The Other Side of Learning: “Performance is Everything”

Harold S. Geneen was CEO of ITT from 1959 to 1977. While CEO, Geneen grew the company from $765 million in sales in 1961 into a multinational conglomerate with $17 billion sales in 1970. One of the fundamental principles that governed Geneen’s remarkable leadership was this: “Performance is everything. Forget everything else.”

Is it possible that we have forgotten this principle in the realm of teaching and learning? We’ve made great progress on the formal side of learning – when people are learning something for the first time and when they want to learn more. We have rightly broadened our approach from the traditional classroom to include other formal means to help people learn quickly and effectively. We have employed innovative technologies to make these learning opportunities available anywhere, anytime.

But on the whole, we have been negligent in addressing the most critical moment in any person’s individual learning process – their moment of “Apply.” Preparing learners for the vital moment when they are called upon to perform should have always been at the heart of our efforts. This is when learners meet the realities of what they actually learned, what they didn’t learn, what they have forgotten, what they have misunderstood, the unanticipated nuances, and the challenge of a constantly changing performance landscape.

Yogi Berra, who played for and managed the New York Yankees is reported to have said to his family while driving to Cooperstown, Pennsylvania, “We’re lost but we’re making good time.” In many ways, his statement seems to describe how we are approaching learning today. We’re building great event-based learning solutions in less time with fewer resources. At the same time, we continue to be a bit lost in the context of taking learners on the journey to sustained, successful on-the-job performance.

We seem to be unable to shake the formal learning event paradigm from our collective mindset. Our core mission is to develop learning solutions that ensure people can perform effectively when they are called upon to act. Think about how your organization is approaching training today. Are your sights squarely on the “Moment of Apply”? In the past we might have been able to ignore this vital moment and still somehow stumble into successful on-the-job performance. The nature of the world today simply won’t let us do that. It demands that we focus squarely on Apply.

What is more, today’s work environment doesn’t tolerate learners stepping out of their workflow to learn unless it is absolutely vital to do so. And the actual nature of 21st century learners is resistant to learning options that are delayed and removed from the here and now. They are self-directed, adaptive, and collaborative in their approach to learning. These kinds of learners will ultimately abandon outright our formal learning solutions if what we provide them fails to efficiently prepare them to effectively perform at their moments of “Apply.” Why? Because when facing a traditional course that fails to do this, today's learners are predisposed to simply walk away and look elsewhere for the shortest path to successful performance.

Gloria Gery pioneered the initial ideas and practices of “Performance Support.” Unfortunately, it only survived a short period of adulation and then waned because of technological challenges (which, by the way, no longer exist.) Oh, over the years some have given lip service to performance support by developing a few job aids, but other learning practices and technologies have overshadowed Gloria’s vision. This has been a grave mistake – literally. Today an inexcusably high percentage of learning outcomes are dead on arrival at the moment of “Apply.” What a terrible thing. Can we feel okay about investing time and effort to create events that fail to deliver successful performance when it really counts? Where’s the return on that investment?

It is irresponsible of anyone in our profession to design, develop, or deliver a learning solution that fails to take into account the support infrastructure needed for learners to perform successfully in their work whenever and however they are called upon to do so. It isn’t acceptable to simply throw learners over the classroom wall into the workflow and then just hope that what we did during the event is enough. It’s not. We know full well that learning doesn’t stick unless you make provision to support performance in the workflow. We also know that the success that does occur isn’t all that could occur if we attended to the principles and practices of “performer support.” And the good news is that doing this doesn’t require more effort than what most are doing now. It does, however, require a mindset shift. It also necessitates our learning how to redirect current efforts to bring about this alignment.

This isn’t a proposal to overthrow formal learning events or to diminish the vital role trainers play. But we need to move much of what we do as far into the natural workflow of the organization as possible; we need to avoid, when we can, pulling people from their work for large periods of time to learn. There has never been a time when we have had greater capacity to do this than now.

Five “Moments of Need”

Here’s what we need to do: we must redefine our work to embrace the entire journey performers make from the beginning stages of learning through the full range of challenges that can occur at the moment of apply — when learners are called upon to actually perform. There are five fundamental moments that comprise the full spectrum of performance support needs. These “Five Moments of Need” provide an overarching framework for helping learners become and remain competent in their individual and collective work.

Here they are:

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

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

  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 (Apply)

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

  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 (Change)

The people we train and support (our mission) deserve “intuitive, tailored aid” that will “ensure the most effective personal and collective performance” during all five of these moments of need.

