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Learning Triage

It is no secret flying is my kryptonite. I would personally prefer to build 1,000 “click next to continue” lockstepped elearning modules with a SME from hell, than board a plane. Unfortunately, the universe does not operate this way and sometimes I must join the not-so-clear-blue skies.

I had such a scenario a few weeks back flying home from the TICE Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (great event, BTW – mark your calendars for next year!). It would appear Air Canada only flies tiny 12 row planes from Toronto to NC. To make matter worse, according to my turbulence app, our route was rapidly filling up with little orange triangles, indicating choppy air ahead. (Side plug for fellow nervous fliers: this turbulence app tracks real time forecasts from pilots AND you can place it on your tray during a flight and it will measure G-force during those bumps).

So, what’s a girl to do? Well, I hit the duty free. My plan was to get some vodka, make a little drinkie and sip on that should things not go smoothly. I picked out some Grey Goose (might as well go high end), paid, and waited for the woman behind the counter to pass me my purchase. Only she did not. Instead, she explained, “oh, you won’t get this until Toronto. People get drunk on flights”. Firstly, that was a bit harsh and judgmental. At most, I was going to have two ounces. Secondly, fine, I could see her point.

I went back to my gate and approached the flight attendant explaining my fear of hurdling 38,000 ft into the air in a soda can. She gave me a steely look and with a lovely Southern drawl said, “This is how it is gonna go down, honey. When that plane touches the tarmac, you have exactly ten minutes before the passengers deplane and you board. When I wave at you, there’s a bar in the next terminal. You figure out the rest”. I nodded solemnly and when she gave the signal, I took my cash and ran. In three minutes I chugged my glass of wine and made it back in time to board (I also ran into a fellow conference attendee which was super awkward considering I was gulping a Sauvignon Blanc).

The flight was surprisingly smooth, but grey skies were ahead. As I pulled down my luggage, I accidentally threw out my back. As in, searing pain and paralytic muscle spasms. I hobbled to the terminal, naively believing I could walk it off but no such luck. I collapsed in front of an airport staff member who poured me into a wheelchair.

As luck would have it, my helpful flight attendant saw me, but was suddenly not so friendly. With a stern side-eye, she asked me how much I had to drink. I protested, “one glass of wine”. My case was not helped when the porter handed me a 1 litre bottle of vodka and said, “You forgot your duty free, ma’am”. I have had many feel-sorry-for-myself moments, but being wheeled through customs in agony and tears, clutching a bottle of booze, missing an earring, and getting eye rolls from flight staff, ranks high.

So why the story? Well, I ended up in A&E and was given an amazing injection which sent me on quite a trip. During this happy time, I started ruminating on how I once transformed a learning project intake process to run like an emergency room triage…because I am that weird. Now that I am up and mobile thanks to physio, I thought it might be worth sharing. That and I still want to prove I was not paralytic drunk in an airport.

For years, I have hated building the annual learning plan. Mostly because it involves the creation of some large-scale learning curriculum on one of the follow favourites: coaching, project management, leadership, or innovation. If you truly believe you have something not already taught in the billions of pieces of learning content on these topics, then get thee to a TEDTalk. Curate, my friends.

The other reason the annual plan frustrates me is because it is usually based on the metric of proving L&D is producing more with less.

Year upon year, we deliver charts on increasing number of learning hours and courses taken, as we make our departments leaner. This makes stakeholders happy, but in the age of digital, our seat times should be decreasing, not increasing. We should be ditching the courses and leveraging faster modalities like video, articles, and infographics. These are fuzzier to plan for, but far more effective. Unfortunately, fuzzy does not please bean counters.

Lastly, shit happens. Sure, you can have annual goals, but this does not prepare one for the inevitable unknowns. These require agility and the ability to pivot. L&D departments who must prove their worth are hesitant to change course lest it negatively impact their end-of-year story to the stakeholders…even when it is the right thing for the business. It is simply bad press to not deliver against goals. It is how instructional designers get told, “happy trails”.

The solution for us was a triage. In an ER, cases are assessed by a nurse who judges the severity and initial complexity of the treatment required. In our team, we started with an intake site. Ours was based in Workfront, which is a magical tool. Business partners submit initial details about a potential learning requirement based on high-level performance consulting. These were then assessed by what we called, Learning Triage, for urgency, risk, and impact. For example, the request could be cardiac arrest regulatory breech requiring immediately attention, or a case of the sniffles because someone wants a course on a process adjustment (which for the record, should never, ever, be a course, but an infographic or communication, thank you very much).

So why did this work? For one thing, we could prioritise daily work as the business changed. Secondly, because we had Workfront (made from unicorn sparkles) we had real time metrics on utilisation and capacity. Basically, we could see what nurses and doctors were available to treat the learning patients and align accordingly. As a bonus, because this was an international organisation with a federated model, we could rapidly identify what I called epidemics: these were multiple requests for the same learning need from several lines of business. Without a centralised triage, each unit would have invested time treating the infection without identifying the outbreak source, so to speak. Lastly, we became very quick at identifying what requests were not learning, but communications or marketing. This cut about 50% of our traffic and made for better outcomes.

Some things did not work. Business lines were increasingly frustrated we were not delivering bespoke courses for every request. To stretch the metaphor, overuse of antibiotics is dangerous, and so is Storyline and SCORM for every learning intervention. We had to use a lot of data and metrics to prove other solutions were just as effective, which was a struggle at time. For more information about using data in performance consulting conversations, click here.

Likewise, our end of year metrics were not as clean. We had to demonstrate to stakeholders completions and assessments were not as valuable as engagement levels. To be honest, I am not certain we really bridged that gap. But when an infographic is viewed, liked, and shared, a thousand times, and people are going back to it several times, I truly believe we are empowering our audiences better than any course hidden on an LMS.

Despite all of this, I would still use the triage model before annual planning in a heartbeat. Too often L&D is brought to the table late and we are unable to respond quickly. Once we ditch the courses as the only cure, leverage agile management of our resources, and have the fortitude to say no when the treatment will not benefit the patient, then we become effective partners. If not, we are the dreaded under appreciated cost centre.

As for my back, I have returned to my 20K steps a day (thanks Fitbit) although I have yet to be able to wear high heels. This is particularly annoying because I am 5’2” on a good day. Yet this whole episode made me think a lot about my health and the importance of being more mindful. Perhaps this is the real lesson. Keep stretching, kids.