We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.” – Pogo


In 1989, I was working with consultant Gloria Gery and a great team of learning technologists at AT&T to figure out our next step in electronic training. The next generation of what we then called computer-based training (CBT) felt incremental; we were looking for something bigger. We debated, tested ideas, and ran scenarios. And then it hit us – electronic performance support systems (EPSS) – or, simply, “performance support.”

We already had a project on the table: create a CBT course on test design and development for instructional designers and SMEs. What if we put the instructional component on the back burner, and, instead, turned the product into a “tool” (today, we’d likely call it an “app”) that not only trained, but provided a comprehensive knowledge base on the topic, along with an “advisor” that helped users make the right decisions about test development and delivery. Thus, the Training Test Consultant was born.

The project was both a success and a disappointment. It demonstrated a breakthrough paradigm shift in the training world, and Gloria went on to help define performance support globally. Everywhere we went it really looked like this new field was taking off big time.

But enthusiasm didn’t fully translate to real traction – a disappointment. In spite of what we thought was an obvious no-brainer, and some very prominent successes, performance support was never championed or totally embraced by enough organizations to truly reach a tipping point. More traditional and accepted training solutions held sway. And even though C-level executives “got it,” they never seemed to get it enough to compel the existing training culture and infrastructure to profoundly change. Mostly we dabbled, but corporate universities and emerging Web-based training (eLearning) were the hot items. Performance support was interesting, but not urgent. Until now.


Fast forward to today. Business and technological forces are compelling major changes in how learning and performance is perceived and practiced, as well as how work itself gets done. We now know that:

  1. not all performance improvement can be achieved through training; in fact, most performance gains are not training-related; and
  2. the workplace, not the classroom, is where most performance improvement (as well as most learning) takes place.

This turns everything around.

Work is learning; learning is work

The line between work and learning is quickly disappearing – which is a good thing. We want improved performance to be a function of better work processes, tools, and resources. We now focus on mobility, to assure that workers have the support they need anytime and anywhere. We recognize the social nature of work, and use social media to share content and connect people with expertise, be it in the form of explicit content in an online resource, or peers and experts at the other end of a communications network. We understand more clearly than ever that we cannot regiment motivation to improve – to figure out how to do something, or learn how to do it better. Workers increasingly pursue knowledge and skills in their own way, at their own pace, informally. And finally, we now have the technology to create software (apps) that takes the complex and makes it simple, the lengthy and makes it brief, the disjointed and makes it systematic, and makes undiscovered insights available to all.

Making the case

Today, the argument for performance support is stronger than ever. The changing nature of learning and work, new advances in technology, and new economic realities make a much more compelling case for this new framework. Performance support isn’t just a new job aid or app. It’s not just a sophisticated computer program that helps us do our jobs better, nor is it just an enhanced automated work process, and it’s not simply a knowledge management system that has all the answers at the click of a mouse. It’s all of these, and more, bundled together to accelerate improved worker productivity, accomplishment, and satisfaction, in the most cost-effective way possible.

Training and eLearning are not going away, that’s for sure. But performance support changes how we use and value them, especially as we increasingly consider our new and growing mission to support workers directly in the workplace and directly in the context of their work. In fact, it may now be easier to “sell” a performance support solution than a training solution. How’s that for a paradigm shift?

Performance support is all around us, from the apps on our phone to the GPS in our car; from a demo on YouTube to that little card we all carry in our wallet that tells us how to retrieve messages from our answering machine. Performance support is a growing part of life and work. It’s time to make it a central part of our workplace learning strategy. No, better yet, it’s time to make it a central part of our business strategy.

Learn more

The Performance Support Symposium 2012, a new event produced by Learning Solutions Magazine, offers you an exceptional opportunity to discover how organizations can leverage investments in training and eLearning by offering employees performance support tools so they can continue to learn while they work. You are invited to join other senior learning professionals in Boston for this deep exploration of strategies, technologies, and best practices for performance support. The time for performance support is now.