As designers, we’re asked to produce courses when there’s a perceived problem. Sales aren’t up to scratch? Time for a course. Customer satisfaction is lacking? Let’s arrange a refresher. Errors on the rise? Put ’em in the classroom! And yet, lots of times a course isn’t going to solve the problems. Instead, we need to design for performance.

I have been known to argue that it’s about skills, not just knowledge. And, generally, that’s true. There are times when knowledge is the necessary differentiator. But what really matters is performance. It makes all the difference.

Performance consulting

Problems in performance can have multiple causes. Sorting out the root cause is an important component of designing effective solutions. After you know the performance gap (and you should be asking the measure you’re impacting so that you know when you’ve achieved your goal), you need to find out why.

Here’s an example. Let’s say sales for the new edition of the Politician Nullifier aren’t meeting expectations. What are some possible reasons? It could be that sales folks haven’t been told where this product fits in their priorities. It could be that the product revision hasn’t been accepted by customers. Or the marketing’s off. The sales folks might not have the tools they need to work out customer costs effectively, or there may be higher commission on other products. They may not know how to deal with objections or explain the new features. 

There are several questions you should be asking: Could they do it if their lives depended on it? Could they do it if they had the proper resources or help? Do they want to do it? Do they need to learn something new to be able to do it? Answering these questions is a process known as performance consulting.

The point is that there are many obstacles to effective performance, and only some of them are addressable by instruction. If people don’t have time or the tools necessary, it’s not going to happen. If people aren’t motivated or don’t think it’s important, they won’t do it. And if they’re the wrong people, it’s unlikely. Make sure you’re solving a problem where training helps. To put it another way, match the solution to the core problem!

Design for performance

Designing interventions other than courses—revised incentives, performance support, context-sensitive systems, spaced learning, expert access, and more—isn’t trivial. Sometimes there are resources available, but people can’t find them or they’re not well designed. I once reviewed an aid a bank had developed for speaking with customers. It was well laid out to do the necessary discovery process, but it was flawed, as well. It was designed for using a specific wording for each step, but the employees at the branch didn’t even know what it was for. The aid could easily have been designed to support the performer appropriating the terminology over time (to create a more natural conversational flow), but it wasn’t.

Performance support requires two other skills. One is information architecture, where resources are made available in a way that performers can easily find the tool to use. Will it be contextually available, browsable through a portal, and searchable in ways that provide a very high likelihood of finding it? This involves tagging, at the least.

The other skill is the design of the resource itself. In his excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande talks about creating a checklist that flips the mortality rate from 80 percent to 20 percent in developing countries. However, one of the important lessons was that the checklist was prototyped, trialed, and refined through testing. How does this relate to learning? Your first guess isn’t likely to be right and there should be a process for matching the resource to the need.

Then there is the importance of curating a resource. That means finding an appropriate one, not necessarily creating one from scratch. In fact, “curation over creation” should be one of your mantras. Don’t build what you don’t have to. It’s about working efficiently, as well as effectively.

For the same reason, sometimes it’s a smart move to determine that the answer is in the network and you don’t have to provide it. If a situation is unique, infrequent, ambiguous, or changing too fast, making a resource doesn’t make sense. In this case, connect the performer to someone who can help. Resources before courses, and sometimes those resources are people!

Designing for learning

When it is about courses, design appropriately. That means knowing and applying a bit of learning science into our solutions. It means not following fads or myths. It means designing to both engage and achieve the outcomes.

Learning design starts with the right objectives and immediately segues into designing appropriate practice, practice that:

  • Is sufficient, spaced, varied, and deliberate
  • Is resourced with models to guide performance and examples demonstrating application
  • Builds in the emotional connection, as well as the cognitive

Our learning, like our resources, shouldn’t be assumed to be good—it should be tested and refined until it achieves the necessary outcomes. It’s about recognizing that skills and knowledge go together to lead to performance.

In conclusion

Our goals for individual, group, and organizational success are not about learning but are about performing. The strategic move is to focus on improving performance and enable all the myriad ways that can happen. As such, we should design for performance. Formal learning, informal learning, performance support, technology infrastructure, and culture all play a part in a performance ecosystem.