When Learning Becomes Overwhelming (David DeLong). The Forum applies the 70:20:10 Lens


A recent article by David DeLong titled "When Learning Becomes Overwhelming" in the Harvard Business Review highlighted the ever-increasing problem of workers and organisations being overwhelmed by learning requirements. A need for employees to stay abreast of ever changing technology, a thin leadership pipeline, continual performance improvement efforts, increased supply chain integration, new product introductions, and maintaining regulatory compliance are all contributing factors.

These, in addition to regular job requirements and certification needs, lead to frustration and burn out as it appears there is just too much to know. The article goes on to point out that in many cases morale, confidence and job satisfaction decrease and people take the ineffective action of approaching learning with a mile long and inch deep strategy only to gain a sliver of the necessary understanding. 

The author presented 3 questions to help focus an approach to resolving the problem:

1. What is a realistic amount of learning to expect of people in this job?

2. What are the learning priorities?

3. How can we make learning more practical and efficient?

The first question of what is a realistic amount of learning to expect has no single right answer, it will vary and similarly learning priorities, the second question, will shift frequently. Advances in technology and a growing global economy mean the volume of information will only continue to increase and change. It will not decrease and it will not slow down. The final question of how to make learning practical and efficient is what can and should be addressed. Employees must learn how to find, how to filter and how to process knowledge, which is better known as Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). This coupled with the practice of Working Out Loud (or Work Narration) arms people with keys skills under the umbrella of an organisational 70:20:10 strategy.

Learning In The Work

The HBR article identified a key problem for Chief Nursing Officers (CNO) in that the CNOs didn't have "sufficient time to process and make sense of all that must be learned." If we begin to recognise that learning does not happen exclusively in courses and classrooms and by applying a 70:20:10 framework, the emphasis would shift more attention to learning in ones work, not outside of it. Providing CNOs the opportunities to connect with each other for informal co-learning and the sharing of best practices within their workflow via social tools is one such approach. This coupled with slightly more formal lunch-n-learns via peer or IT experts helps maintain the all-important work-learning context that is critical for retention. Encouraging work narration is invaluable. In providing opportunities for narrating their work, the CNOs can openly share their experiences, frustrations and successes in a reflective exercise that also aids in their ability process what has been learned. And, when this activity is made open for others to see, it helps peers and leaders alike to quickly identify and respond to knowledge gaps and potential morale issues. If required, more formal solutions can be aligned to meet the deeper execution needs, the formal 10%.

Mentors, Materials and Managers 

In the CNO example, encouraging collaboration and employing technology are only part of a comprehensive strategy. Opportunities to expanding capabilities, easy access to resources, and the role of leadership are significant components in an agile 70:20:10 strategy.

"Probably the most important thing you can do to improve on-the-job learning is to enhance the mentoring capabilities of your most experienced employees." For more experienced employees mentoring is an effective way to share knowledge and grow peers skills in the workflow. Mentoring can be more efficient than training alone but can also add a spaced learning component when coupled with formal learning events. For many being a mentor serves as a stretch assignment and can be an enticing new challenge. 

User-generated content should also be part of the strategy. As people discover valuable process improvements, shortcuts and tips in their work, they should be encouraged to document them. Simple technologies like a Wiki can be employed as a portal where these informal learning assets can be harvested for easy access. If a social platform is leveraged, the materials can move around more freely for tagging and curation by users. This activity may require modeling of PKM practices to build effective learning autonomy.

Finally, the article correctly notes that managers play a critical role in defining learning needs and priorities so as to avoid overburdening employees. However they need to be intimately connected to the changing know how and know what of their industry. Manager's working under a 70:20:10 framework make a clear shift from a position of command and control to one of being a key nodes in their organisational networks; serving to connect the right people, the right amount of content and all while keeping their finger on the pulse of execution and job satisfaction. Managers need also to act as a model for effective behavior by demonstrating Personal Knowledge Management to help employees build this most valuable skill in the information age. 

Ultimately it is naive to think that, particularly in complex environments, within today's global economy we can leave it to line leaders alone to decide what learning is needed and how much should and can be learned. As Clay Shirky once stated in regard to the issue of increasing information, it's not information overload, its filter failure. An organisational 70:20:10 framework serves as this filter. Within this structure the organisation, management, and employees can work together to determine the learning that is valuable, desired and necessary.

READ: When Learning Becomes Overwhelming