Any formal learning solution that lacks effective ongoing performance support leaves in its aftermath random acts of failure. This failure generally goes undetected by the organization unless the consequences of that failure somehow make it visible.

Even then, the distance between training and these subsequent failure points is often great enough to allow plausible denial of any culpability on the part of the learning solution. Thank goodness, too, that the “grading” traditions of most school systems have oriented learners in our work streams to do everything they can to avoid failure. When we throw them over the wall of our formal learning events into the real world of performance they tend to work hard to compensate for the limitations of those learning solutions. When they fail, they most often fail quietly.

Learning from mistakes

From our earliest experience in formal education, we have been oriented to get things right—to avoid making mistakes. Those of us who design and develop learning solutions should certainly pursue effective performance as the primary key-success indicator.

Yet, there’s a profound lesson to learn from Cisco CEO John Chambers. When he interviews potential leaders for his company, he rightly asks first about results and walks through what they have done right. His next question is, “Tell me about your failures.” Chambers looks for candidness in the mistakes they’ve made, but then wants to know, “What would you do differently this time?”

Chambers believes that we’re a product of the challenges we face in life, and how we handle those challenges probably has more to do with what we accomplish than our successes.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan, also believes failure is a mighty teacher. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Thomas Edison credited failure coupled with determination as the pathway to his success: “Genius? Nothing! Sticking to it is the genius! I’ve failed my way to success.”

Now, no learning professional wants to take a chance on failure when the consequences are significant. This is where an approach called “critical skills analysis” can help sort out tasks where failure can be a safe learning experience. Think about times when you have failed—where that failure didn’t harm anyone or anything. It might have been uncomfortable, perhaps, but you learned from it—didn’t you? 

Safe failures

Learning through “safe” failure is most certainly a contributor to personal growth. Therefore our methodology ought to include identifying and accommodating those tasks where people can safely learn when failure happens. Here’s how you can do that.

Spend a few minutes studying the following rating scale:

Figure 1: What kind of consequences will there be?

Consider the implications of identifying tasks that score in the 1 to 3 range in the scale above. For these tasks, an effectively designed EPSS (embedded performance support system) can provide a safety net that can allow complete transformation of the classroom. Here’s how. By delivering two-click, 10-second access to just what’s needed to enable learning while in the workflow, you can take these tasks out of the classroom. This allows greater instructional focus on the remaining tasks and their related concepts that scored in the upper range of the “Critical Impact” scale.

Without this, most courses have too much content crammed into them for the time allotted. In order to cover all the content, people generally sideline proper instructional methodology, which forces instructors into presenter mode. Yet the critical-impact ratings for some of that content call for significant investment of methodology.

Learning in the context of work

Critical skills analysis has proven to be the means for safely removing, on the average, 50 percent of the content out of the learning queue and into the workflow; to be learned at the moment of “apply.” This is actually the optimum environment for learning content and skills where the consequences of failure aren’t significant. The real world, not the classroom, provides legitimate context and pressing need.

Here’s a reality: the closer a learner is to the place and moment of “apply,” the more open and ready that learner is to learn. Consider your own learning mindset while in the workflow compared to when you step away from it to learn in the fabricated environment of a classroom or an eLearning course. At which of those moments are you most motivated and ready to engage mentally, emotionally, and physically to learn?

Experience confirms that we are most attuned to learning when we are in the context of our work. Research teaches us that it is also the environment where learning is most naturally optimized.


For example, research verifies that distributed practice, which is a core component of spaced learning, is particularly beneficial if long-term retention is the goal. More than 800 experiments have demonstrated that spaced repetition increases long-term retention in individuals by 200 percent and that the optimal time to review information is just before the “forgetting” phase.

Forgetting is a byproduct of time and it is in the workflow where the forgetting that counts happens. Therefore, it’s there where the “optimal time to review” is and we should best address it. This is what an EPSS (embedded performance support system) can do most effectively. Performers naturally turn to an EPSS when they are right at the point of uncertainty (the forgetting phase).

Spaced repetition is also the primary agent for developing automated skills. The ability to perform complex integrated skills without conscious thought is very important. For example, there’s much that you do while driving a car that is automated. If you had to consciously think through everything you do to pass a car at high speed on a busy road, you would do so at great risk. Although automaticity is vital in executing complex skills, it can also present significant challenges when change happens. Try driving, for the first time, in a country where you are required to do so on the other side of the road and in a car where the driver’s seat is opposite from where you have developed your driving skills. 

It’s estimated that 70 percent of all work skills become automated. Unlearning automated skills in order to perform in a new way just doesn’t happen in a learning event. Unlearning to relearn requires successful application over time (e.g., spaced repetition). This challenge of relearning how to perform in a new way is one of the primary reasons why the majority of change initiatives fail.

Learning at the moment of “change” can only efficiently happen in the workflow. It’s at that moment where people are most ready to “relearn,” and an EPSS can meet that need within 2-clicks and 10-seconds. 

Performance support delivers learning

A third research-backed reason why learning in the flow of work can be more potent than formal learning has to do with how we truly learn. David A. Kolb defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” Kolb’s view of learning was shaped by the pioneering research in experiential learning by Kurt Lewin, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget, who, with others, have demonstrated that “learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.” In Dewey’s words, “What we learn in the way of knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow.”

The implications of this research to the discipline of performance support is significant. The core principle here is that optimum learning is ongoing and requires the context of experience. The workflow is where context resides and reveals itself. An EPSS can continuously deliver learning—in the place where all the stars align; where skills can be fully internalized, where learning-change is best negotiated, and where learners are most open and ready to learn because they are in the context of the flow of work. 

Furthermore, by removing these tasks from the formal-learning curriculum, you can reduce the scope of formal instruction (instructor-led or eLearning.) This frees up instructional time to provide greater attention to those skills that are at the upper end of the Critical Impact Rating Scale and at the same time significantly reduce the amount of time devoted to formal learning.

So, if you are wondering how to justify investing in performance support and you’re concerned with the time and effort required to add performance support to your existing workload—consider embracing the benefits of “safe failure.” It can free up the time and resources you need and at the same time deliver a more effective training solution.