Performance Support: A Key Workflow Learning Element to Ensure Organizational Success

by Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., RwE

To survive and thrive in today’s unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving world, organizations must cultivate learning agility and be able to learn at or above the speed of change. They must continuously develop new skills to prepare for evolving competitive cycles—constantly retooling to maintain their edge. Companies lacking the capacity to anticipate and adapt ahead of change risk failure.

With that in mind, consider your current talent management practices. What are you doing to develop dynamic learners: those who are rapid, adaptive, and collaborative in how they learn, unlearn, and relearn? To what degree does your organization encourage personal learning strategies that minimize the probability of skills becoming automated (deeply rooted) unless they are absolutely critical? How effectively do your employees learn on the fly? Are you supporting every moment of their learning needs? And when change appears out of nowhere, are your employees able to independently assess their current readiness to perform, identify what skills and knowledge they need to cast aside, and determine how to assertively adapt to the conditions around them? The heart of organizational effectiveness is the capacity of employees to learn at or above the speed of change. 

Organizational learning agility won’t come to fruition unless talent management practices aggressively develop and sustain this kind of dynamic learning. The first step in doing so is to establish a performance support infrastructure that enables and sustains learning agility. It is through this infrastructure that dynamic learners can instantly access just what they need, in the form they need, to help them perform effectively at every changing moment.

So, what is performance support? It is intuitive, tailored aid intentionally delivered to people at any of their 5 Moments of Need (see the figure below) to ensure the most effective performance on the job. 

And what is a performance support infrastructure? It is an orchestrated set of technology enabled services that are Embedded in the workflow, and that provide Contextual access to Just Enough information to enable ongoing effective performance. 

Performance support is Embedded based on two principles: 1) the proximity (two clicks) and 2) the immediacy (ten seconds) in which dynamic learners can physically and digitally access what they need to perform effectively. Time to effective performance hinges on the degree to which performance support is embedded in the workflow. 

Contextual access also impacts speed to effective performance. Dynamic learners require access to the same information via different circumstances or settings. For example, a primary context in which dynamic learners need performance support is within a specific workflow process. The most logical way for them to access what they need is according to that process. But at another time, they may need to access the same information according to their specific job role, a point in a timeline, or a specific area of the business. 

Once dynamic learners get to the information they need to perform, they must be able to immediately interpret and apply that information to their performance moment of need. They don’t have the luxury of time to wander through multiple web pages or plough through an eLearning module to find just what they need. This approach doesn’t work at the moment of Apply. Effective performance support must provide dynamic learners Just Enough of what they need to immediately perform. 

Traditionally, that is not how organizations have approached training. Instead, we often design, build, deliver, manage, and maintain courseware. We make it available 24x7 via eLearning, mobile learning, and virtual and traditional classroom instruction. We chase every opportunity we can find to enhance this courseware with emerging capabilities like gamification, collaboration, and communities of practice. We blend it, personalize it, and attempt to measure it. Sadly, in most cases, these remarkable courses are a waste of time. The employees we train falter and often fail to perform effectively. And this leaves us asking, “Why?” Here are some fundamental reasons for this failure:

Not enough time and too much to learn

In years past, there was enough time for employees to stop their work and attend training events to learn how to perform their jobs effectively. But that dedicated time no longer exists. While the scope of what people need to learn to keep current in their jobs has increased, the time allocated to learn it has decreased. This presents a particular challenge with live classroom instruction where there is too much content and not enough classroom time. Trainers are often pushed to skip or rush through content to cover as much as possible. 

The good news is that although some skills merit the investment of formal learning, others don’t. They can be safely performed with the right “on-the-job” support—in the workflow. 

Retention death spiral (the Forgetting Curve)

How much people learn while participating in any formal learning opportunity varies, but whatever they learn rapidly evaporates following that learning or eLearning event. The rate of forgetting depends on whether the instruction was superficial or methodologically sound, as well as the complexity of the knowledge and skills. The reality is that forgetting happens, and most of the time it happens quickly. Effective performance support can interrupt this forgetting and shorten the time it takes from the start of a course to successful on-the-job performance. 

