Learning Luminary Interview: Patti Shank, Learning Analyst and Author

By Joy Church Millard, Sr. Editor, Expertus

Learning Luminaries by Expertus - Conversations with innovative minds of enterprise training and development

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the ninth interview in our “Learning Luminaries” series — where we showcase conversations with the brightest and most innovative minds in the world of training and development!

This month we feature learning and workplace performance analyst and author, Patti Shank, PhD, CPT. Patti has helped advance online learning for some of the world’s best-known organizations, such as Adobe, Morgan Stanley and Kaiser Permanente, as well as leading academic institutions.

Patti is a prolific writer who contributes to some of the industry’s most popular blogs, such as the ATD Science of Learning blog and Learning Solutions Magazine. She also has published multiple books, including Be the (Best) Boss of YouThe E-Learning Handbook, Making Sense of Online Learning, and more.

We talked with Patti about how digital innovation and the evolution of work are influencing workplace learning.

Q1: You’re an authority on instructional design and online learning. What led you to this profession?

PS: Originally, I was involved with organizational performance, although most people know me for instructional design and online learning. My interests and expertise focus on solving everyday performance problems people face in the workplace. Training alone doesn’t solve these problems. Many issues stem from poor tools, bad operational practices, weak communication, and the like. I am committed to this more holistic kind of problem solving because there is a significant need, and it’s where I can make the biggest impact.

I also have a special interest in how people learn while under pressure — for instance, when organizations are growing rapidly, or when people are expected to be productive while juggling an unrealistic workload or extraordinary complexity. I’m especially interested in how technology helps or hinders learning under these conditions.

Q2: Why did you become so involved with learning-related research?

PS: I’m a stickler for relying on empirical data from credible sources — not just opinions. Too often people say, “In my experience…” That’s fine. But it is only your experience — it may not apply universally. In research, we use the term “generalizable.” It’s always important to consider how widely a concept or practice should be applied.

Q3: How do learning practitioners struggle with this?

PS: People often use the term, “best practices,” but it’s only “best” if it works in your context.

Physicians once assumed that medication had the same effect on the human body, regardless of a patient’s gender. Now we’re learning this isn’t necessarily true. Male and female systems react differently.

Similarly, people in different organizational functions, locations, or work groups often operate very differently. So, what’s best for one isn’t best for another. This is why needs analysis is so important for learning interventions. Otherwise, precious resources can be easily wasted. For example, we know that individuals learn very differently, depending on what they already know. Yet many trainers, instructors, and instructional designers) often don’t consider this deeply enough.

Q4: You study learning behavior, as well as technologies and practices that support it. How do you see the rapid rate of digital innovation affecting the way we work and learn?

Patti Shank Learning Sciences Expert-001PS: Digital technologies have the capability to support learning. But those of us who are comfortable using digital tools often forget that people must learn how to use these tools, before they can learn with them. Even among digital natives, confronting new technology can create tremendous frustration and resistance. Some people simply cannot handle what we call the “cognitive load” of learning how to use new tools while simultaneously having to develop job knowledge and skills.

And we shouldn’t be surprised when people opt out altogether. Large-scale studies indicate that up to 20% or more of people in our organizations struggle to use common digital technologies. Although it may seem hard to believe for those of us with competency in digital and social technology, many workers still feel out of their comfort zone around the latest tools.

This is why needs analysis is so important. It’s vital to understand who you are working with (including their work context) when you develop training and development programs. Also, technologies sometimes don’t work as planned. It’s wise to have back-up plans.

Q5: Do you see L&D professionals struggling to stay ahead of the technology curve? Does this put organizational learning at risk?

PS: L&D practitioners are now expected to have all manner of knowledge and skills, including the ability to select and use modern learning technologies. So of course they struggle, because they must learn how to use new tools while simultaneously applying them to their organization’s learning initiatives.

Continuous learning is actually the new norm for all jobs, including L&D. Those who are able to learn and adapt while on-the-job are increasingly considered the most valuable players in the emerging “knowledge economy.” People who are unwilling or unable to adapt to these demands are being replaced with those who can. Jobs that don’t require this skill are either paid less (such as highway maintenance jobs) or are being automated (for example, some post office jobs).

Q6: How has elearning technology changed in recent years?

