Soapbox: The Case for Performance Support

A common misunderstanding of “informal learning” is that it can’t be intentionally designed, implemented, and measured. It can, in the form of Performance Support.

By Bob Mosher, is Global Chief of Learning Strategy and Evangelism, LearningGuide Solutionsand Jeremy Smith, Leader of Learning Solutions, Herman Miller

For years, the training industry has focused on formal instruction. We have done an amazing job of helping learners master an array of topics, from sales to technology. With the world of constant change we live in—doing more with less and trying to remain competitive in a volatile economy—the learning departments that have survived are the ones that have moved beyond offering only formal instruction. They have intentionally extended their reach into the lines of business-enabling, moment-of-need support and self-directed learning. The challenge for the learner is no longer one of mastery, but one of application.

A common misunderstanding of “informal learning” is that it can’t be intentionally designed, implemented, and measured. This assumption is wrong. Informal learning is actually a defendable discipline better known as Performance Support. Performance Support (PS) is providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance. As you’ll see from the case study that follows, not only is PS doable, it can have a profound impact on a learning organization.

Case Study: Herman Miller

Introducing Performance Support to an organization can be a challenging and rewarding experience. There are many things to consider when planning a successful launch, from the business case for change to the agents who ultimately will bring it about.

The Business Case

One of the best ways to gain mind share and help individuals make meaningful connections to a new approach, as well as gain the support of leaders and outside resources such as IT, is to clearly articulate the business case for it and how it may positively affect them. For example, let’s look at the situation at furnishings design company Herman Miller:

Desktop IT: Very low usage of high-cost, formal courses in combination with staff shortages at the help desk due to a growing volume of “how to” calls.

New Products: Six new product introductions in four months to a distributed and mobile audience naturally migrating away from formal learning already.

Competencies: The first introduction of new corporate competencies in five years and the need to have them applied in all stages of the employee life cycle, not just during performance reviews.

In this real example, particular attention was paid to the sequence of introductions of Performance Support models, moving from the more obvious challenges in IT to the some- what ambiguous behavior changes desired by Human Resources. The organization started with a low-risk, high-return effort to set the stage for future, less-traditional, and higher-risk introductions. For the initial effort, build a functional prototype so you can show the concepts in action and not just describe them. After demonstrating success, new business cases will start to present themselves as Performance Support takes hold in the organization, so start thinking early on about how to vet and manage additional demand.

The Implementation

How a solution is developed and implemented will play a critical role in the overall introduction of Performance Support to an organization. Conducting a pilot of the introduction—not just the solution—will lead to valuable learning that can be leveraged during the larger rollout. The pilot should include not only a test of the technology and content but also every part of the process, from communication through measurement. Piloting with a business partner that demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit and higher tolerance for risk can increase the potential for success. Also, use this time to start developing a common, new language among team members, supporters, and resources.

Develop and deliver content in such a way that it anticipates the users’ context and their moment of need, rather than view Performance Support as simply a new way to organize content. Continuing to build on the previous example, consider these contexts:

Desktop IT: Integrate context-sensitive search of the Performance Support directly into the desktop application(s). When coupled with a migration, take into account the critical skills necessary to move between versions and present those topics front and center.

New Products: Make Performance Support available on mobile devices for access in a client lobby, meeting, taxi, or airport. Monitor what topics are accessed most frequently and adjust the design so they are front and center.

Competencies: Provide multiple frameworks to organize shared content objects based on the stages of the employee life cycle, informing hiring, supporting performance, and developing skills.

In each instance, careful consideration was given in the design and development process to why, when, and where someone would leverage the solution and the context. Then the content was placed into that framework.

Leveraging Results

Most people will make an intuitive connection to Performance Support on some level; however, having evidence from within the organization can move many to action. Continuing to build on the previous examples, consider these results:

Desktop IT: In a year-over-year study, Performance Support transactions outnumbered those of Learning Management System-based courses by a ratio of 80:1, and the per-transaction cost dropped by 99 percent.

New Product: Within 12 months, Performance Support transactions outnumbered those of LMS-based courses by a ratio of 5:1, while no drop in course usage was recorded.

Competencies: Introduced six months prior to performance review discussions, activity outpaced the Desktop IT and New Product solutions combined, and the solution is being used regularly by work team leaders in conversations with team members and Human Resources consultants.

While measuring Performance Support and informal learning in general is an emerging discipline, results such as these can demand attention and spark new and different conversations at a minimum.

Building a Network of Change

Relying on the learning function solely to introduce and create change is a risky proposition at best in most organizations. The more a Performance Support solution can be the product of a business unit, and they the spokespeople for it, the more rapid and successful the change management process. In building a network of change, from corporate communications to individual early adopters willing to share their experiences, the faster new solutions will take hold. Consider the previous examples one last time:

Desktop IT: The solution started in part with a business need in the IT Support Center. Including them in the entire pilot and implementation process set the stage for them to comfortably become the largest voice for the initiative in the business. Making the solution available from the Technology Tools section of the Intranet home page further demonstrated that it was not an HR initiative.

New Products: Concerned about mind share and the cost of formal learning, Sales and Marketing leaders were more than willing to communicate the reason for and availability of the solution to the sales and distribution teams. Real estate for two-click access was made available on the sales and distribution Extranet, with links created from numerous existing product pages.

Competencies: A panel of various level leaders who were involved in the selection of the competencies led the in-person rollout, conducting overviews for their peers and leaders beneath them with HR present largely as support. Partnership with Corporate Communications resulted in a front-page Intranet news article and representation in a monthly business video shown to all employees including references to the Performance Support solution.

These are some of the success factors to consider when introducing Performance Support to an organization. Once it has been introduced, it is likely the focus will shift quickly from the introduction to incorporating it into performance consulting and learning architecture conversations and templates as one item on the menu of learning solutions available to drive business results.

Bob Mosher is global chief of Learning Strategy and Evangelism at LearningGuide Solutions ( A leader in the learning and training industry for more than 25 years, he is known for his pioneering role in e-learning and new approaches to learning.

Jeremy Smith is the leader of Learning Solutions at Herman Miller (, focusing on performance consulting and shared learning services under the umbrella of Talent Management. Herman Miller provides inventive furnishing designs, technologies, and related services.