Gary Wise of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on Formal vs. Informal Learning and More

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    Gary Wise is a learning and performance improvement professional with a rich background in learning strategy development—integrator of holistic learning design methodology—and a passionate yet prudent advocate in application of Web & Learning 2.0 learning technology.

    With 30 years of formal background in training and performance consulting that drives emphasis on building measurable, sustainable performance outcomes, his vision is a learning environment where seamless, frictionless, and ubiquitous access to the right learning is accessible by the right learner—at their moment of learning need—in a readily consumable amount and format—and to/from the right device(s) with the pivot point being the learner in their work context.

    He survived several Learning Management and Web collaboration implementations as an innovative corporate consumer, a helpless victim of circumstance, and as a consultant. His current mission involves hot pursuit of developing a dynamic, continuous learning environment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as Senior Director of Learning Architecture.


    Gary served as learning strategy planner and technology roadmap developer in past Director-level roles. He has developed a Learning Readiness Assessment designed to identify critical “readiness gaps” that represent obstacles limiting an organization’s ability to integrate and sustain a continuous learning environment. He authors a recently launched blog, Living in Learning that focuses on organizational requirements, learning competencies, and general readiness criteria necessary to create and sustain continuous learning environments.

    He is a 1975 Graduate of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, and you can learn more about him on LinkedIn and contact him at gary.wise(at)

    Q. Gary, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share some of your 30 years of knowledge. I see that you’ve always been very focused on performance improvement. Could you comment on the relationship between performance and learning & development?

    Performance consulting, or the sub-variation called workplace learning and performance consulting, represents an expanded skill set for today’s training organization. T&D departments often have a charter to drive delivery of knowledge and skills to the workforce —not that there’s anything wrong with that. That is an appropriate charter to pursue and it will never go away, but I think it important to recognize what the knowledge skills contribution represent as part of the total.

    Josh Bersin shared in “The Future of the Business of Learning” webinar last July that we spend about one hundred hours—plus or minus—in some type of formal learning activity—training. That represents a 5% slice of the roughly 2,080 work hours we each have in the course of a year. The 5% slice is traditionally the domain of the T&D function.

    Where I am so passionate regarding performance is in the 95% slice of the pie where our learners are not in formal learning activities; rather they are in their work context. And work context is an expansion to the domain of learning that denotes work activity where creation value for the organization is the critical outcome. I position work context as a downstream activity where informal learning, social learning, non-formal learning…choose the label that works for you…has the greatest potential to serve as meaningful drivers to performance. And not just performance in the generic sense; but something more tangible—sustained capability.

    Q. Much of what you just said seems easier said than done. Why is it so hard to do?

    I cannot speak for anyone else, but the velocity work coming at me has increased dramatically; not only velocity, but volume too. Stir in a couple pounds of urgency and business risk and I feel like I’m held hostage by the demands of workload.

    I suspect I’m not alone in this experience. As such, who has time to go sit through training? Maybe the better question is who has a boss that’s willing to grant time away from turning the crank to go to training? This is never more obvious than at a hospital. Who provides critical patient care when the nurses are sitting in training? Obviously, someone does, but that implies additional coverage costs.

    When you consider that 95% slice of the learning pie I mentioned earlier, we are likely in the middle of a workflow when a moment of learning need is confronted. Based on urgency and risk factors, the learning intervention is probably going to be on the informal side of things. Consider a nurse at the bedside…logging onto the LMS to register for training or launching an eLearning course are not options. Work and learning are converging and many organizations are not equipped to handle learning in the context of work effectively.

    T&D has a role to play here, but in many cases, the skill sets/competencies/biases/design methods, design models…and the list goes on…do not lend themselves to downstream, work context sensitive learning assistance. T&D departments do their jobs well and are extremely busy driving knowledge and skills. The challenge is translating that effort to something more valuable to the organization than proverbial butts-in-seats activity. No one creates value in the classroom. Value is created through sustaining capability, and that happens downstream from our formal training efforts. Our challenge is influencing learning—informal, social, collaborative…pick one—in the work context and articulating that linkage to tangible value or impact.

    Q. Some might say that processes, strategies, technologies, etc. are tools that the T&D professional can use to influence learning. Many of our readers are fairly tech-savvy early adopters—what are some tech trends today that will shape the future?

    I think my answer will be cross-industry in application when I say that technology must be viewed as an enabler rather than a solution.

    In recent road-mapping activities, I predicted near term needs to include Creation, Connection, and Collaboration. Elliott Masie said well over a year ago that we are rapidly moving from reading to viewing to learn. Rich media proliferates what we see online and is making dramatic inroads into our online learning. Growth in user-generated content—YouTube, Screenr, etc.—emphasizes a trend that scares some of the training design purists I hang out with to their core.

    Evidence is swelling that supports the notion that “good enough” actually is good enough. Everybody can be an author, and that trend cuts both ways. T&D cannot become the content police but they can become traffic cops and keep content flowing in an orderly—instructionally sound—manner through use of templates. Let the authors author, but ensure instructional integrity through shepherding the process with SMEs versus actually writing it.

    What good is content if no one can connect to it? Technology that more efficiently handles bandwidth both inside and outside firewalled kingdoms are of significant importance when you consider the exponential growth of video and bit-rate heavy media. Video can be captured on even the dumbest of phones these days.

