. Instead, a learner-centric system has to be dynamic in nature. In contrast to traditional just-in-case education, a true just-in-time system should deliver only what associates need to know now to get their work done, and therefore it relies on a different educational model—“andragogy,” or the education of adults.
Andragogy is (or should be) fundamentally distinct from the education of children, or pedagogy. Yet most corporate education programs remain rooted in pedagogic models. The andragogic model puts learners in charge and keeps them engaged by providing immediately relevant information. Learners have more power and can avoid the frustration and wasted time inherent in a system that delivers redundant, confusing or irrelevant information.
A true just-in-time system takes advantage of the window of opportunity to teach when the motivation to learn is at its highest (when the meat is going bad in the refrigerator). Equally important, the just-in-time approach results in overall higher retention rates because application of learned knowledge always closely follows transfer.
Another key to the just-in-time approach is “leaner delivery.” With true just-in-time education, there’s no unnecessary sifting and surfing of information or phone calls to other people because information is already chunked and vetted. Just-in-time education therefore provides tremendous direct and indirect economic advantages. If effective performance is the true measure of education in the enterprise, then there is no comparison to just-in-time knowledge transfer. However, the benefits will not materialize unless a system is truly learner-centric. Consider the doctor. There is no course or class that will be accepted by a doctor in his daily routine, no matter how short, clever and “sticky” it might be. Only that which is easy to use and useful will be accepted.
The Core Components of a Successful System
While most traditional learning management systems take a management-centric approach that uses a factory-like model for education, to be effective, a just-in-time system must be learner-centric. To get the full benefits of a just-in-time system, it has to be easily customizable depending on subject matter and users. Transfer modules and techniques should not be based on instructor preference, but rather on the psychographic makeup of the learners in question.
System designers should also keep in mind the difference between on-demand and just-in-time approaches. While on-demand systems may contain the material users need at a given moment, they don’t respond to end user needs, and they can’t push information out to where it is most needed because there is no proactive delivery (i.e., the appliance flyer).
To be effective, a just-in-time knowledge-transfer system should mirror the interaction with a tutor and must therefore provide three key capabilities:
- Real-time assessments: Since many unions and organizations already ban incessant testing, it is a bit of a conundrum to design and implement real-time assessments accepted by the end user as both useful and easy to use. One alternative to the “standard test” is to use a self-assessment format, which in and of itself provides significant knowledge transfer. If the self-assessment format mirrors a set of diagnostic questions, it will also have the added benefit of quickly putting the user on notice as to where the “knowledge bar” is placed for a particular class, task or project. Based on answers in this process, the system can then instantly select and deliver needed educational material.
- Dynamic feedback: A dynamic system cannot respond in earnest unless the user allows it to do so. To function properly, a dynamic knowledge-transfer system has to be allowed to do its job: It cannot double as an assessment tool for management. It is instead critical that learners feel comfortable working at their exact level of competence. Just as a tutor is most effective when trust is established—and he is allowed to base his feedback on honest answers—it’s the same ability to provide dynamic feedback that makes true just-in-time systems so powerful.
- Chunked and vetted knowledge: Dynamic feedback also requires chunked and vetted knowledge, which has always been the building block of effective learning systems. Many LMSs and learning content management systems (LCMSs) now on the market focus on inventory control of these knowledge chunks. However, these systems do not provide just-in-time delivery vehicles. Nor are they set up to chunk at the level necessary to move from just-in-case to just-in-time knowledge transfer. A good just-in-time system should have a standards-based authoring environment that allows for rapid development of new material by trained editors and subject-matter experts.
Not as Difficult as It Might Seem
In Marketing 101 students are being taught to find a need and fill it. In enterprise education it isn’t so much about searching for a need as it is about delivering the right information at the right time. In fact, since most tasks in a business environment are defined ahead of time, setting up a true learner-centric system in the enterprise should be much easier than going looking for homes with broken refrigerators.
Evan Berglund is CEO of EduCel (“education at greater celerity”), the San Francisco-based provider of dynamic knowledge-transfer systems. Evan’s experience with adult interactive education dates back to 1992. His award-winning marketing experience includes being the CEO of Rostra Advertising and president of Info Advertising. You can reach Evan at email@example.com.