December 4, 2023

Flow, workflow, and learning

Author: Clark
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On LinkedIn, a colleague asked “Why do people think that integrating content in the flow of work equals learning in the flow of work?” An apt question. My (flip) response was “because marketing”. And I think there’s a lot to that. But, a comment prompted me to think a little bit deeper, because ‘flow’ is its own meaningful concept and we need to be careful about meaning. So here are some reflections on flow, workflow, and learning.

The response that triggered my reflection was:

I can’t recall the last time I told someone that I was in the “flow” of work today and learned so much!!

Flow state(Which is pretty funny!) The comment was a bit pointed, but it made me think about being in the ‘flow’ state, and the relationship with learning. I’ve previously pointed out how Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZoPD) are essentially the same. If the difficulty is too far above your skill level, the experience is frustrating. If it’s too easy, it’s boring. And in between is the flow state, and where learning happens.

Now, when we’re in the ‘flow’ at work (which is different than being in the workflow), we’re performing optimally. And I’m not sure learning happens there. Similarly with the ZoPD. You’re working and I’m not sure learning happens then. When I state that learning is action and reflection, I think reflection is a necessary component.

Now, the original complaint talked about learning in the workflow, and opined that content in the workflow won’t necessarily equal learning. Another comment pointed out what I believe is often conflated with “workflow learning”, and that’s performance support. There are lots of reasons that we might want content in the workflow to help us succeed, but it may have nothing to do with learning. If, indeed, learning is to happen, it might need some content, and feedback, and so actually break the flow!

Now, I also recognize that many times we’re in the flow of work, but not in the ‘flow’ zone. So, we could definitely be learning in the workflow. And it happens by deciding to look up the answer to some contextually relevant question. Or from a comment from a person. But it’s a bit different than being in the zone, and we’d like to be there in our work too!

And, I wonder whether Vygostky’s ZoPD really aligns with the Flow Zone, or if it needs to be coupled with some offline reflection. It’s certainly possible. Maybe the flow zone is a superset of the ZoPD. More to ponder.

There isn’t a real revelation here about flow, workflow, and learning, other than we have to keep our concepts straight. We need to recognize when we’re supporting performance, and when we’re learning. And we need to be clear about workflow, and being in the flow zone. And there may be more here to unpack. Thoughts?


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