Rather than telling employees how to do something, show them.

We spend a great deal of time in this business talking about learning—how other people learn, and how to help other people learn so organizations can perform better. When you ask, "What does learning look like?" the answer is rarely: "Someone talking in front of a room."

We learn by doing, telling what we're doing, watching others do things, and showing others how we did something. Sharing what we're doing is an important part of workplace learning and makes up a big part of what we call "informal learning." And helping workers talk about what they're doing—by narrating their work, and capturing that—is a critical (and enjoyable) role for 21st century training and development (T&D) practitioners.

Benefits

Sharing and showing what we're doing and learning can ease several pain points for organizations. First there's the capture of tacit knowledge: it helps to fill the gap that so often occurs when someone leaves a job but those remaining don't know how to pick up where the former worker left off.

It also helps others learn about executing work not easily captured as a step-by-step process. Then there's the matter of connecting talent pools, branching across organizational silos, and surfacing expertise. How many times have you finished a project, researched an idea, or hunted down a resource only to find someone else had already done the same thing?

For T&D, a willingness to learn from what workers share can help to reveal where training issues exist, provide artifacts that can be repurposed as training content, and help make workplace training more relevant and real-world based.

And showing what we're doing—narrating our work in a public way—helps make learning more explicit. It surfaces informal and social learning to help make it visible to the organization and management, whereas often now it is only opaque.

Background

The idea of narrating work is not new, but those offering guidance about it often suggest processes that are too complicated or too conceptual. This can seem imposing, or too formal, to the busy knowledge worker or the guy who fixes the washing machines.

It's a problem, too, for organizations married to the hierarchical view of knowledge management, in which knowledge is viewed as something that can be captured as discrete items in a database. Often useless information fills weekly reports that go to one senior manager, who may or may not ever look at them.

People in different work areas don't know what others do, or how their work connects or overlaps with what others are doing, which brings enormous possibilities for communication difficulties. In addition, what people really know and are good at isn't evident to management.

We know that working, problem solving, and learning are often chaotic, and serendipitous, and rarely happen in a neat straight line. Companies that try to document work activities via formal or complicated means are likely to capture what people do, but not necessarily how they get things done.

What to narrate

So what does narration look like? What kinds of things constitute "showing your work"?

Some narrate work as a learning journey. Retired art teacher Gloria Melton Mercer, needing to exercise her hand following surgery, chose to learn about creating elaborate bakery-style decorated cookies. She began talking about this on Facebook, then started sharing pictures of what she was learning along with comments about what she found difficult or what technique she wanted to try next. Others joined in, and within eight months the project had spawned the successful www.coastlinecookies.com, whose owner now posts what she is learning and how.

Such learning out loud can happen intentionally. For example, new hires at Aspen Dental in Syracuse, New York, are asked to offer quick, informal blog-based recaps of how they spend their days, and how what they are doing ties to the larger work and goals of the business. Here's an example:

"Hi everyone. Today I am hitting the charts! Charting w/ the Dr., entering treatment plans, and sitting in on the consults. Learning about the new patient from start to finish. Took a look at the offices' patient-with-credit-balances report. There were notes and the office manager showed me where we were in working with the patients. I believe that's a benefit to the patients b/c it keeps them a priority to us. We see so many a day, this is a great way to keep any of them from slipping through the cracks."

Others narrate work with the explicit goal of, if not exactly teaching others, then showing others a particular technique or way to complete a task. South Carolina's topiary specialist Pearl Fryar (subject of the popular indie documentary A Man Named Pearl) frequently offers demonstrations that show how he trims a particular plant into a particular shape. He simply grabs a plant and electric hedge clippers and goes to work, describing what he's doing as he goes.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of videos on YouTube by guitarists that show how they play a tricky solo without offering any explicit instruction at all. They just offer a demonstration of "This is how I do that."

Sometimes people share information because it was learned the hard way and they realize it might be useful to someone else. David Byrne, in his new book How Music Works, reveals startlingly frank information about his financial income related to a particular project. He said, "I thought by being transparent and using my own experience as an example, I could let other musicians see what their options are—and how their decisions might pan out."

"Learnable moments" offer excellent opportunities to show your work. The stellar salesperson closing a big sale can do a quick voiceover of her slides, discussing how she handled objections and key moments in negotiations, and upload them to Slideshare. The technician who has figured out a workaround to stall breakdown while waiting for a part to ship can record a quick video on his phone and share it via YouTube or the company intranet. And the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain showcases exemplary performers at work via its Video Cafe initiative.

How to narrate

Until recently most approaches for narrating work have tended toward those that require writing: reports, journals, discussion forums, and blog posts or comments. These are still appropriate and may fit the bill just fine. But don't discount other approaches, and recognize when one approach has limits another may not. Also recognize that writing takes time, and not everyone is a great writer.

Effectively narrating work depends partly on choosing the right medium for it. Fryar's work can't be done justice in a standard book, but his demonstrations on YouTube perfectly capture his technique.

