Training at Your Fingertips

There are myriad performance support tools today to help your employees do their jobs better. The challenge is deciding which to choose.

Performance support tools—whether traditional in the form of mentoring and coaching or technologically advanced and online—can be workforce game-changers. When your employees find themselves stumped in the middle of a challenging task, these tools give them a place to turn for quick, just-in-time answers. The challenge is understanding the support tools available today and which are right for your employees.

Finding the right performance support tool often is a multiple-choice answer. The best support is given by a range of tools, some conventional and others centered on advanced technology. “We offer performance support in the form of coaching, mentoring, and accountability programs, and electronic tools to help financial representatives improve productivity and efficiency,” says David Eurich, director of Field Training for Northwestern Mutual.

For example, as a non-technology-based performance aid, Northwestern Mutual offers RACE (Recording Activity Compared to Expectations), an accountability program in which the RACE coach spends time each day coaching representatives on their daily habits compared with the office’s expectations for activity and productivity, for the first six months of their career. The RACE coach provides feedback, accountability, challenge, and support, tying daily activity to each representative’s vision or goals. The company also offers mentoring programs that assist in achieving industry milestones. For example, the MDRT (Million Dollar Round Table) mentoring program provides counseling, guidance, and encouragement to a new qualifying member. This program aims to boost newer producers to an MDRT level of production while raising veteran MDRT members to peak performance. Finally, there are study groups that meet on a weekly and monthly basis to ensure employees deliver the best possible service to clients.

On the technology end of Northwestern Mutual’s performance support offerings are two apps that are available 24x7 via any Internet-enabled device, including iPads and PCs. The company’s Learning Path Web app “organizes and displays practice-model and market-based training programs in a way that clearly shows representatives exactly what they need to do to succeed,” explains Jodi Nolte, learning strategy consultant for Northwestern Mutual. The app tracks progress and provides direct access to courses, other training resources, and best practice designations. “It supports Northwestern Mutual’s financial security planning approach through comprehensive training on products, the planning process, technology, and marketing,” Nolte says. Northwestern Mutual also has the Technology in Your Practice (TYP) tool. “It’s a job aid Web app that tells you what tasks are performed by whom for the sales cycle and what technology to use when performing those tasks,” Nolte notes. “For each technology, it tells you what the technology is, why you would want to use it, and when (in the sales cycle) to use it. The tool also provides links to training pages on the company’s intranet that tell you how to use the technology.”

Like any training investment, the question of what the company gets in return inevitably arises. The traditional Kirkpatrick evaluation steps are not always easy to apply. “I think Kirkpatrick’s model is terrific. It has served us well and will continue to serve us well, but it needs to be used a bit differently in this more encompassing paradigm of learning, including performance support,” says Nancy J. Lewis, former chief learning officer at ITT Corporation, and before that, vice president of Learning and Leadership Development at IBM. Performance support tools have to be evaluated with the idea that impressive results can be produced without the employee having mastered each step in the process of getting the work done. “Phones have calculators in them. Knowing multiplication tables in your head is no longer necessary to get to the right answer of 5x8 being 40,” says Lewis. “Nor, in a more advanced example, is being able to figure out what your mortgage payment would be on the house you’re thinking of buying if you put $100,000 down. There are mortgage calculators a click away whenever you need them, including mortgage calculators that feature guidance on all additional closing and moving costs, etc.”

Lewis offers an additional example from the world of sales training, noting that rather than being able to adhere strictly to the classic Kirkpatrick evaluation model, a best-in-class sales support tool would have to be multifaceted. This, she says, includes the ability to:

  • Study what top-performing sellers do to bring in higher revenue quicker and then clone and guide others to those activities and thought flows that have demonstrated repeated success.
  • Serve up critically relevant and highest quality resources in real work time around a specific industry, work activity, solution, and client/market to better enable creative solutions for paths not traveled previously.
  • Reduce decision-making time, increase time to productivity, and enhance expertise performance level.

In addition, learner feedback is an important part of the evaluation process. The tool should improve employee output, but it also should make their work lives easier. “I think an interesting point to consider with performance support is that often the ‘learning’ becomes transparent and almost invisible with performance support, and the guidance and enablement is served up right when it’s needed and usually is not labeled ‘learning,’” Lewis says. “Often, learners would not think of it the same way they would think of going to a class. Performance support brings the learning to the work instead of the worker to the learning.”

Edward Jones, which uses online job aids, performance-based coaching, and structured-reflection exercises, takes a long view on evaluating whether a performance support tool is a worthwhile investment. “We most frequently do pre-training and post-training surveys, occasionally performing control-group comparisons,” says Annette Charlton, principal responsible for branch learning and development. “The measures of a performance support tool are indirect, ultimately dependent on how it impacts the client experience.”

Likewise, at Aetna Inc., customer feedback often is the ultimate judge of whether a performance support tool has succeeded. Manager of Learning and Performance Frank Scharibone offers a recent example to illustrate: “The success of Aetna’s concierge customer service model depends heavily on our successful training of multiple segments of employees on the 14 different products that are bundled as a seamless product to members. Historically, building a Web-based training tool and coordinating content with 14 different areas would have required a central area to do all development and coordinate content with the 14 areas. Delays in updating content would have been inevitable, and at any point in time, some part of the tool would have been ‘out of date.’ Recognizing this, we designed and built Aetna’s first wiki architecture using SharePoint capabilities, dubbed the ‘360 Tool’ for a holistic view of available content. Within this design, each of the 14 training areas takes direct responsibility for uploading content directly to the performance support tool. We designed security measures and archiving capabilities to assure content changes can be tracked and reactivated if needed. The process for uploading content was designed to require minimal technical expertise and is only slightly more complex than changing a Word document.”

Feedback from customers (“members” in the case of an insurance company such as Aetna) let the company know it was on the right track, says Scharibone. “Our first national account customer was highly involved in the review of training content developed to support the concierge service model. When the wiki-based performance support tool initially was presented to the customer, their feedback indicated that they not only felt the tool met all expectations, they were amazed at the innovation and creativity used to address this training need. The 360 Tool proved so effective in servicing customers that it has become a requirement for supporting all customers under this service model.”


  • Mix traditional, non-technological performance support with online and other electronic solutions.
  • Take advantage of mobile technology and launch a Web app that tracks the progress of your learners and offers a portal to additional tools.
  • You may need to go beyond or tinker with the Kirkpatrick model in evaluating the effectiveness of performance support tools.
  • Since enhanced performance support should mean enhanced satisfaction for employees, make customer feedback part of your evaluation of the tool’s effectiveness.
  • Also consider what your learners think of the tool. It should make their work more seamless and their work lives easier.
  • If the tool proves its effectiveness, be sure to make it the standard, or even a model for other tools.

Training Top 125

Applying for the Training Top 125 can showcase your training effectiveness and help L&D earn a seat at the executive decision-making table. Learn more...

Digital Issue

Click above for Training Magazine's
current digital issue

Training Live + Online Certificate Programs

Now You Can Have Live Online Access to Training magazine's Most Popular Certificate Programs! Click here for more information.

Emerging Training Leaders

Company Assets

People are an organization’s most valuable asset,” the saying goes.

Rising Stars

The 2016 Emerging Training Leaders are leading lights at their organizations, shining examples of how strategic-minded, results focused, and people-oriented Learning and Development (L&D) profe

Learning from the Future

Includes ISA Directory of
Learning Providers