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Learning triage and performance consulting with Lori Niles-Hofmann

In this podcast Robin and Lori Niles-Hofmann are talking about performance consulting. This podcast is another in our series on live online teaching and facilitation being recorded in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Many organisations have rapidly switched from face-to-face learning to live online facilitation which feels like a fast agile way to get learning to employees who are remote. There are other rapid agile approaches to help your people learn and performance consulting is key to deciding the right learning for the employee’s need and the best way to reach them. Lori and her business partner Amanda Nolen, have produced the COVID-19 Learning Triage flowchart. This is based on an existing tool Lori and Amanda use for performance consulting. Lori was on a podcast talking about data driven learning and how marketing works with data. In this podcast, she shares her vision for what she calls the invisible LMS, which applies some of the data driven personalisation methods we see in digital marketing strategies to learning.

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Learning Triage and Performance Consulting with Lori Niles-Hofmann

Robin: Welcome back to the Learning While Working podcast, Lori. You've been doing some work around what you're calling the learning triage flowchart. What is that?

Lori: So the learning triage flowchart is actually a way for teams to rapidly assess, as learning requests come in, which ones they should be focusing on and which ones are lower priority. It's also a tool, basically to help with performance consulting.

Performance consulting is a great skill and everyone should have it. It does take a lot of time and expertise and often stakeholders don't want to go through that. So this is a way to quickly guide the request through to determine does this meet business goals? Are there data points? There's a number, I won't go through the whole flow chart but it's really ways to rapidly say what is a priority and what is a lower priority and being able to speak about that to the business.

Robin: You've customised this for the COVID-19 crisis at the moment as well?

Lori: Because what we were seeing and this was published, to be honest, back towards the end of March because what we were seeing was tonnes of people publishing content on COVID-19 and we said, stop doing that. It will be out of date by the time you can upload it and QA it.

We also saw a lot of people were rushing to convert everything they had to digital and we really wanted to caution people about doing that. Especially right now, where the IT infrastructure might be very different for companies, particularly with people working from home. There's Zoom fatigue. There's a whole bunch of things to consider before you just make that decision. So we wanted to help people be able to walk through and navigate some of those situations and not make the same mistake that others are making.

Robin: The whole rush to live online learning does concern me because it's not always the best solution. It feels really agile and it feels really simple and fast, it feels like a great replacement for face-to-face but it's sometimes just actually making learning experiences worse rather than better.

Lori: I couldn't agree more and I really think too, this is an opportunity. People are under immense stress and pressure, people don't learn under those circumstances. Is some of this content really mission critical right now? I see people doing leadership courses and I think, well, if you're learning about leadership now and you're going out to practise it in these types of conditions, maybe that's not a good idea. Maybe we want to just rely on our existing leaders rather than try and upskill. So things like that, we just need to think of our new normal and what fits in.

Robin: We need to think about what is really important to people. Coping, getting through, moving forward in positive ways as well.

Lori: Absolutely.

Robin: Performance consulting is a really challenging word for some people. I'm going to actually do something which feels very academic, Lori. I'm going to actually ask you what your definition of it is.

Performance Consulting

Lori: I'll have a very un-academic answer, which is does it really need to be learning? Is there a learning need? It's diving into that and asking all of the questions to find out what the root cause is. It's really no different than what consultants do. It's doing a needs analysis but it's then with the outcome of determining whether training or learning is actually the solution, will solve for the problem and if so, what do you recommend? So, a little bit of the recommendation is part of that.

This is probably my favourite example of performance consulting. A client wants to do work on coaching. They say people aren't coaching. It's coming up in the performance reviews and whatnot and after we spoke with them, we found out that they'd increased the ratio from 5 to 1 to 10 to 1 for people managers. Learning is not going to fix that. I cannot change the time space continuum. You've doubled the work and you've not released any of the other KPIs. People simply can't do it. So when you think about performance consulting, that in and of itself is not something we can solve and we need to learn when to say no and when to say yes.

Robin: Lots of L&D people are getting really good at this process of really diving into what the root cause of a problem is. I think the challenge for L&D what to recommend is not a learning problem. It’s easy to sit there and go, actually this isn't a learning solution. That coaching one is a really good example because that's an organisational design problem. All of a sudden, it’s not a L&D problem. Do you think we need a better toolkit for performance development?

Lori: I think we need a better toolkit in terms of what we are building. Our default has been the course. We really love the course and there's certainly a time and a place for the course but when it came to your point of making recommendations, we really tend to not have a lot that we consider in our toolkit other than the default and I think that that's a shame when there are so many other modalities out there. We also aren't really paying attention to the way our learners are already accessing information and how they're exchanging ideas. There's tonnes of ways. They're out there. So we need to be listening a lot more rather than just designing what we think will work.