Likewise, anyone who's ever had a music lesson will remember the frustrating limits of traditional musical notation: what is on the page doesn't necessarily tell you how the piece should sound because it doesn't capture nuance or technique. Many composers have developed alternate, graphic methods for writing music such as showing the texture and shape of the piece rather than just the notes to be played.

Ease of capture matters, too. iPhone's Siri will post spoken comments to Facebook and Twitter, such tools as VocalPost and Dragon Dictation will convert text-to-speech for upload to a blog or other documents, and WordPress has a built-in "post by voice" option.

We're in an age when cell phones with cameras are nearly ubiquitous, and posting photos to Facebook or Pinterest is a user-friendly task. Phones, tablets, and other devices make quick work of video creation; videos can likewise easily reside on blogs, YouTube, Facebook, or internal channels. Do you have camera-shy workers? Remember, they don't necessarily need to record their faces, but their work.

Sometimes showing what you're doing is just a matter of remembering to turn the recorder on while you work. For example, tech guru Gina Schreck wanted to test Skype's 10-way video-calling feature, which at the time was still in beta. She tweeted a request for help and several people hopped on the call.

But the experience wasn't limited to just the few of us on the call. As we were starting, Gina turned on her screen recorder and later made the experiment available on YouTube, sharing it with nearly 1,000 viewers.

T&D's role

The opportunities for T&D to help employees show their work are plentiful, and can help both inform our practice and extend our reach. For one thing, T&D in most organizations interacts with staff at all levels and at all phases of their careers and proficiency.

We often see the exemplary performers in our classes and have a sense of the ones who "get it." We're therefore uniquely positioned to help identify the performers with skills in need of capturing.

Our position also enables us to help workers connect the dots between each other and units and talent pools and expertise. New 21st century roles as community managers and online discussion moderators situate us to tie conversations together and help people find one another while we look for stories worth retelling and expertise worth capturing.

T&D also can offer help with the actual narration. We can provide the technology to help capture, publish, and distribute examples. Cheesecake Factory uses a proprietary video channel; other organizations use private blogs in Sharepoint, upload to public tools such as Facebook, or store items in their learning management system.

Employees may need help with that, and T&D can establish locations and processes for making sure other workers know what's available where. Supporting the efforts to capture narration helps position T&D in the spaces between formal learning events, and strengthens ties with workers in day-to-day activities. Essentially, helping with narration means we're better able to support learning in work as well as at work.

Finally, supporting efforts at narrating work can help learners become more mindful and intentional about their learning. Mercer did not set out to document her journey of learning to decorate cookies; she found it was fun to talk about and of interest to her friends.

Helping workers see that what they're doing is of interest to others, and making the narration process worthwhile and fun (or at least painless) for them, will go a long way toward recognizing who is learning what, and when, and encourage others to "learn out loud."

Ask the right questions

Learning how Fryar creates gorgeous, living topiaries does not come from saying, "Here's a pen. Please write down what you did this week." We need to stop asking, "Can you tell me what you do?" People have a hard time answering that, and usually just end up listing activities. Instead ask:

  • What are you working on?
  • What problems did you run into?
  • What went easily? What turned out to be more difficult than you thought?
  • Where did you have to stop to look for something, or someone?

In other words, ask: "How did you do that?" We could learn so much if we did less telling about how to do their work and asking them to show us what they do. People talk about their work all the time. Supporting them as they show their work is a great way to help them keep talking.

 


 

The Training and Development Team Should Narrate, Too

When Craig Taylor joined Bupa International's U.K. office as a learning technologies manager, one of his first tasks was to help the office's business development consultants division improve the presentations it was using for new client sales pitches. Taylor met with the team to review existing materials and found they employed a traditional, bulleted, text-heavy approach.

He took the slideshows and reworked them to punch them up and make them more focused on the goal of attracting new business. But rather than just fix the slides and hand them back, Taylor took the "working out loud" approach and recorded what he was doing, and why. Talking over the slides in a recorded screencast, he explained the problems with each and described—and showed—how to make it better.

Why didn't Taylor simply create a tutorial on developing better presentations? He says the critical issue—what made this different—was that it was entirely married to context. There was a real situation with real slides and a real business problem. There were real people asking for real help. And those real people had peers in the company struggling with similar real problems.

What Are You Working on Right This Second?

Yammer employees regularly use their own product to "work out loud." Allison Michels, manager of learning and development for Yammer Education Services at Microsoft, says it's not unusual, once a week or so, for her to ask her team via Yammer, "What are you working on right this second?"

Everyone can immediately get a snapshot of work in progress and what everyone is up to, and gets a better picture of what others do using what skills. The approach captures actual work in the moment, not as highlights mentioned at meetings or, as with many workplaces, as lists of activities buried in reports few will see.

It's also a chance to ask for help or feedback, which in itself works to support a culture of collaboration and sharing. Sometimes the question changes to "What are three things that have gone really well lately? What are three things that haven't?"

This, again, surfaces information often of use to others about how work gets done, not just what is done ("I had the same problem with that supplier"; "I learned that if you call Linda by noon on Thursdays she can usually get a purchase order done the same day."). This builds trust and openness, and ultimately supports productivity and morale.