When you buy a piece of furniture that needs to be assembled, you follow the enclosed instructions to put it together. It makes more sense to follow the instructions step-by-step than to memorize them because there is no need to retain the information. The assistance you get from the manual is similar to performance support in the workplace.
Performance support, a form of task assistance, fills a gap at work that usually arises in the context of performing a task, such as when providing help desk support or making a decision about which patients are the highest priority in the emergency room. (See a formal definition contributed by reader, Joe Kirby, below in the Comments.) Performance support might also be helpful prior to performing a task. For example, when a sales representative reviews key points she wants to present before making a routine sales call.
Although at one time performance support was limited to printed job aids (which are still useful), you can now provide technology-based support in the cloud, embedded into desktop applications, via mobile phones and through wearable technology. This all sounds well and good, except for one thing—how can you tell when performance support is the most effective solution or when formal learning interventions would be best?
A request for solving a workplace performance solution typically arises from issues, such as:
- Employees are having difficulties solving certain types of problems
- Workers are making too many errors
- Staff are being asked to remember more information than is possible to retain
- Customers are complaining about poor service
By delving into the issue, collaborating with key stakeholders, workforce members, and Subject Matter Experts, you can identify the causes of the issue. In some cases, a problem can not be solved with a training or performance support solution. For example, if an organization has many inefficient procedures, these issues must be addressed outside of training or support.
The analysis starts with the question, “What is the ideal performance and why is this ideal?” and compares this with, “What is the current performance and why does this occur?” You need to find out the best way to close the gap between the ideal and the current situation.
To best understand where problems occur, you can conduct a task analysis to deconstruct the tasks involved in the workflow where there are issues. This will help you discover whether one or more support interventions will solve the problem. A task analysis breaks down complex tasks into simpler steps. It also captures the knowledge needed to perform the steps.
Rapid Task Analysis
In their book, Innovative Performance Support, authors Gottfredson and Mosher write about conducting a rapid task analysis (RTA). This has the purpose of quickly identifying and sequencing higher level tasks rather than focusing on the details at first. It provides an overview for selecting the best type of performance support or training strategies and identifies where they are needed.
The RTA has three objectives:
1. Identify the job-specific tasks. The goal of deconstructing the job tasks is to understand what is involved and where to provide support. Using this rapid approach, you don’t identify all of the steps of each task at this stage. This lets you get a quick overview perspective of things. You can then identify the detailed steps of each task later in the process.
2. Identify related concepts. Capture the higher-level concepts associated with each task. These describe what the task is, where the task fits in to the overall flow and its importance to the organization. Identifying the associated concepts provides the context of how tasks fit into the big picture.
3. Organize the tasks and concepts into meaningful business processes. In this phase, you group the tasks and concepts into logical units or processes.
After identifying the tasks and concepts, map them to the different job roles where they are performed. (Gottfredson & Mosher, 2010).
When to Use Performance Support
You can use performance support as one part of the learning landscape when your needs analysis shows that employees can benefit from consistent timely support in the workflow. It makes sense to provide support rather than training, when you know or suspect that an external memory aid is will close the performance gap.
Here are some examples of when performance support is most likely the best solution:
- When accuracy is critical and errors are risky. Example: Assembling military equipment.
- When a work task is performed infrequently, making it difficult to remember. Example: Filling out yearly employee forms.
- When a work task is error prone, so that mistakes are made too often. Example: Performing routine medical procedures in a hospital.
- When there are multiple decision points or many steps. Example: Determining the best type of insurance for a particular need.
- When procedures or tasks are changing. Example: When two companies merge, there may be a temporary way of performing tasks that could benefit from support.
- When workers have a low level of literacy. Example: Using visuals to show how to perform tasks can improve performance for people with low literacy, such as those who speak another language.
- When training is not available for performing complex tasks. Example: Newly promoted managers need to determine project life cycle estimates but training is not immediately available.
- When there are budget constraints, even though training may be a better alternative. Example: Creating a document that lists how to perform the most used features in a software application rather than providing more expensive online tutorials.
Don’t underestimate performance support. There are many situations where it can replace formal training and work as a primary intervention (see Lanese and Nguyen, 2012). It encourages self-directed learning at work and enables people to perform more effectively.
What kind of results are you seeing with performance support? Share in the Comments below.
- Gottfredson, C. & Mosher, B. Innovative Performance Support: Strategies and Practices for Learning in the Workflow. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
- Lanese, L. & Frank Nguyen, F. “The Journey from Formal Learning to Performance Support.” Performance Improvement, vol. 51, no. 5, May/June 2012
- Willmore, J. Job Aids Basics. Alexandria: ASTD, 2006.