In late 2012, Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business and Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT’s Sloan School of Management published the article “Big Data: The Management Revolution” in the Harvard Business Review. The authors suggested that the reason the “explosion of digital data is so important” is that big data can allow managers to, “know radically more about their businesses, and directly translate that knowledge into improved decision making and performance.” (Editor’s Note: Registration with HBR is required for full access to the article.)

Organizations interested in thriving and surviving in today’s markets certainly need to improve the effectiveness and speed with which their people make decisions. Obviously, big data provides increased capacity for improved decision-making by those who have access to it. This capacity is especially crucial in enabling an organization’s ability to identify market threats and opportunities with enough lead-time to adequately adapt. But there’s much more to sustaining peak performance in an environment of change than effective decisions informed by big data.

Big data is not enough

Where McAfee and Brynjolfsson get it wrong is their belief that big data directly translates through managers to improved performance. Big data can’t go it alone here. More often than not, decisions carry with them the requirement of change. And change today is “short fused,” requiring employees to constantly unlearn and then relearn at or above the speed of change. This “learning agility” is the defining quality of high-performance organizations.

Enduring competitive advantage is absolutely dependent upon an organization’s learning agility—meaning its “ability to continuously undergo new skill cycles to prepare for new competitive cycles—consistently retooling in order to maintain competitiveness.” (See In Search of Learning Agility, in the References at the end of this article.)

The pursuit of learning at the speed of change compels organizations to turn their attention to the workflow and the requirement of delivering immediate, intuitive, intentionally tailored aid to employees at their moment of need. This is called performance support, and when it is designed, developed, and delivered properly it:

  • Optimizes performance on the job by ensuring that people have the support they need to perform effectively at every changing moment
  • Cuts by as much as 50 percent the time needed to achieve effective performance on the job
  • Reduces the costs associated with on-the-job failure
  • Enables continuous performance improvement and innovation

All of this performance-enhancing impact is beyond the realm of big data’s direct influence.

Optimizing performance on the job

How much performance waste is there in your organization’s workflow? Jonathan Spira, author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization, claims that we waste a lot of time recovering from moment-to-moment interruptions to our work. According to Spira, the recovery time (e.g., the time it takes to return to the level of performance we were experiencing prior to an interruption) can be 10-20 times longer than the original interruption. One of the key roles of performance support is to provide consistent, two-click, 10-second recovery time. If you do the math, the savings here can more than pay for the investment in developing electronic performance support system (EPSS) capability.

Besides interruptions, your organization most likely experiences waste from the effects of information overload. This is where performers spin their wheels searching for and through the information they need to guide their work. Spira estimates that in the United States alone a minimum of 28-billion hours of productive time is lost each year because of information overload. This too is a sweet spot for performance support!

Gloria Gery defined an EPSS as an “orchestrated set of technology enabled services, that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.” An effectively designed EPSS solves the challenge of “information overload” by providing performers, “immediate access to just what they need, at their moment of need, in the form they need to get the job done.” Performance support is the answer to the vast amounts of scattered information in organizations today. Big data is only partially helpful here.

Cutting the time to effective performance

As mentioned earlier, big data provides an organization with the capacity to make an informed decision to change. From the moment of that decision to when that change is achieved is the measure of “time to effective performance.” An integrated learning- and performance-support strategy optimizes the time it takes to achieve effective performance on the job. This sets organizations firmly on the path to becoming an organization that learns at or above the speed of change. Standing still isn’t an option in today’s market environment. Organizational survival depends upon its readiness to respond to the demands of change adeptly with speed. Most likely you have enormous amounts of low-hanging fruit to pick in your efforts to increase learning agility. Go for that, and then don’t give up! Remember, at the heart of it all is performance support.

Reducing failure costs

Atul Gawande observed in his book The Checklist Manifesto that “The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, and reliably.” If this is true for your organization, then Gawande suggests you “need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies.” This is the fundamental mission of performance support: compensating for what we don’t know, connecting us to the most current information we need to know, and guiding us along paths that we can’t remember, that are new or have changes, and avoiding the quicksand along the way.

Enabling continuous improvement and innovation

By collapsing the time required to achieve competency and optimizing employee capacity to remain current in their knowledge and skills, employees can devote their reclaimed time to making a meaningful contribution to their work and to their clients, and to giving way to opportunity for innovation. In addition, principles of continuous performance improvement can be integrated into performance support. The end result? An organization that can respond to change with ever-increasing speed, magnitude, and innovation.

Opportunity for learning and development organizations

Big data certainly is earning legitimate attention and funding within organizations. But frankly, it is an enabler of a much more critical capability—an organization’s adaptive capacity. This too merits significant attention. It can be a matter of survival. Take a look at today’s corporate burial grounds and you’ll see the remains of what were once mighty companies that were unable to adapt ahead of their markets.

Organizational learning agility currently provides the learning industry a singular opportunity to contribute in a way and at a level we have not heretofore been privileged to do. Historically, we’ve struggled to demonstrate legitimate bottom-line strategic value to the organizations we serve. Today, more than ever before, we are needed at the corporate leadership table and we need to step into the room prepared to help lead our respective organizations into organizational learning agility under the banner and capabilities of performance support.


Clark, T.R. and Conrad A. Gottfredson. In Search of Learning Agility: Assessing Progress from 1957 to 2008. 2008.

Gawande, A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

O’Driscoll, T. and Jay Cross. “In Her Own Words: Gloria Gery on Performance.” 2005. http:/

Spira, J. Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.