selling up, selling down

Context Beats Content

In workflow learning, shifting to a context-first mindset is key By Bob Mosher

Bob Mosher is a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a strategic consulting firm.
He can be reached at


ersonalized learning, workflow learning, the Five Moments of Need, 70-20-10, informal learning — call it what you want, but moving learning away from events and into everyday work is one of the hottest topics in our industry right now. I speak with at least three to five learning leaders a week who are struggling with making the “transformation” (another hot topic) from a training department/university model to a performance-centric/workflow-oriented design shop.

The journey is not an easy one. There’s a lot of history and, frankly, baggage to get past. When you’ve been designing for training first, shifting that focus is hard, but until we do, the transformation we want just isn’t going to happen.

I recently observed a learning leader trying to pitch this reorientation to key stakeholders. I noticed he kept repeating the words “course” and “curriculum,” so, out of curiosity, I started counting. I finally stopped at around 20 within the first 10 minutes of his pitch. “Well, that’s just semantics,” you say? Nope — it’s a mindset! In the “old” days, content was king. Our orientation was to first build a course or, later, e-learning. All of our initial analysis and design were oriented toward that even before we met with our SMEs.

This new transformation starts with a reorientation around outcomes and deliverables. Workflow learning assets are typically not training assets, though training assets are often in the mix. The most powerful assets often take the form of performance support, such as checklists, decision trees, videos, learning bursts, social platforms and a lot of user-generated content. These are the tools of the trade when it comes to designing for this brave new world.

But how do you fundamentally make the shift? It starts with switching from a content-first mindset to one of context, and there are two types of context we need to better understand.

The first is workflow itself, which by definition is the context in which our learners work every day. It amazes me how little we truly understand about the job tasks our learners perform daily. Workflow is made up of processes, tasks and the knowledge that supports the performance of those tasks, in that order. If you watch how training is traditionally designed, it doesn’t map to this sequence very well. This approach starts us on a journey toward the wrong outcomes. We need to start with the performance outcomes and context first.

This new transformation starts with a reorientation around outcomes.

When the workflow is identified and even designed for, missing the second type of context can also get us into trouble. For example, I was recently asked to evaluate a workflow portal a company designed. They had done a great job with their workflow analysis and, according to the learners, had clearly outlined the job context they worked in every day. Once the portal was launched, utilization spiked in the beginning, but it quickly began to drop off. When they took a deeper look into why, they discovered the learning and support assets that had been made available within their workflow design were overwhelmingly seen as random and inconsistently designed across the portal.

This particular learning team had been pulled into the “if you build it, they will come (and consume)” phenomenon. Even though the workflow mapping aligned, once learners tried to access the best type of learning and support asset based on their performance need, the choices were not presented in a way that made the most effective option apparent. Learning and support assets have a contextual component as well. Even though the asset is “correct,” meaning the information can be found somewhere within it, the way in which it supports the need makes or breaks its effectiveness.

Some assets are informational while others are instructional. One may take 15 minutes to consume while another takes 30 seconds. One may go into great detail when only a high-level overview is needed. Each of these contexts matter and can make an asset helpful and effective or overwhelming and confusing.

When we move learning and support into the workflow, context at every level is king. A poorly designed job aid can trump a perfectly written lesson if it fits the context and need at the time. Let’s set courses and curriculum on the shelf and start speaking the language of context.