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Learning Solutions: New Thoughts in Performance Support

An article about the increasingly popular topic of performance support written by Maestro’s very own Phil Neal and Carla Torgerson was featured in this week’s issue of Learning Solutions magazine, published by The eLearning Guild. Check out the feature story on the Learning Solutions website or read the copy of the article below.

The workforce has become more mobile, creating a significant shift in the way business is done. A 2012 Cisco study found that three of five workers say they don’t need to be in the office to be productive. We are seeing the impact of this shift not only on how people work, but also in how they learn and consume content to do their jobs.

For example, let’s say John is a sales rep for a major pharmaceutical company. He has a large territory and is constantly on the move. He works in the cardiology division, selling pharmaceuticals that doctors use to treat various conditions of the heart, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease. His company is releasing a new cholesterol-lowering drug in two weeks. How will the company prepare John to sell this new drug? (Note that while this type of training scenario is common, we have fabricated the specifics for purposes of this example.)

In the past, John would have taken formal training (instructor-led, online, and Webinar) and the product team or his boss may have provided some coaching. John would have also used informal learning by searching the Internet and talking with peers. But is there more the organization could do to maximize John’s potential and create a more efficient path to proficiency?

With a mobile workforce and use of different training delivery methods, organizations can provide training and performance support much differently today. Formal learning coupled with performance support enables John to access specific content at the point of need, supporting faster and more accurate knowledge application and resulting in greater speed to competency.

Performance support defined Performance support provides employees with a way to learn and improve skills while doing real tasks on the job. Performance support has been around for a long time, but it has been gaining a lot of attention lately because advances in computer and mobile technologies have significantly enhanced our ability to support performance on the job.

In our everyday lives, we have become accustomed to learning while performing a task. Have you ever used a GPS device to get somewhere, or upon getting lost, looked up a map on your Smartphone? If so, you’ve used performance support. With all the devices on our desks and in our pockets, we have an unprecedented ability to get help in the moment of need during performance.

This is also true for workplace learning. It isn’t until people are actually performing a task that they realize the specifics about what they don’t know – either because they didn’t learn it, they misunderstood it, or they forgot it. By providing support at the moment of performance, we enable learners to excel in ways they can’t with formal training alone.

Performance support and formal training Our profession is steeped in wisdom about how to teach people. However, our field has always struggled with the gap between what people learn in training and their ability to transfer that learning to the job. With that gap, it becomes very difficult to quantify results or identify the return on investment. With performance support, we assist learners as they are applying their newfound skills at work. Nowhere else will they have as many opportunities to apply and repeat their skills as they perfect their learning.

Some people mistakenly think that performance support is about replacing formal training. This is not the case. The relationship is symbiotic, with performance support enhancing the effectiveness of training – and training enhancing the effectiveness of performance support.

Performance support ensures transfer from formal training and increases speed to proficiency. If people are learning something new, training plus performance support will help the learner to apply new knowledge effectively. Performance support can guide learners through difficult points and support them as they apply new behaviors.

Trainers have often ignored informal learning – the learning done outside of the classroom. Think about all the times you’ve been at your desk and done a quick Google search to learn something you need right now. Experts claim that over 80 to 90 percent of workplace learning is informal. By using performance support, we make informal learning more deliberate, providing learners with the support they need when they need it. As Gottfredson and Mosher write: “We are now intentionally stepping into the informal side of learning.” (See the Reference at the end of the article.)

Features of effective performance support When implementing performance support, the first question to ask is, “When will my learners use it?” Yes, we know it will be at the moment of application, but this moment has four different stages:

1. Preparation 2. Urgency 3. Performance 4. Reflection

To continue our example, John knows all about the anatomy and physiology of the heart and how his company’s products can assist with various cardiovascular issues. The company’s new drug is a significant improvement over their previous cholesterol-lowering drugs because it works on a different pathway than current medications. John needs to understand this pathway to be able to sell the drug.

Last week, John attended a Webinar where he learned about this new product. He also completed an online course that provided more details about the drug and how it works in the body. This course also taught him how this drug fits into the portfolio of drugs he currently sells and how it compares to the drugs from other pharmaceutical companies he sells against.