Robin: We often get too caught up in the process of being excited about designing courses. I've just remembered a line I've come across in lean thinking, that training is a last resort. If you only use it when you can't redesign the process or support people in a different way. And it's that redesign bit and supporting people beyond a course that is often the challenge.

Lori: Agreed and putting the learner really at the centre of that.

Robin: Getting back to the whole rush to live online learning. Could some of the other modalities be used when a L&D person is facing a problem that needs a rapid solution.

Interactive PDF

Lori: So there's a tonne of modalities that you can use and just naming them off podcasts, like we're doing here, PDFs, interactive PDFs are probably one of my favourites to use and I can list them off, video, all that stuff. However, I think though there's a lot of power in doing things in the place where people are already working and using some of the tools they're already embedded in. So for example, using Microsoft Teams, if that's the environment you're in, Slack, wherever people are working in G Suite. I've seen some really creative things done with a chatbot that people would log into their Slack and one of the channels would be dedicated to a scenario and the chatbot actually played a client and would send emails back and forth that he would see screenshots of emails and the team had to work together and then there was a facilitator that would come in and monitor the discussion and give feedback on sub-threads.

So it was a really interesting, creative way for people to do it and people could dive in and dive out as and when their work allowed. They also could just set their notifications for when they wanted to go, they wanted to see it. I thought that was a really interesting way of putting the learning right in places where people are working.

There were a lot of tools that we'll curate to get content into that flow of work. I think those are great but also you have to really make sure they're savvy enough to know when it's appropriate to send something. That's why I liked that other idea of the channel and again that could have been done in Teams. It could have been done in anything, but it was a nice automated way.

I think there's also when we seem to forget it all the time but the power of people getting together in small cohorts, we can still do that digitally and if you are working collaboratively on a document, Google Docs or something like that, that's real-time learning. Case studies could be developed in that and case studies solved in those.

And those are just different ways of thinking. We have to consider the whole learning experience from start to finish and not just in terms of pieces. It's that whole evolution. That to me is also what's missing, so it's not just about the event or even the job, it's how all those pieces fit together. When does a person get them, how do they interact with it? How do they then refer back to it when they need to? We need to be designing on that level when it comes to digital.

Robin: That's where the core thinking with Sprout Labs is around that whole ecosystem of multiple bits that work together. The Microsoft Teams is a nice example, it's definitely not a course experience but it's an activity that's in the background. It's coming to where people are working as well.

Lori: With this particular one, we had a lot of fun with it. We made it a really annoying customer. So it almost became ... we had a writer who really just did an amazing job. So it almost became something that people look forward to because they were like, what the hell is this person going to do next?

It wasn't over the top in terms of being unrealistic. It was very realistic for the types of situations these people were training for but it was the tone and all of that which really made people want to interact with it and almost feel like they really were in that situation.

Robin: As you were talking about it, you were saying it was driven by a chatbot, in the back of my mind I'm thinking it probably doesn't need to be driven by a chatbot either, it could just be someone role-playing or sending out the messages at a particular time. It doesn't have to be high tech at all.

Using Chatbots

Lori: No, you're absolutely right. We happened to do it with a chatbot simply because it was in different time zones and I'm lazy and I need to sleep and we didn't have enough people who were going to be able to do that but absolutely it doesn't need to be that fancy. Another one I've done a while ago but it's still one of my favourites is, sometimes in a classroom people bring in actors that are trained to work with learning content. We've done that in audio and with their phones where people were doing it virtually, so it wasn't in a virtual classroom, it was a situation where somebody could practise a technique and that actor was trained on all the materials and the theories and all that and knew how to play that back. It was very effective.

Robin: Essentially all these strategies are about thinking where people are at, what's their digital space and how can we build experiences around their spaces. Often we use the word, in a flow of work. It’s more about putting it in the space of work, isn't it?

Invisible LMS

Lori: I've long been talking about it and I hope one day it'll exist but almost that invisible LMS that you won't even know, you won't even log into it, it will be content that comes to you and that whole idea of a platform will be a paradigm that we're just not familiar with.

Robin: Lori. I've heard you talk a couple of times and read things about your thinking about this. So have you got a vision of what an invisible LMS might look like?

Lori: I do. The best way for me to explain it is using toilet roll, if that doesn't offend anyone. I'll just go for it.

Robin: Go for it.