What is the role of performer support at the moment of “Apply”?

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 his or her need to plan, remember, adapt, or reference information required for successful performance.

Also, we know that at the “Moment of Apply” performers can require support at three phases of “Apply”: before “Apply”, during “Apply, and after “Apply.” (Figure 1)

apply button with arrows pointing to Before, During, and After buttons

Figure 1. Performers can require support before, during, or after the moment in which the job demands they apply what they have learned.

 

Before “Apply”

Sometimes, waiting until someone is in the midst of performing to provide support is just too late. There are times when it makes more sense to help learners prepare just prior to when they are called upon to actually act. For example, prior to walking into a meeting with an upset customer, the account manager might want to review the “Five Steps for Resolving Customer Problems ” which she had learned a year earlier in one of her sales courses. The performance support tool she would use to access, review, and then plan her meeting with the upset customer would be called a “planner.”

During “Apply”

Clearly, this is the traditional spot for performance support. Here we create something Allison Rossett calls “Sidekicks.” A sidekick is anything we create that supports performance right at the moment of performance. A GPS (Global Positioning System) is a perfect example of a sidekick. It coaches you as you drive along helping you make the correct turns and arrive at the correct destination.

After Apply

This third and final phase is a new player in the realm of performance support. In the discipline of instructional and learning design, we most often view evaluation as something we do to determine if learners achieved what we set out to help them achieve. We measure the merit and worth of the experience. We work to deduce the return on investment as a result. This is all fine and good, but evaluation has much more to offer. It is a principle of instruction not just a practice in the training development process. When we train people how to evaluate their own performance we place them on a path of ongoing improvement. When we provide them tools to ensure that their self-evaluation is objective and deliberate, we ensure that ongoing growth occurs at maximum potential.

In performance support, we call these self appraisal components “Quick Checks.” They help performers review their performance, determine how they could have performed better, and take the steps necessary to perform better next time they are called upon to act in a similar manner. This is a key practice of performer support.

Michael J. Gelb wrote, “Champions know that success in inevitable, that there is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” Self-evaluation can be the most influential form of feedback possible. It ensures persistent growth. It may very well be the most powerful principle of instruction and learning. And it certainly has a vital role to play in performer support.

The role of New and More at the Moment of Apply

Although the first two moments of need (Learn New and Learn More) are initially satisfied by the development and delivery of formal learning events, these two can also occur at the moment of Apply. It is highly probable, in today’s work environment, that a performer may need to learn something for the first time or learn more right at the moment of Apply — when there simply isn’t time to step away from the workflow and “take” a traditional course. Performers need to learn it in real-time while on the job at the moment of Apply. (Figure 2)

 

New and More buttons pointing to Apply button

Figure 2. The need to Learn New and to Learn More can occur at the moment of Apply.

What is the role of performer support at the Moment of “Solve”?

One of the realities of life is that things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to work; life doesn’t always happen according to a script. And sometimes, in our rapid pursuit of doing what we need to do, we make the wrong turn and experience those unique learning moments called road blocks or even failure. In the New Normal, it isn’t enough to know how to do something correctly, it is also vital to be able to diagnose and solve problems that happen along the way. The situations we call “problems” can be caused by unforeseen circumstances, other people, and ourselves. Regardless of the source, these moments of “Solve” require diagnostic skills coupled with performance support.

The traditional organizational bandage for solving problems that arise in the workflow are “help desks,” and sometimes intentionally created support networks — both backed by capable troubleshooters. When life was copasetic with only a few twists or turns along the way, this was a sufficient solution. But, today, this model, alone, won’t solve the “solving” challenge. The New Normal has shifted the definition of competence from simply applying knowledge and skills to continually acquiring and adapting knowledge and skills. Competence is now a matter of individual learning agility and the moments of “Solve” are prime contributors to the agility challenge.

Learners, today, must be comfortable in their ability to “Solve” unanticipated challenges. They must have confidence in the very act of not knowing. They must be disposed to face challenges beyond their current knowledge and skills. This confidence at these critical moments will come from:

  • a performer support infrastructure that has anticipated their needs at the moment of solve

  • the training they have received to engage those tools in solving problems

  • the on-the-job successes they have along the way

  • organizational acceptance of failed attempts that may happen in the process

In addition, social media technologies provide remarkable opportunity for instantaneous access to the collective wisdom within and beyond the organizations we serve. Immediate collaboration at the moment of “Solve” combined with the capacity of individuals to resolve the core challenges that come their way are the scalable resources help desks need to meet the demands of the New Normal – a work environment in the state of constant flux.

