What is Performance Support and Why is it Effective?

When most people think of corporate training, they think of self-paced eLearning courses and face-to-face workshops or seminars.

While these training events may be helpful under the right set of conditions, there is a far more efficient (and arguably more effective) form of training: performance support (also referred to as performance support tools).

Performance support is delivered to people at the point of need when making a certain decision or performing a specific action. If you’re looking for a definition, we can draw from Rossett & Schafer’s Job Aids & Performance Support:

A helper in life and work, performance support is a repository for information, processes, and perspectives that inform and guide planning and action. (2)

As you can see, performance support aids you in making a decision or performing an action, and it exists in the form of information. This information can come in many forms, too: job aids, software help screens, online calculators, and more.

Let’s take a closer look.

What’s the difference between performance support and training events?

Whereas training courses are usually pre-defined events — for example, 1-hour sessions, 2-day workshops, or twice-a-week classes — performance support is available when and where you need it.

Let’s imagine that you’re working as a park ranger at Yosemite National Park. While you’re doing some cleanup in one of the remote sections of the park, you come across a group of distressed hikers.

“Our friend ate one of these berries and now he isn’t feeling so well.” They show you a handful of berries that look vaguely familiar.

Ignoring your confusion about why this group of travelers would have eaten random berries, you try to think back to your field training session the previous year. You remember seeing pictures of many different types of berries, but you can’t place your finger on which ones these are. This experience is typical after formal training events.

Now imagine that you pull out a handbook listing every type of berry in the park, as well as whether or not each berry is dangerous to humans. This handbook is an example of performance support — you can pull it out on demand to answer important questions and do your job better.

Why do training events fall short?

Training events, like eLearning courses and face-to-face workshops, happen at a specific point in time, and then people move on from them. For example, someone signs up for a face-to-face workshop, sits for the workshop, and then proceeds with their job and life, never to take that workshop again.

With eLearning courses, it may be easier to return to the content whenever you need a refresher. However, many eLearning courses still make it difficult to navigate to the exact information that you need, and navigating to the course in the LMS is a feat in itself.

On top of this, one-and-done training events must compete with the very real threat of the forgetting curve, pictured below. This graph shows how rapidly information is forgotten once learned, and it explains why you-as-park-ranger in the example above had such a hard time remembering what you learned in a training exercise months prior.

Forgetting Curve

The green lines signify the positive effect that reviewing the information has on memory. This is called spaced repetition, and it’s a topic for another article.

When you use performance support, the consequences of forgetting things are much lower. A performance support strategy acknowledges that memorizing things takes a significant amount of time and effort, and it provides support to people as they do their jobs.

This approach isn’t anti-memory, either. If you use the same performance support time after time, you will begin to internalize what you’re learning.

For example, if we go back to park ranger land, imagine that you continue running into groups of hikers who are eating the same berry as the first group. Once you’ve checked your handbook several times, you will likely start recognizing the berry and its characteristics without having to check the handbook.

You don’t need to choose between training events and performance support, either. Effective corporate training programs often incorporate both. The training event provides a controlled environment in which employees can learn about the performance support tool and how to use it, and then they can bring the tool with them on-the-job to make it easier to transfer what they’ve learned.

The different types of performance support

Not all performance support is the same. As Rossett and Schafer discuss in their text, performance support varies in how integrated and tailored it is for the person using it.

Integrated Performance Support

Performance support is fully integrated when it is embedded directly into the task that it’s meant to assist with.

For example, imagine that you’re using Adobe Illustrator (a complex software program) without much prior experience. You select the shape tool, and immediately thereafter you see a tooltip on the screen explaining what the tool is capable of. You could then use this information to guide your ensuing action.

Do you think that the berry handbook in the park ranger example above is an example of integrated performance support?

If you answered “kind of,” then you’re correct. You can gauge the level of integratedness by considering the level of proximity. How close is the support to the task itself?

If the berry handbook is in your pocket, then the level of proximity when identifying a berry is fairly close. If the handbook is back at the station that you have to return to whenever you want to use it, then it’s not very integrated at all.

Let’s consider a simple example of completely integrated performance support: the timer feature on most household ovens. Rather than having to use your smartphone to set a timer (less integrated), you could use the timer that’s built directly into the appliance (completely integrated).

This is also important to remember: the degree of integration exists on a spectrum. It’s rare for performance support to be completely isolated from the task in the same way that it’s rare for the support to be 100% embedded in the task.

Tailored Performance Support

We’re using tailored here to mean the same thing as personalized; it refers to how well the performance support adapts to the person using it.

Calculators are common examples of tailored performance support because they adapt to your input.

For example, imagine a recipe calculator where you input all of the ingredients that you have in your fridge, then it gives you a list of different recipes that you can make. You know that this is tailored because the calculator’s output will be different depending on who is using it.

Performance support like this is tailored to your individual needs. With the advent of artificial intelligence and enhanced data processing capabilities, some electronic performance support tools offer guidance based on your individual traits, past performance, and potential future needs.

This level of personalization clearly comes with a higher price tag, but it has the potential to enhance performance more efficiently than non-tailored performance support.

And remember, performance support ranges in how tailored and integrated it is. An example of highly integrated, highly tailored performance support would be an in-software tooltip that provides suggestions based on the actions you take and the actions you’ve taken previously.

An example of performance support with low integration and low tailoredness would be a printed job aid that’s handed to every receptionist in an office and kept in their filing cabinets.

For additional reading about integrated and tailored performance support, check out Job Aids & Performance Support by Rossett & Schafer.

The importance of electronic performance support systems

In many modern corporate environments, much of the work gets done on the computer or another electronic device. Electronic performance support systems help integrate performance support with the tasks that employees need to perform on a regular basis.

These systems are so important because they ensure that employees can access the performance support when they need it. If there’s unnecessary friction for accessing performance support that’s supposed to be integrated, then productivity will suffer.

For one of the most well-known examples of an effective electronic performance support system, check out WalkMe.

It’s extremely important to think about accessibility. Performance support loses its potency when employees cannot easily access the resources or information that they need. So, regardless of whether your performance support strategy is digital or physical, you need to ensure that people have access to the resources when and where they need them.

Performance support in a nutshell

Performance support is often easier to produce than training events, and it’s very efficient for improving human performance. Performance support contains the information that people need to make a decision or perform a specific action, and it’s available at the point of need.

Performance support is not a viable option when memorization is crucial.

For example, performance support would not be a good choice when:

  • Referencing a resource would cause you to lose credibility in a social situation
  • Referencing performance support would be physically impossible under the constraints of the job task
  • Speed is critical and referencing performance support would take too long

If you’d like to discuss performance support further and determine whether it could help your organization, feel free to drop me a line.