A Beginning Discussion

What is Performance Support?

It only makes sense that we begin this blog with a definition that can help drive a very important follow-up discussion. We need to work together to clearly define the scope of this practice we call performance support. This can also help us make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing when we discuss this topic. So, here’s a starting definition:

Performance Support is providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance.”

Now, this definition merits further explanation to make sure our discussion moves in the right direction. You see, historically, definitions of performance support, like this one, have been applied too narrowly in the context of all we are charged to do. Today there is much we can and need to do under the umbrella of performance support. And the benefits of embracing a broader view of Performance Support can be astounding for people and the organizations where they work.

This Broader Understanding Begins With The Five Moments of Need.

Early in my career I ended up managing the training, documentation, and help-desk teams for a company that relied heavily upon the full range of computing capacity then available to the world. There was everything from supercomputers to PCs. In that setting, our collective work was straightforward – we had complete responsibility for helping every person in that organization successfully perform their work without any wasted effort at any time, of any day. This required us to pay attention to the full range of performance support needs people have in their journey of becoming and remaining competent in their individual and collective work.

Five phases diagram

There are five phases that people pass through which require support in order to successfully perform. The training industry has primarily focused their practices upon the first two moments of need:

1. When people are learning how to do something for the first time

2. When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned.

Documentation teams have primarily assumed the responsibility for providing printed and online help information for people to use when they face the third moment of need:

3. When they need to act upon what they have learned (which includes planning what they will do, remembering what they may have forgotten, or adapting their performance to a unique situation.)

Help Desk practices have also assumed a role in supporting people in this third area of need. But their primary work has been to address the fourth moment:

4. When problems arise, or things break or don’t work the way they were intended.

Finally, there is a moment of need that few organizations have addressed well:

5. When people need to learn a new way of doing something (which requires them to change skills that are deeply ingrained in their performance practices.)

Since spending those early days overseeing the efforts of these three groups (training, documentation, and help desk support services), We’ve had the opportunity to view up close the efforts of hundreds of organizations in addressing these five moments of need. In almost every case their combined efforts have been limited, fragmented, and wasteful. Now this is not to say that great work isn’t going on in each of these performance support silos, but those we are charged to support deserve “intuitive, tailored aid” that is orchestrated together to “ensure the most effective personal and collective performance” during all five moments of need. Solving this requires an understanding of the role of performance support during each of these five moments of need.

What Is the Role of Performance Support During the First Two Moments of Need

The primary benefits of performance support are achieved during the final three moments of need (3. applying, 4. fixing, and 5. relearning.) But a common challenge in these areas is whether or not people choose to use the “tailored aid” available to them. Often this aid isn’t as intuitive as it should be. Also, some performers aren’t as independent as they need to cause them to take full advantage of the performance support offerings.

It is during the “1. start-up” and “2. ongoing learning” moments of need, that performers can learn how to use the performance support aides you are making available to them. It is also vital that you help learners become more self-reliant in their disposition to use these aids.

In addition, performance support aids can change the scope and nature of formal learning events. For example, when you have an embedded job aid that will walk a person through software related tasks as they actually perform those tasks, then why not teach performers how to use that job-aid and then focus their learning on more critical skills tied to business processes and collaborative work.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Applying”

This is the sweet spot of performance support. There is much that can and needs to occur here. And today we can do more than we have been able to do in the past. When people are at this moment when they need to actually perform, on the job, they need instant access to tools that will intuitively help them do just that -- perform. This help must be immediate and tailored to the role and situation of the performer. The aid needs to allow the performer to dive as deep as necessary depending upon a person’s need to plan, remember, adapt, or reference information required for successful performance.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Fixing”

This is another area where performance support practices deliver great value. Often the job aids created for this moment of need are tools that walk performers through the problem solving process – automating all that is possible to automate.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Relearning”

This moment of need has been the least attended to and yet is the most challenging. And since we don’t attend to it very well, it is often the most costly to organizations. Once skills have become ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations, replacing them with new ways of performing is a significant learning challenge. This need cannot be adequately met by only bringing performers into formal learning events devoted to teaching “the new ways” of doing things. In addition, these learners absolutely need job aids that will guide them through the new way each time they are called upon by their job to perform. This challenge is ultimately resolved over time on the job.

What Is “Intuitive, Tailored Aid”?

Job aids are intuitive and tailored to the degree they:

  • are readily and logically available— The harder people need to work to get to a job aid the higher the probability they won’t go.

  • are simple, straightforward, and role-based—tailored aid must be focused directly upon the specific role of the performer as well as the situation she or he faces. It can’t contain irrelevant information. It can’t be fluffy.

  • map directly to the way a person actually performs—The most logical way people approach performance is by business process. Process maps provide performers the capacity to “keep it all together” and not become lost in all the detail.

  • are integrated to allow deep diving— As any organization’s performance support practice expands, at some point they will face the challenge of “job-aid” proliferation. This calls for development (sooner rather than later) of a performance support “broker” that can help ensure that aid is not only readily but logically available. These brokers must also allow performers the option to dive deeper into learning at every moment of need.

What Is “Effective Performance”?

Effective performance must inherently include efficient performance. That is, it isn’t truly effective if performance is achieved in a wasteful manner. Effective performance must also embrace collective as well as individual actions. It must also be time independent. In other words, effective performance is achieved by helping every person in an organization work together to successfully perform their work without any wasted effort at any time, of any day.

Where To From Here?

So, here’s our definition to start this vital dialogue:

Performance Support is providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance.”

We invite you to join us by considering the ideas presented in this blog and then contributing your insights based upon your own experience. Together we can do for Performance Support what we have too often failed to do in other areas of our profession – clearly define its boundaries. We can then move forward to bring Performance Support to its full contribution to this great journey in which we are all engaged— helping people and organizations succeed in their work.

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