This article shares the research findings in one study and describes 3 powerful workplace learning strategies which have proven to shorten time to proficiency of employees and explains a model to shorten time to proficiency leveraging these strategies.
The scanning of past research studies on workplace training and learning suggests that there are several training and learning strategies to enhance training outcomes and make learning more effective, enhance training transfer to the workplace and to accelerate skill acquisition. It looks like that there are quite a few workplace training strategies that may hold the potential to reduce time to proficiency. However, it seems that training field needs an integrated framework that could be scaled to different contexts, content and job roles. However, there is a very limited amount of research efforts to develop a holistic framework to guide design and delivery of training at the workplace with a goal to reduce time to proficiency in business organizations. Hoffman et al. (2010) believe that “there is relatively little research on training at the high end of the proficiency” (p. 59). This gap was bridged with an intensive research I conducted as part of the doctoral research which addressed a much larger question on business practices and strategies to accelerate time to proficiency in organizational settings. Though the study was focussed on overall business practices/strategies, part of it surely linked to workplace training and learning strategies. A section of findings in the research study specifically answer the question: What and how specific training strategies (methods, techniques, mechanisms, systems, processes, instructional design, methodologies, interventions, etc.) are used by training experts in various contexts in leading organizations which have successfully reduced time to proficiency of employees in complex job skills? The workplace training and learning related findings and a conceptual model were presented at 9th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning (RWL) at Singapore, titled Conceptual Model of Workplace Training and Learning Strategies to Shorten Time-To-Proficiency in Complex Skills: Preliminary Findings. The paper report preliminary findings and the framework developed based on that in regards to how workplace learning and training interventions are leveraged to shorten time to proficiency of employees. This post will summarize the findings and the models from that research paper and provide some additional design guidelines to training practitioners. If you are interested to know e-learning strategies that were found to accelerate time to proficiency, click the link to read that post. Alternatively, if your focus is on classroom-based instructional strategies, you may refer to link to that article.
Participants’ responses revealed that most organizations were getting away from traditional classroom-based training models and moving towards workplace learning strategies as a mean to shorten time to proficiency. The study investigated the traditional training models utilized by training experts which potentially led to longer training cycle and longer time to proficiency. The major issue across the board was that most organizations tended to copy models from educational institutions that were more of instructor-centric, content-heavy, classroom training based but very thin on including job experience. Major critics of such instructor-centric models were that these models were good enough for delivering a mass of content in short time but not for developing and accelerating workplace skills. This research established that traditional industrial-era training model fundamentally contradicts the goals of shortening time-to-proficiency.
Most of the participants appeared to favor on-the-job learning at the workplace as the biggest contributor to shortening time-to-proficiency. It was noted that training experts increasingly believe that boundaries between learning and workplace need to be diffused. It seems that involvement with the task and emotional loading of tasks amidst of the realities of the workplace are the key drivers as to why proficiency gets accelerated in actual workplace settings. “By and large, most things that happen in a training room are fairly ordinary. People are sitting there absorbing stuff, talking about stuff, and it’s not an emotional rollercoaster, let’s put it that way. Now if they’re learning stuff in the workplace, chances are there are a lot more emotions involved. It’s more real. It’s more immediate. There are other people directly involved. There are consequences for failure or success. All of those things put an emotional loading on whatever is learned and that means that learning will stick more. So in that sense, there’s a pretty good chance that it will stick better if it’s learned at the point of work rather than in a classroom. But it’s not because it’s formal or informal, it’s because of the way those memories are encoded and the richness of the sensory experience that’s going on when that encoding happens.”
On those lines, the majority of participants mentioned that on-the-job experience and social interactions at workplace accounted for up to 90% of the total learning. It is suggested that this 90% part is mostly instrumental in increasing the pace of proficiency acquisition. By systematically leveraging on-the-job and workplace learning is fundamental to accelerate the time-to-proficiency.
While there are numerous workplace training and learning strategies generally deployed in a typical workspace, this study reports that three strategies described above hold the better possibility to reduce time-to-proficiency in the organizations. The research study found three key training and learning strategies which systematically leverages various aspects of a workplace to accelerate time-to-proficiency of the employees. Though each of these strategies could be successful in isolation, however, time to proficiency is impacted hugely if all three strategies are orchestrated together in the appropriate mix based on context, job roles, and business challenges. Three workplace learning and training strategies appear to complement, supplement or strengthen each other at the workplace (as shown by bi-directional interactions with arrows) depending on the job and context. The figure below depicts a circular model of three workplace learning strategies which interact with each other. In summary, time to proficiency of employees can be shortened by an interplay of:
“Professionals learn from real and hard experiences in their jobs. Waiting for an experience or an event to occur on its own may lead to long time-to-proficiency.”
