When performance support trumps learning

Author: Clive Shepherd
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EdTech Café

EdTech Cafe
 Standford EdTech (Author)
EdTech Café is a podcast series produced by the educational technology team at Stanford Medicine.

In the past year, I have worked with clients on a number of projects in which the sole focus has been supporting employees in adapting to a change by providing resources that they could access at the point of need – a process that we normally call ‘performance support’.

In a world of immediate access to information at any time of day and night and wherever you happen to be, we no longer expect to have to acquire all the knowledge required to do our jobs. Yes, we still need to understand fundamental concepts and principles, and to develop key skills, but the rest we can look up as we need it.

Performance support is not quite the same as learning

The purpose of training or any other learning experience is to bring about a long-term change in knowledge, skills or attitudes – and that’s not an easy thing to do. Depending on the requirement, we need to apply just the right strategy to help our learners make lasting connections in their brains. This process takes time and success is never guaranteed.

Learning and teaching activities aim to build lasting knowledge and skill. When future problems occur, the individual can access their memories to help them decide what to do. They can then take action.

With performance support, we are not concerned with long-term retention. It doesn’t matter whether the users of our support systems remember anything – just that they’re able to get the job done. So, if we have an immediate problem, we access the support system to find out what to do and we take immediate action.

Performance support is not completely separate from learning. You could regard it as knowledge that exists externally to ourselves, as a sort of ‘outboard brain’. George Siemens described it like this: ‘Instead of the individual having to evaluate every bit of information, he or she creates a personal network of trusted nodes – people and content, enhanced by technology. The act of knowledge is offloaded onto the network itself.’

Traditionally, we have used performance support materials as part of the follow-up to a formal programme. Our courses are supported by a modest selection of resources – perhaps a handout or a checklist.

The modern approach still values courses as a way to engage people with new learning and to help them establish confidence. But the emphasis shifts to what happens next, how we follow-up to support learners at the point of need.

You could say that it’s becoming more important for people to know where to look or who to talk to than it is to know the what, why or how.

Deciding when performance support is the right approach

One of our most important tasks is to decide what needs to be taught in a course – or through some other sort of learning activity – and what can be included as a resource. Let’s look at some criteria that will help us decide …

Performance support is going to be useful when a task is performed infrequently. It’s unrealistic to expect people to remember what to do in every eventuality. Better to provide the information only when it’s needed. A good example would be a form you only complete once a year – by the time the next year comes around, you can remember very little.

Another indicator is when the task is complex. Even when you perform a task fairly frequently, you may not be able to remember every rule, every code, or the precise sequence in which every action should be carried out. Performance support tools refresh your memory and give you confidence that you’re getting the job absolutely right.

Performance support comes in handy when there are tricky problems to resolve. Even when you are well trained and have a lot of experience, you can be caught out by particularly thorny problems. A support system can provide you with a method for tackling the problem or access to others who might have experienced the problem before.

Another indicator is when job holders change frequently. When employee turnover is very high, the argument for training diminishes. Better to provide really excellent performance support which allows those who are new to do an acceptable job first time.

And then there are situations when there is simply no time for training. Better performance support than nothing.

Performance support is better when it’s learner-centred and agile

Obviously, it’s possible to determine requirements for performance support from the top-down – after all, managers have valuable insights into what would unlock performance in their areas of responsibility. But no-one knows better what would work in the real world than the people who are doing the job.

The best way to approach performance support is from the user’s perspective. Talk to employees; find out what challenges they face; get a feel for the contexts in which these challenges occur; ask employees what they feel would help them to overcome the challenge. They might say that they could really do with some training. More often than not, they’ll say they need a quick video, a checklist, a template, a fact sheet or a decision aid.

Don’t set about creating these resources as if each was a Hollywood production. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble by working up a quick prototype and testing it in the field. Who knows? It may just be fine as it is. Typically, you’ll make some changes to take account of the feedback and put it back in the loop again. Performance support is best approached from an agile perspective.

I hope you feel inspired to make an impact with performance support in your organisation and that you’ll do this working alongside your users.

Good luck!


See the Skills Journey course: Designing for performance support

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When performance support trumps learning
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