Classroom training, education, and eLearning don’t really accomplish what we’d like them to accomplish. If we’re attempting to teach someone how to perform a task, then after the class or the training we’d like them to be able to perform the task on their own. So we load them up with all the information we think they’ll need in advance of needing it, by which time they’ve forgotten half of it. Ideally? It would be better if we could look over their shoulder and prompt them what to do, when they need to do it.

Driving in Ireland

I travel to Ireland on a fairly regular basis and when I do, I rent a car. Now, when anyone travels to another country and intends to drive while they’re there, the first question they have is “On what side of the road do you drive?” In Ireland they drive on the left—in Canada (just in case you’ve forgotten) we drive on the right. One other thing? They also have roundabouts—which not everyone, even in Ireland, understands very well.

The above paragraph is intended to deliver information—just like many instances of classroom education and eLearning. It communicates some knowledge that the student (you in this case) might need in the future. It does transfer knowledge (e.g., in Ireland you drive on the left), But like most classroom courses and much of eLearning, my well-meaning paragraph doesn’t transfer a skill.

To acquire the skill of driving on the left hand and traversing a roundabout (boundaround?) safely, requires that we both intend to drive on the left and remember to drive on the left. When we’re actually driving and while we’re looking out for pedestrians, commenting on how green it is, and staring in awe at the amazing scenery. What we really need is someone to remind us while we’re driving—that we need to be on the left hand side of the road. (Those of us who drive with their spouse as a passenger, have addressed this need.)

Learning at the instant of need

That’s the point of the strange symbols in the graphic at the head of this article. We learn best when we’re given the training at the instant we need it, and not earlier. The five symbols in the graphic refer to the Five Moments of Learning Need—first indentified by Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher.

When we learn something for the first time (New)
When we expand on what we’ve learned (More)
When we attempt to use what we’ve learned (Apply)
When problems occur (Problem Solving)
When change happens (Change)

What exactly do we mean when we talk about a moment of learning need? For a good example we’ll head back to Ireland. When I last rented a car there, I immediately noticed something peculiar. On the top of the dashboard was a strange looking sticker. It read as follows:

That didn’t make much sense to me until I looked up and noticed the reflection in the windshield—right where I needed it—as I was looking at the road I was about to drive on. (I’ll let the reader figure it out what it said.)

The windshield-reflected sticker provided a very simple heads-up display (HUD) of a useful reminder at the very instant I could make best use of it—as I was looking at the road. Just as some first responders have “Ambulance” in a mirror image on the front of the emergency vehicle. You hear the siren, look in your rear view mirror and see “Ambulance!”

Performance support

This is the key idea of performance support. Present information to the user only at the instant they need it, no matter when or where they’re doing it. It’s the idea behind the success of navigation systems powered by GPS. Turn left now (if you want to get to Montreal, which is still 345km away)—no need for additional information at this point, no need to learn the route before you leave the house. Training when you need it.

The challenge of course, is how do we design systems (not training) to respond to the user’s needs when they need it?

Sometimes it’s easy. Design the electrical plug so that we cannot insert it incorrectly. Design the gas tank so we cannot put regular fuel into a diesel-powered car without going out of our way to accomplish the ruination of our vehicle. Design the coffee grinder (with the nasty whirling blade) so that it won’t grind if the top is not properly secured.

Other times it’s just a little bit more difficult … design the email program so that if we write, “I’m including/attaching/sending you the file” in the body of the text, then the application will ask us when we go to send the email, if we really want to send it without attaching the file. (Not that I’ve ever done that. Too often. Today. Much.)

Simple, but not easy

Then it gets really difficult. Design the computer system so that we can ask it, in common everyday language, how to do something we’ve never done before. For example? “Computer? I want to add a few lines at the bottom of every email I send out…”

At which point the system figures out what we want to do, and then guides us in the doing, just like the GPS nav system in the car … do this now, and then do this, and then enter what you need to enter, etc. Until the task is complete—no training required. Just information when we need it.

Here’s the challenge facing every organization: Training doesn’t work as well as we’d like. What works better is when the information we need is available when we need it. While achieving this is difficult, it’s not as difficult as we might think. The last “difficult” example is a case in point. There are tools that allow us to add that capability to almost any modern computer system. They exist. They’re available. So? I’ve done the “!” part—introduced (for some) a new idea. The next part, “→,” is out of my hands.