Limited transfer at the moment of Apply

Learning transfer is tested once learners return to the workflow and attempt to apply what they learned. The realities of real-world application are seldom simulated sufficiently in a formal learning environment (i.e., outside the workflow in a classroom or through a computer). Simply put, the moment of Apply presents challenges that limit formal learning transfer unless it is adequately supported during and after the learning event via a performance support solution. 

Lack of skill integration between formal learning and the moment of Apply 

One of the flaws in most formal learning approaches is that learners master unique skills and concepts but fail to effectively integrate them all together. Real competency in the workplace requires efficient integration of all the moving parts, and on-the-job performance is often collaborative. Efficient, collaborative skill integration doesn’t just happen. It needs support at the moment of Apply. This support must intuitively map to each unique role in the workflow process and directly support areas where collaboration is needed. Performance support is the most effective means for doing this.

Failure to support unlearning to relearn 

When skills are performed repeatedly, they tend to become deeply rooted in people’s skill sets. They become automated (performed without conscious thought). Once skills are ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations, replacing outdated practices with new ways of performing and thinking becomes one of the most significant learning challenges an organization will face. Performance support is key to meeting this challenge. 

The bottom line? Organizations need a performance support strategy that accommodates all 5 Moments of Need and enables us to push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow. Enabling effective performance at the moments of Apply, Solve, and Change must be at the heart of all we do. 

Indeed, a performance-first focus is critical for any organization’s success. Twenty-five years ago, performance support pioneer Gloria Gery rightly challenged how most organizations were addressing their corporate learning needs. She boldly pointed out that they were failing to intentionally address their “performance zone”. Here’s how she defined that zone:

"The performance zone is the metaphorical area in which things come together. It is the place where people get it, where the right things happen, where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situation. It is the place where employees put together all the individual dance steps that they have mastered. The dance, the dancers, and the music are one.”

The performance zone exists within the workflow whenever employees need to apply what they have learned, solve a problem, or unlearn and then relearn something because matters have changed. 

We’ve spent billions on learning management systems and even more on eLearning. But what benefit is all this investment if employees ultimately fail in the performance zone? Do you have a defendable technology infrastructure in place to sustain effective performance? Or does your current approach assume that learners will have the time and capacity to figure out—on their own—how to apply what they have learned in the classroom to what they do in their workflow? 

Gery believed that “As the number, complexity, and interrelationships between the various threads of expertise increase, the chances of operating within the performance zone decrease, unless, of course, something is done to guarantee it.”

Today, we are certainly operating in an environment that threatens our capacity to be effective within the performance zone without something to help “guarantee it.” Learners want just enough, when they need it, in the form they prefer to address their specific learning need. They want to learn in the performance zone. 

Gery concluded that an EPSS (Digital Coach) was the best way for organizations to “guarantee” effective performance. She defined it as an “orchestrated set of technology enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”

Bear in mind these critical distinctions: 
  • There are different types of vehicles for delivering performance support (e.g., job aids, websites, Digital Coaches). 
  • These vehicles differ in capability and quality of production.
  • As a result, they vary in their capacity to deliver effective performance in the performance zone.
In all her groundbreaking work, Gery settled on an EPSS (Digital Coach) as the embodiment of what she proposes performance support can and needs to be for organizations. She set aside other performance support renditions, like job aids and traditional help, because although they provide some degree of performance support, they don’t provide all the “technology-enabled services” required of a fully loaded performance support solution. 

As you consider your upcoming needs for learning technology, don’t stop short of the performance zone. Just as you wouldn’t consider developing eLearning without authoring software, you need EPSS (Digital Coach) solutions that will enable effective performance at every changing moment of need.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “First gradually, and then suddenly.” This is a consistent pattern for companies that lack the ability to learn at or above the speed of change. Managing talent is all about delivering effective performance at every changing moment. The people we are charged to train and support deserve immediate, intuitive, tailored aid that is orchestrated to ensure the most effective personal and collective performance during all 5 Moments of Need. Anything less puts a company at risk.

Subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

Visit our website for additional resources: Certificate courses, an eBook on workflow learning, and our latest EnABLE Methodology white paper.

Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

Be part of the Workflow Learning & Performance Alliance. 

Copyright © 2023 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
All Rights Reserved.