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The future of learning at work part 4 – performance support


In the fourth of this series, Donald H Taylor looks at the key challenge for L&D: providing performance support.

How should learning and development (L&D) practitioners adapt themselves to the changing world of twenty-first century work? In a series of articles I’m working my way through four areas of change described in the series opening piece. Of the four, ‘performance support’ is the clearest. It means helping people do their jobs better while they are still at their place of work. Traditionally, this was in contrast to removing them from work to attend a classroom course. Joe Harless, the inventor of Front-End Analysis, encapsulated the idea that training is not the only solution to performance problems in this much-quoted phrase:

 Inside every fat course is a thin job aid crying to get out.

(For more on Harless and training I recommend Dave Ferguson’s excellent blog post.)

Performance and training
Why the focus on performance? Because it’s why we’re here. Our job as learning and development professionals is to help individuals and organisations perform better. Looked at like this, performance support could concern everything in an organisation, but in the context of L&D, the term focuses on providing people with the information they need to do their jobs. The focus here is on the outcome – performance – not the mechanism, for one simple reason: training is not always the answer.

The classroom is a fine place for some things – but not for information transfer. We know from the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve that what we learn in class decays exponentially over time if not put to use immediately. Typically, 30 days after a class we will remember 20% of what we learnt there.

Given this, it makes sense to provide people with the information they need to do their jobs at their jobs. That way they may remember it over time, with repetition, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Rather than force people to remember things that may be intricate, complicated or change over time, we can provide them with performance support tools which free up their minds for useful activity like doing their jobs.

Although a great deal of energy has been spent on the value of electronic performance support systems (EPSS), the medium is less important than the message. And at least as important as how we provide performance support is the question of when we provide it. The obvious answer to this question is: when there is a performance problem. But when exactly is that?

When we need help performance support
Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson have described what they call ‘five points of need’ for training or assistance. The first two benefit from formal training, the rest require something else – often performance support:

  1. When learning for the first time
  2. When wanting to learn more
  3. When trying to remember and/or apply
  4. When things change (I would add, when things change in a minor way.)
  5. When something goes wrong

This deceptively simple list is a great way of considering when a particular type of intervention is useful – should we train, support or do something else? In at least the final three points there is call for some form of performance support.  For more on Mosher and Gottfredson, see their recommended new book Innovative Performance Support and their now defunct but still valuable blog.  For a fun 4 minute video on the 5 moments, see GoodPractice’s video.

The how
Since Gloria Gery coined the term Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) in her 1991 book of the same name, there has been considerable interest in the idea of support provided electronically – whether built into the systems people are using (like help in Microsoft Office), delivered via specialised EPSS systems, or through more open, self-service systems (like Google).

Support can also be delivered in other ways – including support desks, floor walking and job aids (which may be electronic or not). Allison Rossett and Lisa Schafer do a great job of describing both Gery’s work and the role of job aids at work in this 19-page paper: Job aids and performance support. In particular Rossett’s definition of two types of job aids helps us understand how they can be used: planners assist before and after a task; sidekicks help while actually performing a task.

"When managers suggest that training is the solution to a problem, they are frequently wrong."

Performance consulting
Just as training is not always the answer to a performance problem, it may not be performance support, either. Many factors influence performance, particularly the working environment and motivation.

Hand in hand with the idea of L&D delivering performance support for learners, then, must go our role providing performance consulting to managers. When managers suggest that training is the solution to a problem, they are frequently wrong. Other options may be available which are better, faster or cheaper than training. Many of them will also be the responsibility of the manager, which involves the consultant in difficult conversations highlighting his or her failings. Doing this well requires a method. One of the clearest I have seen is that of Nigel Harrison, a chartered business psychologist. His seven-step process draws out performance gaps and ways to bridge them without prescribing in advance whether training or any other solution is the best answer.

From short to long term
Performance support is about giving people the information they need to do their jobs in the short term so that they can take action, fast. This involves removing ourselves as L&D professionals from the acquisition of information.

We can do this in the short term with EPSSs, and with job aids, the things that provide immediately useful information. But what about the longer term? L&D has always seen its role as being to build capability, something we did in the past through classroom training. How much is this part of our role today and do we still need to be there to help learners?

This is something I investigate in the next article in this series, on capability building.

Disclosure: I have no financial or any other interest in the authors and thinkers referenced in this article.

The future of learning at work series:

About the author: Donald H Taylor is chairman of the IITT and is responsible for the Institute’s LearningLive conference in Birmingham on 13-14 September. He blogs at

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