Performance Support: Hiding in Plain Sight in Life, but Not So Much in the Training World

I went into Starbucks this morning.  It was packed, yet all the drink orders came out correct; a really low error rate.  On each cup is a simple checklist job aid, completed when the order is made that tells the barista how to make the drink.  Why? Performance support.  I had always been confounded when completing my tax retun.  But now, Turbo Tax hides the complexity and, after asking me a variety of simple questions, a miracle (at least to me) happens: my tax return comes out of my printer without me having to know anything about the pretzel logic of the tax code.  Performance support again.

Performance support is everywhere.  From job aids to mobile apps to sophisticated computer programs, we all know how much more difficult everyday life would be without them.  We’re constantly looking for ways to make things easier, more efficient, and less stressful.  It’s where we should begin.

Yet in many corners of the training world, we often skip this step.  We don’t naturally begin with performance, or we often do it backwards.  We see complexity in the form of new knowledge, new technology, or a new process and our initial instinct is to offer training.  How different would it be if our initial instinct was to make the complex simple, the technology easy, and the process more efficient?  What if we started with supporting the worker at the moment of need?  Then, after we did all that we could to support performance, we might then find areas that could be addressed by training.  What would this buy us?

Pretty much everyone who has implemented a well-designed performance support solution – from a job aid to an enterprise system – has seen good results in efficiency, cost-effectiveness and scalability.

But more interestingly, performance support changes training priorities and decision-making.  I believe that at least fifty percent of all training efforts are, to one extent or another, compensation for bad documentation, bad technology or bad processes.  Instead of making documentation more accurate and easier to understand, we spend hours or even days training people on how to interpret the uninterpretable.   Instead of taking the complexity out of work processes or systems, we teach work-arounds.  If we fixed these problems, instead of coping with them, and if we added performance support as part of that fix, the training that would be left would truly be warranted, efficient and effective.  Yes, there is a role for training, especially when learning something for the first time or enriching our knowledge.  But when we are engaged in the application of that knowledge, we are much better off considering a performance support approach first.

So what can you do, now, to make these changes?  You can start by asking three fundmental questions at the beginning of each project:

  1. What are the real underlying performance problems?
  2. How can we solve these performance problems in the most direct way?
  3. What types of support can we introduce into the workflow that will enhance performance at the moment of need?

Then, after you thoroughly consider these questions, then you can look for opportunitiess to train.  Your training efforts will be better for it.

Whether it’s getting my coffee order right the first time, or minimizing the torture of doing my tax returns, and lots of stuff in between, my life is enhanced by performance support.  So is yours.  Now it’s time to change how we think about performance support in our professional practice, so that we can realize the same possibilities in the work we do.


About Marc Rosenberg

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is a leading management consultant in training, organizational learning, e-learning, knowledge management and performance improvement.  He has written two best-selling books, E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age, and Beyond E-Learning: Approaches and Technologies to Enhance Organizational Knowledge, Learning and Performance.  His monthly column, “Marc My Words,” appears in the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions online magazine.  Marc is past president of the International Society for Performance Improvement, has spoken at The White House, debated e-learning’s future at Oxford University, keynoted conferences around the world, authored over 50 articles, and is frequently quoted in major trade publications.  Learn more at

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