I didn’t invent the term ‘Just-In-Time Learning’. I may even be a latecomer to it. I am, however, a raving fan. Money has a value and we’d all like to spend less of it and make more of it. The new currency of business people is not so much money, as it is time – time and focus. We can always make more money. Time, however, isn’t coming back and there’s a lot of noise competing for our attention.

How can we push our topics to the fore? How can we get our people investing their time and attention in the right places? Instead of throwing training at people, hoping some of it sticks through the magic of ‘teachable moments’, why wouldn’t we create quality-controlled learning resources that can be easily accessed and searched by demand-driven learners? How can we enable people who want a problem solved or a gap bridged to find the answer in a self-driven way – giving them what they need, where and when they need it?

HR people in general, and Learning & Development people in particular, need to have their eyes and ears open to this development and be ahead of the wave in both satisfying it and leveraging it. One of my little catchphrases is ‘Don’t fight human systems, go with them’. And what humans are after is learning, but not in the packages in which it has historically been delivered. The old paradigm is supplier-led. Someone believes themselves to be a subject matter expert and they’d like that expertise to be spread around a bit, so they write a book, or draft a lesson plan, construct some activities and tests, and perhaps centrally, in a command-and-control way, attempt to get people in a room at the same time for the delivery of that expertise to occur.

The way of the future, indeed, the way of the now, is demand-driven. It’s not quite as fanciful as a Kevin Costner movie. If you build it, they might not come. They might, but they might not (‘It’ is an online learning resource library). But the beauty of the technology is that it enables you to determine in advance, in a low-risk, low-cost way, what and where the demand is. You can then go there to meet it. Again, the technology allows you to monitor and measure and be flexible, adapting to changes in demand, not quite in real time but close enough.

It might be old-fashioned and may even be inaccurate, but let’s readdress the hoary 70‑20‑10 model. I think it still has legs. When it comes to the different formats of learning for the workplace, imagine a pyramid with three levels. The top, smallest level is formal, planned, classroom training. Let’s say that is the 10%. The next, second-smallest level is planned but informal on-the-job coaching. Let’s say that is the 20%. The foundation and the largest level is informal, often unplanned and equally often self-directed and demand-driven on-the-job learning. You see something. You try something. You break something. You get feedback. You try again. That’s the 70%. So much time, effort, money, sweat, and tears go into the 10% and even the 20%. Even today, I think the 70% is under-resourced, yet is probably where the biggest bang for the L&D buck lies via a micro-learning, ‘just-in-time’ approach.

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think it will be helpful to devote a paragraph here to where the term ‘just-in-time’ comes from. I did a postgrad management diploma, part of which focused on service quality management. Essentially, these were the early days of studying the quality management techniques arising from Deming and post-WW2 Japan’s economic boom, trying to apply techniques from processing and manufacturing to the intangible and fuzzy world of services. There was a time when factories would buy and store their inputs. This cost them for the inputs and cost them again for storage. If they bought too much and stored it for too long, there were the highest costs and also possible wastage. So, the goal became to minimize those costs as much as possible with the practice of ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing. With newly developed math and computer logistical algorithms doing the heavy lifting, the modern world of manufacturing and transport has inputs arriving at factories with the minimum of storage and downtime, often being put straight into production.

OK, so that’s the technical origin of the term ‘just-in-time’, but what has that got to do with L&D? Sorry, a bit more history first.

I got my first degree in the 1980s as you were supposed to like people do in the movies. I attended a bricks and mortar university. Mine was a bit more ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ and not so much ‘Animal House’. I got my second degree in the 1990s. I was working a full-on job as a trainer and I was a dad of two preschoolers. I did this second degree via correspondence. Their slogan was ‘At your own pace, at your own place’. My employer supported me financially and with time, resources and access to people for projects. In fact, some of my projects were real assignments solving real problems for them. Looking back, the quality of my second degree far outstripped that of my first. Sure, I was older, wiser and considerably soberer, but I am sure the primary reason is that I was motivated and the learning was demand-driven.

At about the same time, I was also learning a documentation methodology called ‘information mapping’. I’m not selling it but I am a fan. To me, it is far more ‘reader-centric’ in its design. So, at this time, I was immersed in reader-centric documentation whilst involved in distance-learning. It was about this time that I noticed something called the Internet and I got my first email address.

