In 1972, the American legend Yogi Berra was driving his family to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Somehow he became lost, and while his wife, Carmen, was giving him a hard time about it he responded, “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”

ASTD recently published the results of a study involving 826 business and learning professionals from high-performing organizations that suggests that this might also be the case with organizational learning and development. The report reveals that “less than half of the organizations they surveyed have learning functions that excel at accomplishing the very things they exist to do.” Only 38 percent declared their learning function as highly effective at achieving organizational goals.

In our experience, ASTD’s report is optimistic. Together we have more than 50 years of experience working with many hundreds of organizations across industries and governments. In every case we have met remarkable people genuinely devoted to their training profession. They work long and hard in their efforts to help people in their organizations develop and maintain the skills needed to do the work of the organization – to perform successfully on the job. Unfortunately, we've seen this deep devotion continually challenged by leaders in organizations because those leaders aren’t convinced that their training investment is delivering strategic value. Instead they view training and its other support siblings as overhead expenses that are acceptable as long as profit margins remain healthy enough to bear the burden of those costs. But whenever the economic waters become the least bit rocky, the first thrown overboard are those viewed as overhead. This has included too many wonderful people from our profession.

Going from learning to performance: it’s a process, not an event

Our frustration is that this should never happen. Like you, we know how important our work is to an organization. But here’s the problem: we seem to be unable to shake the formal-learning-event paradigm from our collective mindset. That is, we continue to focus our attention and resources on building great event-based learning solutions delivered through instructors, eLearning, and/or mobile. At the same time, we fail to adequately design, build, and put in place the support infrastructure learners need to attain and maintain successful on-the-job performance.

Our core mission is, and must be, broader than just developing and delivering learning events that we attempt to continuously keep aligned with ever-changing organizational needs. Instead, our work is to ensure people perform effectively at every changing moment of their work.

The three phases: is your plan short-sighted?

The following figure shows the three phases of our work. The point we are making here is if you are primarily focusing your efforts in the first phase rather than all three phases shown in Figure 1, then your approach is short-sighted and most-likely failing.


Figure 1: Learning to competency

The red part of the graphic represents the formal side of learning. This shows the reality that whatever a learner begins to master during a learning event (whether instructor-led or eLearning) begins a rapid death spiral once the event ends. This presents a remarkable challenge to learners as they move from the formal learning environment into the phase called learning transfer. As the influence of their learning experience rapidly diminishes, somehow learners must find their way to on-the-job competence.

How are you supporting transfer?

Here are some questions for you to consider: How are you supporting learners during this vital transfer stage? Are they on their own? Or, do you have in place a performance support infrastructure that mediates the loss of learning and systematically supports the journey to competence? If you do, how efficient is it? How much time is it taking to navigate the transfer phase? From beginning to end, how much time does it take to get to competency in your organization?

Our experience, as seen in Figure 2, is that we can often cut the time to competency in half with the development and implementation of an instructionally sound embedded performance support solution (EPSS). An EPSS provides immediate, intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need, to ensure the most effective performance.


Figure 2: Faster time to competency through embedded performance support

Transforming formal learning

When an effective EPSS is in place, the nature of formal learning can transform into a rich learning experience that accommodates the full range of mastery requirements. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Skill consolidation has a spectrum

Mastery obviously includes complete internalization of an independent skill. With this highest level of mastery a performer has the ability to complete a task automatically. This capacity is securely encoded into long-term memory and can be executed without conscious thought – it just happens when it needs to happen. Generally, only skills where the critical impact of failure is significant (number 5 on the scale in Figure 3) to catastrophic (number 7 on the scale in Figure 3) merit this level of investment. On the other end of the mastery spectrum is the ability to efficiently complete a task using the EPSS without any direct specific skill training; learning can occur at the moment of apply. This reference-based learning is made possible by a generalizable understanding of how to use the EPSS. Too often organizations treat skills at this end of the scale in the same way they do those where the impact of failure is catastrophic. This approach is costly and unreasonably extends time to competency.

Competency embraces this full spectrum of mastery. But competence is only fully achieved when performers have integrated what they have mastered into actionable skill sets within the context of their personal workflow. This generally requires integration with other existing skill sets within the performer, and also with other people via collaboration.

These integrated skill sets must be internalized at the appropriate level so they can be successfully executed as needed with a justifiable amount of effort. What is more, competency always carries with it sufficient conceptual understanding to facilitate proper judgment and the capacity to adapt, on the fly, to the unique challenges that occur in the workflow.

So here’s the point: with an EPSS, event-based learning can focus on those skills where the critical impact of failure merits the investment of rich instructional methodology. But the rest of learning can be reference-based. That is, learners can turn to the EPSS at the moment of apply and safely accomplish their work. They learn while they are performing on the job, guided and helped by an EPSS.

Is that all there is?

Now, you may have been wondering about the third phase of Figure 1, labeled “Sustain.” This is where the real work lies, along with the greatest opportunities. Once a learner achieves competency, that achievement is often short-lived. Change happens, and with change comes the challenge of unlearning and relearning. This is one of the primary reasons why “reference” learning, coupled with an EPSS, is so vital.

Any EPSS authoring software worth its salt will have strong knowledge management capability. Every learning and performance support strategy must include content maintenance. As long as your EPSS remains trustworthy, learners will rely on the EPSS to remain competent in an ever-changing environment. In the Sustain phase, they can rely on the EPSS to help them apply, solve, adapt to change, and learn more, whenever needed. In addition, because there is an EPSS supporting learners through all three phases, performers can redirect wasted learning effort spent in:

  • mastering skills during formal learning that can be safely performed on the job solely with the help of an EPSS;
  • battling through the transfer phase without EPSS assistance; and
  • maintaining competency with information scattered beyond the reach of “two clicks and 10 seconds.”

What are the benefits?

By collapsing the time to competency and optimizing the sustain phase, learners can devote this reclaimed energy to making a meaningful contribution to the work of the organization, including innovation.

An organization is competent to the degree it performs effectively at every changing moment. This can’t happen unless organizational knowledge is current, staff skills are up to date, and required resources are readily available to support optimal performance. The question is, how can organizational competency be achieved in today’s turbulent business environment? How can you make good time and reach your intended destination without getting lost along the way? The answer lies in your addressing all three phases of the journey of gaining and maintaining on the job competency. This requires you to put in place a performance support infrastructure that enables you to do this and deliver measurable strategic value to your organization. Stay tuned for our second article in this five-part series, where we’ll address what a performance support infrastructure looks like and how it can help you align and measure the impact of what you do with the strategic needs of your organization.


Developing Results, Aligning Learning’s Goals and Outcomes with Business Performance Measures, Volume 3 No. 5, ASTD Research.