Most of the research participants appeared to have consensus that professionals learn from real and hard problems they experience in their jobs. However, exposure to various situations is subject to the occurrence of relevant events. If organizations are to wait for events to occur on its own to impart that experience needed to become proficient, it may take very long time. “So in effect, if a particular task or a particular event never happens for 12 months, they end up not learning about it.” Research findings suggest that if those experiences are systemically manufactured at the workplace and packed in a compressed time, one could accelerate the time to proficiency by exposing professionals to these experiences at an accelerated rate. Thus ‘packing experiences in compressed timeframe’ is the essence of this strategy as one participant stated, “Trainees are systematically exposed to situations in a compressed timeframe that it would otherwise take years to experience.”
Previous research studies support above observations too. A classic example of manufacturing and structuring experiences systematically is by Lesgold et al. (1992) who reported the success of time the compression strategy with SHERLOCK tutor in which electronics troubleshooting reduced four years of on-the-job training to approximately 25 hours of training. Klein (2003) and DiBello et al. (2009) also support approach to design experiences in compressed time. Their method involves recreating an experiential tough-case decision situation at the workplace in form of ‘strategic rehearsals’ in which trainees have presented information in piecemeal fashion about a critical incident as it would unfold in an actual situation, but the entire situation is presented in time-compressed format. This method is considered to accelerate expertise in decision-making in a shorter timeframe. Dr. DiBello explained her approach of ‘simulated rapid failure cycles‘ towards accelerating proficiency quickly in another post I wrote [See Simulation of Rapidized Failure Cycles: How Does This Powerful Methodology Accelerate Expertise Rapidly?]. Extending it further, Hoffman et al. (2008) presented a strategy called ‘tough case time compression’ in which a large corpus of rare tough cases is developed and used as training material either in classroom settings or workplace settings (p. 7-3). His premise is that if we can pre-burn the experience in trainees in a compressed timeframe, we may be able to accelerate the time-to-proficiency. Dr. Hoffman explained his method of ‘tough case compression’ in another post I wrote [See Accelerated Expertise with Mentoring and Tough Cases: An Expert on Accelerated Expertise Shares].
In summary, we postulate that rather than waiting for the workplace to provide experiences, if designers can leverage day-to-day routine at the workplace, systematically design experiences and pack those in a compressed timeframe, the time-to-proficiency could be accelerated.
“Learning is a process and just like any other process, we can apply process improvement approach to eliminate the waste and wasteful time out of the process.”
An important part of the equation to shorten the time-to-proficiency appears to be efficient and optimal ‘sequencing’ of the activities and experiences. The strategy of ‘manufacturing the experiences’ works better when these experiences are organized, structured, sequenced and packed optimally in a compressed timeframe. “That time can be shortened by using the taxonomy of cases to establish a learning path that is designed to systematically expose new hires to each of the experiences for which they need to develop proficiency. The experiences can be on-the-job, simulations, or even observations.” The activities could be already available in the daily course of business or could be manufactured as indicated by the first strategy. Such an approach of sequencing the activities, tasks, and experiences is called learning path or pathway. In the context of the complex jobs, Darrah (1996) showed the use of a sequence of organized activities in a computer manufacturing company while Hutchins and Palen (1997) explains it for aviation for flight engineer’s role. The structured on-the-job training (S-OJT) methodology also incorporates a certain level of sequencing and logical flow of work activities for optimal results. There is some evidence that such structuring reduces training time (Jacobs, 2002; Jacobs and Bu-Rahmah, 2012; Jacobs, 2015).
In their book Learning Paths, Rosenbaum and Williams (2004) shares that “Major shift in the way training needs to be structured involves integrating formal training, practice, and experience along a Learning Path, and not in a topic-by-topic curriculum” (p. 16). They advocated an approach which consists of 1) identifying all existing activities, assignments, tasks, job aids, on-the-job mentoring opportunities, job shadowing and available content, 2) sequencing those in form of learning path based on targeted proficiency definitions and 3) assigning time targets or milestones to each activity on the learning path. They claim that with such an approach, the organizations can achieve up to 30% reduction in time-to-proficiency. The present study confirms that a correctly sequenced learning path has strong potential to reduce time-to-proficiency.