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My then-employer ran lotteries and was heavily invested in a franchisee network, with hundreds of outlets that were hugely varied and geographically widespread, and with tremendously diverse owner–operators. From memory, despite all their diversity, they had two features in common. One was a desire to optimize their money-making from the franchise. The other was to spend as little money and time as possible in doing so. This was true of their attitude towards training and learning as well. And they had a lot of learning to do. We continually introduced new products and occasionally threw some real curveballs at them with lots of secrecy and short time frames. We certainly ran a lot of traditional classroom courses but we also produced a lot of demand-driven resources and created some novel and innovative learning events and systems. But it was rough as guts. The technology and the users of that technology were not there yet. Remember dial-up? Yeah, that. The ideas were there. The concepts were sound. The demand was latent. The technology and the users were a jigsaw missing a few pieces.

Flash forward through the 2000s and dancing into our lives and imaginations came broadband and smartphones and online communities like Google and YouTube. Wait a few more years for mobile data networks to build up some muscle mass and we’re probably now two years into a new era when all those old distance learning, micro-learning, just-in-time ideas can come back with a vengeance on digital steroids.

Ultimately, the tech means nothing but falsely raised hopes if the people, the learners, are not just ready, willing and able, but also already familiar and immersed. I’m going to give you three stories that illustrate just how ready the world is. And it is the world, not just your employees. As long as you’re developing resource, why not monetize it for the learners of the world, or gift it as a socially responsible corporate entity might do? But that’s a topic for another, possibly more controversial blog post. Let me just give you my three stories and we’ll conclude that the demand is there for bite-sized, just-in-time learning and that if you build it, they will come.

Story #1

I own three horses, and apart from everything else they do, they are grass-processing machines, producing a lot of manure. We’d like to use this as compost, so I telephoned our local lumber yard and they left for me to pick up after-hours a triple-bin compost kitset. When I arrived to pick it up, I found a pile of wood and a bag of nails. Stapled to the bag of nails, on a ripped piece of paper, was a scribbled URL.

Next day, I laid out the wood outside the barn and, with my iPad able to grab some Wi-Fi from the house, I typed in the URL. From YouTube, up popped a video probably shot on a smartphone with a couple of guys in boots and shorts instructing me how to make my compost bin. Although it wasn’t as shaky as a ‘Blair Witch’ movie, it was clearly an amateur video, but such is the tech in everyone’s hands these days, it was fine. There was no Peter Jackson CGI but everyone was visible, and even with the sound of the wind on the phone’s mic, Steve and Kev were clearly audible. And I’ve never built anything as level and square and strong as that compost bin.

Story #2

I did some work with a boutique printing company. They specialized in short-run, one-off, urgent labels. They had no HR department. They had no in-house trainers. They were a bunch of people with ink on their hands – printing tradespeople. Each with their own smartphone and at least one of them with an idea. Using their phones and the free, user-friendly and ubiquitous YouTube with its search and tag functionality, they created a closed channel and uploaded all their homemade ‘how-to’ videos that they needed to show to new staff. They took footage of their real-life mistakes as a warning and this also became a resource that they added to their online library.

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Totally self-directed and born entirely out of demand-driven learning needs. Between Kev and Steve and my printing buddies, I was finally starting to come to the realization that time and tide had risen to where ‘just-in-time’ was coming into its own. Nothing else had to be invented. No one else had to be convinced. Teens were doing this to teach and learn how to put on make-up or play guitar. Why wouldn’t organizations utilize the same channels to supply the learning demands of their people?

Story #3

The third story took place back in my barn. A floodlight lightbulb exploded. It didn’t just burn out. The glass blew out, and that lack of glass meant I couldn’t unscrew the dead bulb to replace it. The glass was what you gripped to do the unscrewing. Fortunately, I talked myself out of my first instinct, which was to shove some pliers in there with all that electricity. I asked Professor YouTube. Three seconds later, I found a ninety-second Lithuanian video showing a simple, safe and near zero-cost solution that was so simple, I never would have thought of it myself. Wedge a potato into the diameter of the missing glass until tight, then grip the potato and unscrew that, taking the bulb out with it.

The last key was a robust, reliable and responsive mobile network. My barn is pretty remote and Lithuania even more so, yet in three seconds I had all the learning I needed to solve my problem and bridge my gap at near zero cost. (The potato was collateral damage.) Leaving aside the pun of ‘wedging’ a potato, the other pun that came to mind was that this was a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. Finally, all the jigsaw pieces were there for me and I had my realization about the power of just-in-time learning – what I needed, where and when I needed it.

This article has been written by Terry Williams, he is an expert, author and motivational speaker on the subject of people engagement. And originally published in WISP blog.

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