What is the role of performer support at the Moment of “Change”?

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 those out of date practices 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 performers 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.

Change impacts how we address the moment of “Apply.” Change is a fundamental reality in today’s work environment. It is often unpredictable, absolutely unrelenting, and, more often than not, terribly unforgiving. Alvin Toffler, writer and futurist, has observed that change, today, is “non-linear and can go backwards, forwards and sideways". He further describes how we must respond to this dynamic change environment, in his book Rethinking the Future: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

The fundamental difference between how we support performers at the moment of “Change” and how we do at the typical moment of “Apply” lies in the requirement change makes of performers to “unlearn” and then “relearn” a new way. Our profession, for the most part, hasn’t provided the support it can and should when performers face this performance twist. Here are a couple of recommendations:

Take on the challenge of deep rooted change

Years ago, after completing work for a client, a participant in the project offered to provide a ride to the airport to allow continued discussion. After a long drive, seeing no planes in the air anywhere, the question was asked, “How long before we arrive at the airport?” As the driver hit his brakes, he turned and said, “I’m almost home.” Has something like this ever happened to you – where you have acted in an automated way? The cognitive principle at play in such circumstances is “automaticity.” Things that we do, over and over, tend to become automated in our skill set – to the point that we can do them without conscious thought. And when this has occurred within a workforce and the workforce is then called upon to change that automated performance, organizations face one of the most significant performer support challenges .

Software companies have paid dearly for their failure to provide meaningful solutions to this moment of change — where skills have become “deep-rooted.” For example, it is not uncommon to see software vendors force feed newly released software upgrades through their market channels. There is often very little pull from the marketplace. Why? Because with all the hyped capabilities, the software too often lacks the performance support infrastructure necessary to help people “unlearn” their automated skills and “relearn” how to perform the same tasks within the new software. If these vendors would actually provide this support, the uptake by their existing customer base would have not only been dramatically faster (thereby accelerating revenues) but the good will generated within that customer base would suppress competing market forces.

When organizations face any major change initiative, there is high probability that there are deep rooted skills that require overriding. This can best be done with a robust solution that supports performers in their workflow, at the moment of apply when they are called upon to “unlearn” and "relearn." Too few change initiatives adequately make this crucial investment.

This challenge of deep-rooted change has been around for a long time. We now have the knowledge and wherewithal to address it directly. We simply need to understand the realities of deep-rooted change and step up to it, ahead of it, before it’s upon us.

Grow dynamic learners

There is a new era of change confronting organizations today. This unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving environment of change requires organizations to cultivate dynamic learners – learners who know how to be rapid, adaptive, and collaborative in how they learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Today’s learners must cultivate a mindset that anticipates change. These dynamic performers must also have access to tools to help them detect change before it is on top of them. Because they live in a state of continuous change, they must also cultivate personal learning strategies that minimize the probability of their own skills becoming automated (deeply rooted) unless those skills merit becoming so.

These dynamic learners learn on the run and rely on performance support tools to assist them at every moment of learning, unlearning, and relearning. And when these dynamic learners see change coming at them, they know how to assess their current readiness to perform, identify what skills and knowledge they need to cast aside and then determine how to take advantage of performer support systems to assertively adapt to the conditions around them. (Figure 3)

 

New, more, change, solve buttons pointing to apply button, and apply button points to Before, During, and After buttons

Figure 3. Dynamic learners must be able to learn “on the run.”

 

The bottom line? Organizations need a performer support strategy in place that accommodates all of these moments of need at the moment of Apply – while people are “doing” their job. The strategy must also address the three time phases of apply: the time before performance, the time during performance, and the time after performance ends.

Figure 3 shows how the moments of need can be nested into the moment of Apply. It also shows the three phases of Apply also impacting this critical moment of Apply. The elephant in the room here is the need for organizations to address the challenges performers face at each of these moments during all three phases.

In The Sun Also Rises, Mike Campbell, Ernest Hemingway’s character, when asked how he went bankrupt, replies: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” This will be the case for much of what we call formal learning today – unless we push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow and provide people the tools and preparation they need to successfully perform at the “Moment of Apply.” This must be at the heart of all we do. It should always have been the case. Remember “Performance is everything. Forget everything else.”

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