Lori: Okay. Don't worry. It's not a bad story. Okay, I've told this story a few times, so apologies to people who have heard it but I think it's to illustrate what I mean by the invisible LMS. So, in a time when we used to go grocery shopping, we used to go once a week to this store that's about a three kilometre walk. My husband and I walk it because it just gives us some exercise. We go every Saturday and it just has a few things that we don't buy that often.

So one weekend and we always go on Saturday around the same time, one weekend I was walking and I got a notification on my phone and the notification on my phone was a coupon for $2 off a toilet roll from that store we were going to.

So if you think about that from the experience, the marketing team, literally, had triangulated a whole bunch of information about me. They knew my pattern, when I was likely to go to the store. I don't even know. They probably had a GPS of some sort that knew when I was approaching. It knew from my loyalty card how many people were in my household and could make an educated guess that there's two of us and probably extrapolate as to how much toilet roll we actually need and when we last bought it. 

So that's where I see the invisible LMS coming in, it'll be, say you're using Teams and Office 365, you'll now have information about your talent, HR, all of these things together, probably sales, all that, in one space. And you're leveraging that data to then give relevant and meaningful and impactful learning at the point of need. 

Now it's a little bit more sophisticated in that it also has to do with campaigns, in the sense of right now everybody's probably involved in at least 50 or 200 marketing campaigns they don't even know about. This is everything from the Facebook ads that pop up, to what text messages you get or email campaigns and all that but you never go some place to get marketed to and I think that's where we need to think about learning.

So how do we segment our audiences, nurture them and set these campaigns so that people are nudged along in self paced learning, which we know works. Regularly paced learning. How do we re-engage people as they possibly drop off? How do we get them to the completion, to mastering the task? That's a really long answer but it won't mean logging into a system

Robin: Meaning the nudges, the supports, the triggers coming to you in space that your app, which the mobile phone while you're walking is just a really good example. From a tech point of view, it's also really fascinating. This is the only bit that's complicated is finding the pattern about the time of day, matching that with the buying of toilet paper is easy. It's thinking about rules and systems rather than thinking in course structures as well. It's a different way of thinking about how to develop people's performance.

Lori: Absolutely and baby steps. Marketing has had at least a dozen years ahead of us on thinking this way. The other thing too with L&D and I really predicted this, is there will eventually be almost a GDPR of learning, where we're collecting all this information about employees but what rules in terms of how much we can really access and correlate or triangulate, not correlate, triangulate, in order to make recommendations?

If I'm doing learning, say outside on my own time but it's on an LMS or it's being paid for by the company, can they make those connections and how much privacy do I have as a learner? I think those questions will also start to be raised.

Robin: I've had these conversations already with people. We've got some tech that can do some of this stuff and it makes people really edgy and organisations aren't quite ready for the privacy issues.

Lori: Correct. We really need to think it through, is it an opt in or what does it look like?

Robin: I just really like the strategy of sitting there going, where are people at? Is it their inbox? Is it Microsoft Teams? Can we put learning into those places rather than putting it into the learning management system? It doesn't have to be that complicated, a more intelligent system either. It's about really thinking through what people's real needs are and I think that's what's really lovely about your flow chart, is it just refocuses people on what are the really important bits and pieces of it.

LMS Strategy

Lori: It's interesting you say that because also one of the big pieces of advice we gave was controversial in this, as I said, if you weren't averaging some, your daily active users on your LMS, weekly, monthly, if those are at 80%, don't put your core content on it. You need to go where the people are and then you can revisit your LMS strategy afterwards. Right now is not the time for people to have to hunt and peck for information.

Robin: The best place to hide anything is to put it in your learning management system.

Lori: Exactly.

Robin: I've heard myself saying this a couple of times and particularly in these podcasts, no one ever goes back to a learning management system either. We see nearly no evidence in the data that anyone once they have completed a course goes back into it. Where would people find your flow chart?

Lori: They can find it on LinkedIn. If they go on my profile it's featured on there, that's the best place and I'm uploading it actually tonight onto my blog, which is Loriniles.com.

Robin: What's your greatest gem of advice about moving to a performance consulting approach?

Lori: My general advice on it is, you have to think like a detective and resist the urge to say yes right away and to believe the requester. We always want to listen to them and the advice I give is, think of yourself as a detective who is interviewing a suspect you know is guilty. So you’ve really got to get them to prove that and get to that and not be quick to just say, oh yes, this solution is what I'm going to do.

Robin: That's a lovely sentiment. I think a really, really lovely metaphor for that particular type of compensation, Lori. Thank you for a great conversation today.