Our study supports the technique to assign time target to each activity on the learning path, as mentioned above by Rosenbaum & William (2004). Another aspect of sequencing mentioned by the participants in this study is to assign time targets to each activity. By doing so, the total time to proficiency can be estimated and tracked and then focused efforts can be made to shorten the time. “You’re going to have master three things and you [are] working on these others and so it becomes part of an ongoing assessment.” While still taking the ‘time’ out of the sequence, this technique allows designers to be conscious of the spacing and interval required for practice, reflection and feedback to ensure the sustained transfer of learning. Such spaced practice and intervals are considered very important by other researchers for sustained transfer to the workplace (Birnbaum, Kornell, Bjork & Bjork, 2013; Thalheimer, 2006; Davachi, Kiefer, Rock & Rock, 2010; Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011).
The findings revealed that sequencing is made optimal by using some criteria like frequency of occurrence of the task (very frequent to rare), usage of the knowledge or skill (very often to hardly), complexity of the task (simple to complex) and difficulty level of the problem (very simple to very hard). In regards to criteria for sequencing, Arnold et al. (2013) demonstrated that complex decision-making skills of novice-level professional knowledge workers were accelerated when they are presented with the ‘authentic cases’ which “gradually increases in complexity systematically extending procedural knowledge from case to case” (p. 7).
Overall, the research findings establish that time-to-proficiency could be accelerated by sequencing of available or manufactured activities in a learning path according to certain criteria, assigning time targets to activities and then packing the sequence in a compressed time frame.
“Proficiency is accelerated when learning happens closer to or at the point of need.”
Another important finding is increasing use of ‘Performance Support Systems’ (PSS). PSS are mostly the electronics resources like online learning content, reference material, knowledge-base, procedures, mobile applications, decision-making software, etc. which can provide just-in-time training or just-in-time support, “…and performance support simply means at the moment of need you have it available.” This research showed that organizations are deploying more performance support systems in place of or in augmentation of training: “Organizational learning moves from being a training event to which employees need to be invited to, to something that happens automatically as employees seek assistance on-the-job from the EPSS [electronics performance support system].” A PSS deployed to deliver learning or information at the moment of need actually accelerates time to proficiency because employees can access the resources at their own pace, rather than at the pace of the instructor or at the pace of information flow from their colleagues. If strategically deployed, performance systems could either augment or completely replace the training interventions. It is also noticed that PSS can be used as part of the formal class or training itself can be delivered via PSS itself: “By integrating the learning material (such as scenario-based questions) into the business procedures, the EPSS becomes a powerful online learning platform. By tracking employee progress through the procedure-based exercises they need to complete in order to achieve and prove competence, the EPSS can integrate with an LMS to provide a comprehensive map of organization learning and competence achievement.” Gery (1991) advocates using electronics performance support systems to provide individualized online access instead of the information content-heavy training upfront. By using PSS to deliver informational content, the formal training intervention can focus more on critical human skills required for proficiency. One reason PSS could accelerate the proficiency is its ability to provide reinforcement of learning and knowledge at certain intervals.
Raybould (1995) view all computer based training, knowledge assets, information sources as a subset of EPSS, rather than as an alternative approach. It is also imperative to say here that with the availability of new technologies, shape and extent of performance support systems are also changing beyond its original role of just-in-time resource for training or support or information. Andrews (2004), based on a framework by Rosenberg (2001), proposes that “the related constructs of “training”, “knowledge management” and “performance support” can interact to form a strong HPT [Human Performance Technology] toolset. All three constructs are crucial in building a learning organization” (p. 7). Such a performance support system provides crucial support during a rare event that either lacks systematic training or learners have forgotten how to do a low-frequency task. Nguyen (2006) points out that as one progresses from novice to expert, as training interventions go down, there should be an increase in the use of EPSS. However, literature does not directly specify if and how EPSS accelerate proficiency. That’s where this study provides reasonable evidence that when proficiency goals are viewed holistically, then training, non-training and performance support solutions may be able to complement each other to accelerate the time-to-proficiency.
Based on the findings, it is recommended that designers could take following general recommendations to leverage workplace learning to accelerate time to proficiency of employees:
Attri, RK (2018), ‘3 Unusually Powerful Workplace Learning Design Strategies to Shorten Time To Proficiency’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/workplace-learning-strategies-shorten-time-to-proficiency/>.