When all is said and done—leading, managing, technologizing, big data enabling, training, supporting, and engaging employees—organizational success is fundamentally determined by how well people actually end up performing the day-to-day work of the organization.

The performance zone

Human performance engineer Gloria Gery described the arena where this day-to-day work of the organization takes place as “the performance zone.” More than twenty years ago, she challenged organizations to develop their capacity to enable high-level job performance within this zone. This zone is where “things come together … where people ‘get it,’ where the right things happen, where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situation … where employees put together all the individual [and collective] dance steps that they have mastered. The dance, the dancers, and the music are one.” (See the References at the end of this article.)

We should judge and value every effort we make to lead, manage, develop, train, and support people according to its contribution to the “high-level job performance” described by Gery. It’s the endgame. Job performance is what fundamentally matters.

Today’s performance zone has never been more challenging. It is continuously disrupted by unrelenting change, where a threat or an opportunity can come out of nowhere at warp speed. An organization’s ability to detect and adapt ahead of it all will, at some point, make or break it.

Today’s learning organizations have new challenges

This adaptive capacity doesn’t just happen. It has to be intentionally pursued. Peter Senge championed an adaptive “learning organization.” “In the long run,” he wrote, “the only sustainable source of competitive edge is your organization’s ability to learn faster than its competitors.”

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Senge prescribed organizational methodologies for developing and sustaining a high-performing work environment where teams produce “extraordinary results, trust one another, complement each other’s strengths, and compensate for each other’s limitations.” Senge rightly understood that organizations naturally struggle to achieve this kind of high-level job performance.

Although his insights had real merit, few organizations actually pursued becoming the kind of learning organization he envisioned—and none really achieved it. Why? Because at the time Senge proposed that organizations change they had no incentive to do so. Markets were stable and predictable; organizations had the luxury of setting long-term strategy. They hired the right talent and employed proven management practices to orchestrate the work within the performance zone.

Markets today are too unstable and unpredictable for this formula to be enough. It leaves too much up to chance. To thrive and survive in the 21st century, organizations must develop internal capacity to “continuously undergo new skill cycles to prepare for new competitive cycles — constantly re-tooling in order to maintain their competitiveness.” (See The eLearning Guild’s Research Report In Search of Learning Agility.)

Five strategic areas for today’s learning organization

This capacity to learn at or above the speed of change requires direct attention to five areas.

  1. Organizational strategy needs to be dynamic, informed, and fully visible within the performance zone. Strategy must be dynamically informed by a worldview. The financial tsunami that struck in 2008 has taught us that anything can happen anywhere in the world and change the entire economy, alter markets, redefine customers, eliminate or create opportunity, and more. Only through vigilant monitoring of the geopolitical landscape with its volatile markets, disruptive technologies, and unpredictable environments can organizations hope to identify potential threats and opportunities before they arrive squarely on top of them with insufficient time to respond.
  2. We must do more than manage and train. Employees must own their own engagement. They must be empowered and enabled to learn dynamically. They must constantly hone their capacity to “unlearn and then relearn ahead of the speed of change.” And, they must be rapid, collaborative, and aggressive in how they go about it. This is the fundamental employee and leadership competency for organization’s today.
  3. Those who design, develop, and deliver learning solutions need to shift their mindset to the performance zone. If they haven’t already, they must direct their full efforts to enabling high-level job performance in the zone. They must have a performance mindset rather than a learning mindset. Here’s what that mindset looks like:

    Learning Mindset

    Performance Mindset

    I see training as the primary means for achieving effective on-the-job performance.

    I see training as just one of the means for achieving effective on-the-job performance.

    My primary focus is developing learning solutions.

    My primary focus is developing performance solutions.

    Training is my default solution when there is a performance gap.

    By default, I check to see if effective performance can be achieved without pulling people away from their work.

    I view my work through the lens of designing, producing, and implementing courseware that is aligned with business needs.

    I view my work through the lens of designing, producing, and implementing solutions that drive effective performance at every changing moment.

  4. Stewards of the learning function must also tune in to market movements and trends and develop a shared responsibility with front-line managers for how they respond to a performance need. This requires an arrangement very different from what takes place in most organizations today. The learning function must demonstrate capacity to provide solutions that deliver timely and measurable performance improvement within the performance zone. They must develop a level of trust and partnership with front-line managers that shifts managers from prescribing solutions upfront. Instead, they must work together to determine, plan, develop, and maintain a solution that may or may not pull performers out of the zone to learn. All of this must be fluid, rapid, and commensurate with the scope and constraints of response-time requirements.  
  5. Finally, organizations must move aggressively to put in place 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 [in the performance zone] with a minimum of support from other people.” (Gloria Gery, as quoted in http://debwagner.info/hpttoolkit/epss_hpt.htm)

Empowerment through performance support

Stephen Covey taught that “An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”

Without a performance support infrastructure in place, this is a pipe dream because of the constant state of upheaval in today’s performance zone and the reality that “the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.”

What we need, as Atul Gawande has observed, is 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.”

These are the challenges that performance support can readily resolve. Performance support solutions reside in the performance zone. Rightly done, they deliver two-click-10-second access to just what is needed, in the form needed, at the very moment of need, to efficiently and effectively accomplish the task (regardless if it is forgotten, never learned, or outdated.)  And because you embed it in the performance zone, you can verify and measure effective performance.

Directing your learning efforts into the zone

A recent client site had a poster on a wall that defined strength as “The process of directing one’s scattered forces into one powerful channel.” This is certainly true for organizations facing volatile markets. Unless they intentionally “direct” (orchestrate) their many “scattered” (siloed) “forces” (human-support resources and systems) into the “channel” of the performance zone, they are at risk. The good news is that those currently charged with the learning function within organizations can be the fundamental means for accomplishing this. But to do so, they must:

  • embrace the reality that their work isn’t effective unless it optimally prospers the organization,
  • realign their work and associated technologies to enable greater agility in responding to changes in organizational strategy, and
  • focus their attention, effort, and methodologies on optimizing high-level performance in the zone where the work of the organization takes place.

In this pursuit, always remember that what matters is performance. All else should be the means to this end.


Clark, Timothy R. and Conrad A. Gottfredson. In Search of Learning Agility from 1957 to 2008. Alpine, UT,  2008.

Covey, Stephen. Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

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

Gery, Gloria J. Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology. Cambridge, MA: Ziff Institute, 1991.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

From the editor: Want more?

The eLearning Guild’s Performance Support Symposium 2014, September 8 & 9 in Boston, offers you the opportunity to explore proven organizational strategies for reducing training time while increasing focus on delivering performance support as needed directly into workflows.

The Performance Support Symposium is designed for senior L&D, training, and HR professionals (CLOs, VPs, directors, and managers) who are responsible for optimizing employee development or organizational performance. It is for leaders who want to effectively and efficiently deliver the information employees need, when and where they need it, to drive significant increases in performance and demonstrable ROI.

Join us, along with many of your colleagues, to network and to benefit from sessions and keynotes delivered by performance-support experts covering strategy, implementation, tips for getting started, integration of performance support into your existing organizational learning strategy, and performance support solutions.