Methodology Matters: A Performance-Based Instructional Design Methodology

By: Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

I completed graduate school in 1984, with a Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology and Technology. That was when I began my professional career in organizational learning as an “Instructional Systems Designer.” I was working for Standard Oil of Ohio at the time. During that first year of real-world work, I discovered that there were 5 Moments of Learning Need – including the critical Moment of Apply. This realization was a pivotal time for me as an instructional designer. It forced me to ask myself a question that changed the trajectory of my career: “What is the end purpose of instruction and learning in a non-academic organization?” The answer shifted my full attention to enabling and sustaining effective performance in the workflow. This mindset shift led me to the realization that, in practice, the prevailing traditional approaches to instructional design in corporate learning programs were primarily focused on knowledge rather than performance. And although gaining and retaining knowledge is an appropriate primary focus within academic institutions, it was absolutely clear to me that the real world of organizational work called for a performance-first approach to Instructional Systems Design (ISD).

Focusing first on job performance doesn’t mean that adequate attention shouldn’t be given to providing knowledge support. But this support naturally becomes a subordinate effort. In a performance-first approach, knowledge requirements are based on what people need to do: not the other way around.  

This shift in focus has fueled four decades of a united effort to evolve traditional ISD practices into a performance-based instructional design methodology that:

  • Addresses all 5 Moments of Learning Need. As mentioned, there are five fundamental moments that comprise the full spectrum of learning and performance support requirements. These 5 Moments of Learning Need provide an overarching framework for helping employees become and remain competent in their individual and collective work. Specifically, they are the moments of: 


Unfortunately, traditional approaches have primarily addressed only two (New and More) of the five with some afterthought attention to the remaining three (Apply, Solve, and Change). Obviously, a performance-first approach must intentionally begin the analysis and design process at the moment of Apply and then work backwards into the moments of New and More.  

  • Is rapid and agile. During my first year in the real world of work, I was confronted with the reality that the traditional ISD models I had mastered in graduate school were too lethargic, time-consuming, and costly. Experience taught me that the response time from request to implementation needed to be rapid with no wasted effort. This is a challenging requirement because a 5 Moments solution is broader than one that focuses only on learning New and/or More. As such, in our pursuit of a performance-based methodology, we have worked to consistently streamline practices by consolidating them, removing redundancies, and embracing more rapid, iterative approaches. We have worked to develop agile practices that are highly structured but also adaptable through the application of governing principles and defensible decision trees.
  • Enables learning while working. A performance-first mindset naturally leads to the workflow with the realization that developing effective work skills requires learners to safely apply what they’ve learned as they perform their jobs. The workflow is where context is clearest and present. The workflow fuels engagement (intrinsically and extrinsically) in ways that are difficult and expensive to approximate outside of the workflow. Learning while working continuously reinforces and immediately validates success. And the workflow is where experiential learning thrives by facilitating the integration of knowledge, skills, and context.
This pursuit of workflow learning methodology led us to Gloria Gery’s game-changing work on the development of an EPSS. An EPSS, what we now refer to as a Digital Coach, enables the workflow to become the exceptional learning environment it can be, where performers can learn while actually working. It has been our experience for over two decades that, on average, half the curriculum of traditional formal learning courseware can be safely and solely learned without stopping work (with the help of a Digital Coach). 
  • Can be readily defended with applied research. No methodology is worth its salt if it doesn’t adhere to defensible research. Every practice developed as a part of this workflow performance-based methodology adheres to principles from Cognitive, Behavioral, and/or Experiential research. For the past forty years, these practices have also been honed through application in hundreds of organizations, across every sector.   
  • Facilitates partnering with the business. Extending learning and support into the workflow requires Learning and Performance Development (L&PD) teams to forge a working partnership with the business. After all, the workflow isn’t L&PD’s turf: it belongs to the business and is overseen by key stakeholders. The need for speed and the broader scope of 5 Moments of Need solutions requires solutions to be co-developed and co-maintained. There isn’t a more significant methodology challenge than this. Our responsiveness to the speed of need and keeping solutions current with continuous optimization requires developing tactical governance plans for: 
    1. Developing content and the learning and performance solutions around it.
    2. Keeping content and resources within the solutions current and meaningful. 
    3. Keeping the functionality of those solutions relevant to the changing needs of the business.  
This can become labor and time intensive unless there are clearly defined, shared roles and responsibilities with processes that are automated as much as possible. Today, thank goodness that none of this is uncharted territory. Process management technologies exist to help do this. And EPSS authoring software is now available with capabilities that can leverage knowledge and content management systems to build, maintain, and continuously optimize these solutions. 

  • Enables ongoing performance measurement. Measurement has been a critical requirement in developing a comprehensive performance-first methodology. The good news is that enabling learning in the flow of work with a Digital Coach (EPSS) allows ongoing gathering of work performance data. This can be done with a precision that has always been missing from traditional learning approaches. Here are a few examples of this measurement opportunity.


Developing this performance-based instructional design methodology hasn’t been a singular effort by any means. Bob Mosher joined in early on and has been a true partner in this. He has contributed his vision and experience and helped keep things pragmatic. He has also evangelized this performance-first methodology and its transformative mission at a global level. Second only to Bob, Sue Reber, a gifted and exceptionally experienced ISD, who has been on this journey with us for over 30 years, has pushed, challenged, and adjusted the details, documenting and eventually overseeing the full scope of the methodology. Beth Daniels was one of the first senior learning leaders who helped vet the methodology based on her perspective and ultimately led the initial development and implementation of the 5 Moments of Need certificate program. Carol Stroud jumped in with both feet fifteen years ago. Her deep experience as a 5 Moments of Need practitioner and strategist has influenced every practice. Alfred Remmitts, an early performance support innovator, opened our eyes to the vital role of technology in operationalizing the 5 Moments in the workflow. Many hundreds of others have contributed from their various organizations and become implementors and elite champions, not only of the methodology but of its critical mission: to develop solutions for organizations that enable workforces to learn and perform effectively in the flow of work at every changing moment.   

If you would like to better understand this performance-first methodology that we call EnABLE, download our newly launched white paper that provides greater detail. Also, please don’t misinterpret the intent of this blog. We’re not launching EnABLE. We did that many years ago. I’m just introducing it here as a springboard to a series of methodology articles to follow. I have wanted to do this for some time and sincerely hope it will spark important discussions to come. For example, the next blog I’ll be posting is titled “Rethinking Learning Objectives”. So, thanks for reading and stay tuned.




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