Learning in the Flow of Work for Sales Organizations

The often referenced 70-20-10 learning framework is built on the premise that 10% of workplace learning is, or should be, propelled by formal training; that 20% is, or should be, enabled by learning directly from others; and that 70% of workplace learning is, or should, come from the employee’s learning through workplace experiences.

Although there is almost prima facie acceptance of the 70-20-10 concept, there has not been a great deal of formal research on its validity or effectiveness.  A recent study (The 70:20:10 framework and the transfer of learning) – published in Human Resource Development Quarterly (2018) by Johnson, Blackman, and Buick produced intriguing findings.  While acknowledging the potential for experiential learning, the research indicated that learning transfer and managerial capability development was hindered through four misconceptions regarding the framework’s implementation. 

  • an overconfident assumption that unstructured experiential learning automatically results in capability development; 
  • a narrow interpretation of social learning; 
  • the expectation that managerial behavior would automatically change following formal training and development activities without the need to actively support the process; 
  • and a lack of recognition of the requirement of a planned and integrated relationship of all three aspects of the framework.

In other words, the term “informal” may be misleading or inadequate.  “Structured experiential learning” might be a better suited term for learning and guided application that takes place following classroom (or digital) instruction and reinforcement.

Other recent research on overall learning effectiveness suggests that experiential learning has significant potential.  Research by Dr. Brent Peterson of Columbia University compared the amount of time that is spent developing training and related activities and what actually contributes to learning effectiveness.

  • Pre-learning event activities represent 26% of learning effectiveness
  • Learning event activities represent 24% of learning effectiveness
  • Post-learning event activities represent 50% of learning effectiveness

It’s extremely important to avoid a dangerous conclusion from these studies – that experiential learning alone can displace the need for more formal, structured learning experiences.  In other words, an appropriate “mix” of learning experiences typically includes:

  1. Macro-learning –  focused time for learning concepts, principles, and practice 
  2. Micro-learning – brief, “moment of need” learning to address a specific situation
  3. Experiential learning – real world application of learning (with mentoring)

 

The Emergence of “Learning in the Flow of Work”

“Learning in the flow of work” is a phrase made ubiquitous in today’s business world by Josh Bersin.  It refers to informal learning that literally happens in the flow of work and can be immediately applied to work-related tasks.  This concept brings together “moment of need” learning with real-world application. Essentially, the processes of learning and doing begin to blur together.  As a proponent of experiential learning, Bersin also reflects on the fact that organizations need a balanced mix of learning approaches:

“The first best-practice is to accept the fact that organizational learning has two parts: Macro and Micro-learning. Sometimes people want small chunks of content just to get something done; other times they need to stop, take a break, and really learn something new. Your organization must offer both.”

This observation directly parallels our experience in three decades of the evolution of sales training.  While the classroom setting is evolving as a part of the overall training experience (shorter, more frequent facilitated sessions, etc.), learning effective selling skills definitely requires dedicated and focused time of more than a few minutes to fully grasp key principles and concepts.  This is especially true when:

  • A professional is new to the sales discipline
  • An organization is making a fundamental shift in selling approach (e.g., Solution or Consultative Selling)
  • Products and services are complex and buyers comprise large stakeholder groups

So learning in the flow of work adds a new, contextual “layer” to the learning experience that, when done effectively, brings learning and doing together in real-world situations.

 

The Relevance of Relevance

For “learning in the flow of work” to truly be effective, sales training leaders must appreciate that it’s not simply about making digital learning assets available for sales professionals.  It’s also more than augmenting formal learning with spaced repetition to reinforce specific knowledge and facts. The factors mentioned earlier that hinder the effectiveness of “informal” learning provide some keys to successful experiential learning (and application).  

In order to optimize the time and effort in the overall learning experience we need to appreciate the criticality of relevance across three specific dimensions; the business, the individual, and the situation.

  1. What’s most relevant for the business?  What sales capabilities align with specific growth goals and sales models for the organization?
  2. What’s most relevant for the individual?  How well does each person’s skills align with key capability requirements of the organization  – and how do we close the gaps?
  3. What’s most relevant for the situation?  What specific techniques and selling methods align with real world selling situations – and how do we provide the right “moment of need” assistance?

For the first two relevancy factors, our global clients are increasingly using data-driven models to identify high priority capabilities, and using competency-based knowledge assessments to obtain a current state view of talent alignment with business goals.  This approach provides insights into where to focus elements of macro-learning, micro-learning, and reinforcement. The third relevancy factor above is the key driver for micro and experiential learning (or a combination of the two).  

The “situational” relevancy factor also speaks to the single most frequent challenge we have observed across hundreds of sales organizations – successfully transforming learning into daily execution.  As a result we have “formalized” some aspects of informal learning to make experiential learning more effective. Some key elements of our approach entail the following digitally-enabled capabilities:

  • Each sales competency in the learning curriculum includes a set of defined, observable activities that apply to real world selling situations
  • Each activity has guidelines (and related learning assets) for how to perform the activity successfully 
  • Each activity includes manager guidelines for effective coaching and mentoring 
  • Sellers and managers are provided intelligent, automated tools and templates that directly support newly learned methods and skills (embedded in CRM)

These technology “assistants” extend the learning experience into the actual application of best practices in key areas such as call preparation, opportunity qualification and sales strategy, conversational guidance (see below), and customer communications and collaboration.  This seamless integration of training and enablement creates a smooth transition between the classroom (or digital) learning experience, and everyday usage and application of the trained skill or methodology. 

Learning in the flow of work for sales teams

 

Augmenting sales training with structured, digitally-enabled experiential learning can yield many positives for today’s sales organizations, including:

  •  It makes the overall learning experience more realistic and enables better and faster adoption of new skills
  • It provides context for socialization of learning by providing real-world application templates, tools, and situations 
  • It enables better coaching and reinforcement by providing structure and guidelines for real opportunity scenarios
  • It provides insight and measurement into the rate of new skills adoption and the positive impact that it’s having on performance
  • Over time, it can provide predictive guidance on next best actions, which customer issues to explore, which techniques to apply, and many other valuable selling insights
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