Preparation During preparation, the learner is learning in the days before the moment of performance. This is likely a combination of training and learner-driven informal learning. The Webinar and online courses are formal training; John receives the content well before the moment of performance and in a formal setting.

Formal training should also introduce the performance support materials that will be available. This tells the learner not to waste time memorizing minutia and helps him to be comfortable with not knowing it all. Ultimately, the learner should come away from the formal training with an overview of the critical information, tools to use during performance, and a basic level of comfort about how to handle the new situation.

Given the high stakes of needing to be able to explain this new drug to the doctors he calls on, John is also likely to use informal learning to fill any gaps in the formal training. For example, he talks with colleagues about how they will handle difficult questions. He also spends time on reputable Websites reading material and viewing videos about how this kind of drug impacts the heart. He also reads about competitors’ drugs that work in similar ways.

As training professionals, we can impact this informal learning by creating short training pieces that John can access in those days prior to performance. Because it is likely that John has a specific need if he is reaching out for the training, the training should be short and tightly targeted to that need. By offering materials that provide the informal learning, we know John isn’t wasting his time surfing the Internet for what he needs to know. Instead, he is getting content targeted to his specific needs, including targeted messaging that the organization wants him to use with prospects and how to handle objections related to this drug.

Urgency Have you ever crammed for an exam? This is the same as preparing just prior to the moment of performance. Now is the time to focus on just the most important details – the things the learners are most likely to forget or things they cannot look up during the moment of performance.

At this point, John uses a quick reference sheet explaining the most salient points of the drug and its mechanism of action. He also reviews a list of the most common drugs he will sell against and how his drug differs from them. Most importantly, he reviews a list of the five most common questions or objections he can expect a prospect to have and the responses to each one.

In John’s case, he has a company-provided iPad he takes on all of his sales calls. All of the materials he needs for last-minute review are on the iPad, and John is able to use them in his car or in the waiting room while he waits for a doctor to see him. Therefore, the materials must be brief and easy to access.

It’s common to think learners can look everything up during the moment of performance, and to an extent that is true. However, there are many times when the performer must be able to handle at least the most basic tasks or lose credibility and confidence, particularly if he works directly with clients. For example, John’s drug inhibits cholesterol synthesis; if he must look this up in front of a prospect, he will lose so much credibility that the sale will be lost. For those things that he cannot review during the moment of performance, the urgency stage is crucial.

Performance Performance is what we usually think of as “performance support” – the support we provide while the learner is actually doing the task. For this stage, content must be very easy to access and chunked as tightly as possible. Remember, the learner wants reference materials targeted exactly to his specific need … right now.

In John’s case, he uses his iPad with the prospect to show an animation of how the drug works in the cardiovascular system. He also brings up a list of side effects. He reviewed the most common ones during the urgency stage, but this list is much more detailed and provides deeper scientific information on them. This is the material John does not need to memorize – and a prospect wouldn’t expect him to memorize.

Reflection Reflection is the period immediately after the moment of performance when the learner ponders the strengths and weaknesses of his performance. Recognizing areas of weakness will drive the learner back to learning more, either immediately after the performance or prior to the next moment of performance. If the performance includes interaction with a client, this stage also includes him validating the things he said and following up with the client if he needs to expand or correct something.

For example, let’s say John has a call with a family doctor who has some specific questions about how his drug interacts with other medications. John doesn’t do a very good job of answering her questions, and the doctor ends the meeting early. After the call ends, John takes the time to look up how this drug interacts with other medications so he is better prepared for the next doctor with similar questions. Most likely John will access one of the informal learning or performance support pieces that he had access to previously. He either didn’t use the resource before because he didn’t think he needed it, or he did use the resource but forgot the key points. Either way, he accesses the materials with a newfound sense of urgency.

Conclusion As employees become more mobile and technology continues to advance, organizations have unprecedented abilities to support employees’ performance at work. Adding a performance support component to formal training allows training departments to bolster performance in ways that are superior to training alone. Whether buying or creating performance support materials for your organization, think very carefully about when people will use it and what they are likely to need at that precise moment. Doing so will make a huge difference in the effectiveness of that support.

Reference Gottfredson, C. & Mosher, B. (2011). Innovative Performance Support: Strategies and practices for learning in the workflow. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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