    But what about connecting people? Web collaboration platform for virtual classroom and virtual meetings will become the norm. We have integrated a web collaboration platform right into the email system where meetings and calendar activity reside. I can set a meeting in seconds and never think twice about finding a conference room big enough…or getting to the shuttle stop in time to schlep across campus. Connectivity is crucial and the more seamless the better.

    Collaboration—once connected—is a social necessity to promote the wisdom and knowledge sharing across the many. We’re hiring a generation that live in this world…grew up in this world. If we do not embrace the underlying technology we may be hard-pressed to hire and/or retain this new talent.

    Methinks however that implementing the technology is the easy part. The trend is going to happen whether we react to it or not. It becomes a question of do we embrace it behind the firewall or do we block access to external social networking sites and resources? Will HR ever get beyond their paranoia that someone may say something they shouldn’t? Will the Marketing Brand police disarm? I realize I’m not addressing technology trends as much as what happens post-deployment…which may be the bigger and scarier trends with which to deal.

    Q. So with all that said, can you help us envision the sort of organizational learning that might be occurring ten years from now? How will it be executed?

    I wish I could see that answer today. Honestly, anything predicted today for ten years hence will likely be manifest in 18 months or so.

    I mentioned earlier that work and learning were converging. I also mentioned velocity and volume as restrainers to learning. I’m not so sure that any of this is going away any time soon.

    T&D teams working faster and harder and smarter may not be our future. I would not be surprised to see the T&D function become more diverse and embedded within work groups and within specialties.

    I also think out-sourced specialization has a future, and I say this because who among us has the ability to know everything about any job we do? Maybe twenty years ago we could, but we can only keep about 5% of what we need to know in our heads. Where do we keep the rest? We don’t. Maybe a better answer is…we can’t. But we can gain access to someone who has their little 5% and we leverage a social relationship to fill the need. And we are able to do this because network connectivity will be ubiquitous and bandwidth will no longer be part of our dialog. I expect expertise will become ubiquitous as well and it will be social networking—or whatever it’s called in ten years—will be the common technology denominator.

    Q. Interesting thoughts there. Switching gears a bit, we’ve seen various attempts at measuring employee performance, from simple performance reviews to elaborate 21st-century business intelligence systems—ie. analytics, metrics, dashboards. What would you say to organizations that are beginning to dip their toes into measuring employee performance?

    Performance in and of itself is irrelevant without linkage to tangible outcomes. The focus has to be outcome-based…call it evidence-based if you like.

    I don’t think evidence is a one-time sample taken downstream from training to prove capability transfer. We all know performance outcomes spike after learning events and then peter out over time unless reinforced appropriately. For this reason, I think even focusing on tangible outcomes can fall short.

    What we need is proof of sustainability. Did we move the performance needle to the right, and more importantly, did we maintain the improvement…are we sustaining the capability?

    I would also encourage organizations that the effort to measure can become a cancer and become so pervasive that your staff is busy counting and not doing the work that drives the count. I call this the ROEDT syndrome—Return On Every Damn Thing—a not-so-distant cousin to ROI. Do not misunderstand, I am an advocate of tracking viable metrics, but my bottom-line advice is simple: If you cannot make an impactful business decision from the measures you track, the cancer has already begun to spread.

    One final thought, if you do track performance outcomes, share them…even if they represent bad news. I would predict that level of transparency and proactive communications serve to increase employee engagement…but then somebody would want to measure that too.

    Q. [Laughs] I’m going to keep ROEDT in mind. You talked a bit about the importance of making impactful business decisions. How can T&D professionals help in the decision-making process and build strong “Business Cases” for new technologies that can help take performance support to the next level and boost the bottom line?

    I’ve sort of shared some thoughts around this in the sustained capability thinking. If your business case demonstrates activity—how busy, busy, busy your T&D department has been, decide how to do more with less because your budget has become firmly categorized as a cost center. And we know what happens to cost centers when budgets get tight.

    Demonstrate your worth as a business partner. Your business case must show direct alignment to the strategic plan. Your business case cannot be based on an unsupported—by lack of evidence—good idea. Your business case must clearly articulate the risk of delaying the decision…or worse…doing nothing. If you cannot directly align with the strategic plan, find something you do impact that does have a direct alignment.

    Measure your impact at Level 3 and above. Level ones serve a valuable purpose, but encouraging investment in T&D ain’t one of them. Level twos demonstrate how good you are in the classroom, but are not an accurate predictor of sustained performance back on the job. Demonstrate impact, both tangible and intangible, at the business operations level and the financial level.

    Q. Gary, I feel like I’m only tapping into the tip of the iceberg of knowledge that you have. Thanks for making the time. Could you recommend some resources for our readers to check out?

    Wow, there are so many good ones that I’m sure to offend someone for not including them.

    I subscribe to CLO Magazine and Talent Magazine, both good for strategy thinking with succinctly written articles, community of practice and regular webinars.

    My own blog Living in Learning is a favorite. I do not fall under the typical blogger profile because my posts are longer and more “how to” oriented toward creating and sustaining dynamic, continuous learning environments.

    I like Tony Karrer’s blog eLearning Technology.

    eLearningLearning is an amazing community of blogs and other web-based resources on eLearning.

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