PS: This could take a book to answer! Actually, what I see often does not reflect what science knows about how people best consume content in interactive media. This adds to the technology resistance and rejection I mentioned earlier. Despite advances in technology that open doors to more creative learning, there’s a common cascade of negative events:

  • Sometimes business leaders do not understand the shifting nature of work, or are unaware of workplace culture dynamics, or lack insight into how to support people in their development. This results in requests for training that doesn’t help (or actually creates problems).
  • When L&D people don’t understand learning sciences or the situation they’re asked to resolve, they may aim for the lowest common denominator. They deliver content to fulfill requests, but they don’t focus on solutions that achieve the desired outcome.
  • Learning fails to occur, so L&D resources are wasted.
  • Workers are often required to complete this ineffective training, so it only compounds the organization’s wasted time and money.
  • Increasingly, business units, teams or individuals take matters into their own hands to fulfill their learning and performance needs. Or, if their needs go unmet, performance declines, and morale follows. If the problem is chronic, strong employees leave for better opportunities, and the company loses valuable human assets.

Obviously, this downward spiral isn’t entirely an L&D problem — it’s a systemic business problem. Even fantastic learning technology cannot compensate for organizations that don’t define root problems, and understand when and how learning interventions can help.

Q7: How can L&D create more productive workplace learning ecosystems?

Start with three things:

  • Be smarter about resistance to technology and change. Recognize and reduce barriers, so people in all positions learn to use new tools more confidently and comfortably in their work flow. (It helps to first investigate the tools people already use to find and share information and support. Sometimes leveraging existing tools is more effective than introducing new solutions.)
  • Empower people to learn how to learn more effectively. Encourage them to elevate their own knowledge and skills, so they can perform more complex, high-value work in the future. (For example, create and promote self-service learning options, and openly reward participants who make progress.)
  • Actively invest in the right technologies. We need to help people communicate across functions, and create internal communities so they can share knowledge, guidance and perspective whenever it’s needed. (Again, focus on fitting-in learning so it enhances work, rather than disrupting it.)

Q8: How can tech vendors be more effective at supporting learning transformation?

PS: Learning-related tools need to be more usable and “learnable.” Technology vendors need to stop adding functionality just because they can, and instead include only what is useful and enhances the learning experience.

Vendors need a stronger grasp of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design, to create tools that work in concert with the way people work. The more naturally learning tools fit-in with work processes, the more they are used, appreciated and shared.

Again, start by looking a tools people already prefer. You’ll find some similarities:

  • Intuitive to understand and apply
  • Fun to use
  • Naturally supports work processes
  • Strong connections with user base

These tools aren’t always free or cheap. In my field, I’ve seen many cheap tools left behind because they don’t meet these four essential criteria.

Q9: What metrics should L&D use to measure progress when modernizing tools and practices?

PS: Make research your guide. Stop the fad-of-the-month approach so common in L&D. Think outside the training box. Solve performance problems with a broader spectrum of interventions. And above all, step up as a consulting partner with business leaders. Be willing to look at performance issues through their eyes, and help them understand what training can or cannot accomplish.

Q10: You’ve explored many learning issues over the years. What topic are you tackling next?

PS: I’m working on two key projects right now:

One is very practical. I’ve noticed over the years that people who write learning content don’t write as well as they should. Writing is the foundation of good instruction, in any form. If the writing isn’t clear, the instruction will be more confusing. So, I’m working with a colleague on a series of modules that help people improve this core skill. Soon we’ll be selecting a few beta testers to fine-tune the content — and soon after that, we’ll launch the first few modules.

Jay Cross Learning Mixer

Learn more about applying the Jay Cross “Learning Mixer” model in Patti’s ATD blog, “Are We Doing the Right Things?”

Also, I’m exploring the changing nature of work, and how organizations and individuals need to adjust. I recently wrote about this for the ATD Science of Learning Blog.

Here are a few things we’re seeing:

  • Knowledge workers don’t want to be “managed.” They tend to become deeply engaged with projects and the people they work with. Most want autonomy and freedom to grow. Mess with that, and you’re likely to lose your best talent to organizations that cultivate self-directed behavior.
  • Traditional training doesn’t support the kind of learning most knowledge workers require. In fact, they tend to find the training “content” we throw at them incredibly annoying. L&D is becoming perceived as an obstacle, rather than a path. If we don’t adapt, we’ll become irrelevant.
  • Virtual work models are on the rise. Same with freelancing. How do we support these new ways of working?

Q11: Are you optimistic about the future of workplace learning?

PS: Many forces inside and outside organizations are forcing them to rethink structures and practices, so they can keep their best people and remain competitive. But ironically, L&D is one of the last functions to recognize this.

I want to help develop learning methods that fit-in with new workplace realities. But first, we need to clarify what is changing, and help others understand.

With organizational learning, there is always something urgent to respond to, and that keeps things interesting. But perhaps now more than ever, we need to understand the larger context in which we operate. We can let change deflate us, or we can rise to the challenge and move forward. Each has that choice.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about how next-gen LMS technology supports modern learning for employees, customers and business partners, visit Expertus.com, or contact us to schedule a personalized demo.

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