‘I’m happy to wait for a course,’ said no learner, ever: The benefits of performance support

Our Head of Production Colin Welch looks at the ways performance support methodologies are mixing learner autonomy and organisational alignment to become an increasingly important part of today’s learning ecology.

When I first joined the online learning industry, the mantra for learning design was always ‘content is king’. The most important thing above all else is the quality of the content – good design and good writing.

Back then, in 99% of cases that content was being delivered in the form of eLearning courses – long, linear, unwieldy beasts that could take up to four months to develop and were only accessible via an LMS.

In the modern workplace good quality learning content is obviously still vital, but now I’d argue that ‘context is king’. Anyone working in a 21st century workplace, and especially graduates, are used to being able to get answers immediately. We’re part of a sharing economy when we’re online now – instantaneously in touch with our friends and colleagues, able to summon a cab via Uber and location based information about what’s around us from Google maps.

In a world where we can find out the best place to get a coffee nearby at the touch of the button, learners are increasingly expecting the same level of instant support during their working day – and if their employer can’t provide good quality on-line performance support (PS), they’ll turn to their colleagues or to the web.

If a learner wants to know something that will increase their productivity now, but the answer is ‘there’s a course being developed about that, it’ll be ready in ten weeks, you can go to the drag and drop on screen 45’ then we’re failing those people. We should recognise and accept that the LMS is not the first place most people will go when they need an answer.

Enter performance support – good quality (and up to date) content, created and curated by experts, and delivered at the point of need through a learning ecology of PS resources underpinned by a next generation LMS.
But to be effective, performance support can go above and beyond just being content split in to bite sized chunks and available easily – the more personal and timely the content the more effective it will be – so how can we achieve that?


How many training courses have you been on where you’ve sat through the first morning thinking ‘I know this stuff already’? The same applies to performance support – no-one wants to have their workflow interrupted with stuff they already know. It’s important that we recognise where people are struggling and provide the help that they genuinely need without irritating them (remember Clippy, Microsoft’s much-derided pop-up PS mascot?) There’s (at least) a couple of ways that we can improve on that:

  • Diagnostics – Before an activity begins, have the learner answer a series of short questions about what they’re doing, and if possible also their confidence levels. The level of performance support materials provided thereafter can be tailored to their level of expertise.
  • AI and adaptive learning – Algorithms now allow us to tailor content itself to the abilities and interests of the learner. If we can use an algorithm to quickly identify that someone’s excelling at a task or topic, why not encourage them to go straight to more advanced activities? Adaptive learning is being successfully implemented in HE (for example by Arizona State University) and can equally be extended to performance support.

Traditionally this approach has tended to be used with technical content and software / systems training, but semantic algorithms are opening doors for use in humanities.

Location specific content

In addition to being able to serve content to learners when they need it, we can also serve the content where it’s needed.

That could mean geographical location. Via location-aware mobile devices we can deliver content relevant to a learners’ physical surroundings – for example the building or campus they’re in, or the equipment they’re using. Using augmented reality technology it’s also possible to overlay information or instructions on to the real world, like how to fly an airplane, or in a slightly more mundane example, how to replace a printer cartridge!

Location specific content can also refer to the learner’s location or progress within a specific task, providing customised help with what they’re doing within a piece of software, or where they are in their workflow. By implementing structured learning pathways using a tool like tessello, it’s possible to structure a range of formal, informal and user generated resources around a user’s likely path through their work, helping them to learn as they go.

Access to experts and sharing / curation

User generated content can form an indispensable part of good performance support. Every organisation has SMEs on whole range of subjects (who’s the Excel whizz in your office? I bet they’re not an animated paperclip!) A report by McKinsey revealed that knowledge workers typically spend up to 19% of their work week (a full day!) searching for information.

Providing better ways for experts to share relevant, up-to-date expertise in a way that can be accessed by colleagues at the point of need can save organisations huge amounts of time and money (20-25% according to McKinsey). Providing opportunities for effective sharing of quality content in easily searchable communities of practice can be an extremely powerful way of reducing aimless googling!

All of this is still about great content, and whilst there are still undoubtedly subject areas where taking people away from their work to reflect via traditional training interventions will add value, if you can use performance support to get great content into context, you’re going to give your organisation a significant competitive edge.

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