Decoding Performance Support In The Learning Environment

Performance Support Systems In Learning
Onchira Wongsiri/
Summary: We need to forgo the notion that learning is a one-off event and move to a paradigm where learning is thought of as a process; a process that aims to improve the performance level of all employees in an enterprise. This will bring performance support under the ambit of L&D.

Supporting Learners Beyond A Classroom

Imagine a world where we could have someone who would answer all our questions or give us a hand when we needed help. How easy our life would be! This is how an ideal performance support system is supposed to function. When a person is about to undertake a task at work, there are two questions that they need to answer. The first one is: "Can I?" This speaks of the ability of a worker to perform a task. The second question is: "Will I?" This talks about how motivated they are as they perform a task. A performance support system helps in answering the first question.

What Is Performance Support?

In the learning context, performance support can be described as anything like a system, tool, or expert that will help an employee do their job better. In other words, performance support is anything that helps an employee do the right thing at the right time, every time. When this is provided to an employee after learning intervention, it should help them transfer the newly acquired knowledge or skill into the workplace.

Allison Rosset and Lisa Schafer, in their book, Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere, explain that performance support is like a helper in both life and work. It acts like a repository that contains information, processes, and perspectives that can inform and guide one into planning and taking action.

There are several parts in this explanation, for each of which we can try and bring out what they had in mind.

  • A helper
    Support is available when help is needed, at the point of need. This is available in close proximity to a worker, along with targeted, tailored, and immediate information.
  • A repository
    Information, processes, and perspectives are stored and accessible at that critical point, to help an individual address a need.
  • Informs
    It gives the required clear, specific information without ambiguity so that a task can be carried out. This can happen in critical situations, such as that of airline pilots or surgeons, or when an employee must decide whether an attachment or URL is safe to open, or in a general area, like spellcheck before a mail is sent.
  • Guides
    Performance support can expand or suggest different perspectives to a job or task. It can make suggestions for certain shortcuts or best practices.
  • Planning/taking action
    Using all the above, performance support helps one to plan and take the best course of action.

Performance support needs to be distinguished from learning. Learning involves acquiring knowledge and skills so that individuals can advance their capability to perform better. Performance support, on the other hand, is what one will turn to in order to address a need or provide help when a person is "stuck." This support needs to be provided in the most appropriate manner and in the shortest time possible.

We must bear in mind that performance support is not a replacement for learning intervention. Both have their place in the modern world of work. Performance support is like having an expert nearby who is available to answer questions or offer help when needed. A good blend of learning and performance support systems in an organization will not only produce self-reliant learners but also a more confident and empowered workforce.

Support Types 

Gloria Gery, who is known as the original guru of performance support systems, categorizes performance support as:

  • External support
    This is when one must take a break from work context to access support. An example of this is when workers need to stop work to access an online helpdesk, search engine, FAQ documentation, etc.
  • Extrinsic support
    This is available within their primary workspace, but users still need to break a task flow to obtain help. This will be an embedded link or question mark icon, which, when clicked, will open a separate window and offer help.
  • Intrinsic support
    Seamlessly designed in the workspace, that is, a user is not aware that help is being accessed. An example of this would be an information-based system that is part of an application that provides help or task-based instructional information to users when needed.

Why Is Performance Support Useful?

Traditionally, learning takes place before we perform a task. This means that there is a gap between learning and the application of that learning. Considering human memory, a lot of learning is forgotten before actual application. The time gap between learning and application of that learning, combined with the loss, due to what Herman Ebbinghaus called "The Forgetting Curve," is what makes performance support necessary. Thus, a performance support system reduces the reliance on human memory. A checklist or a document that outlines a step-by-step procedure improves performance by ensuring that a task is done completely and correctly.

Benefits Of A Performance Support System

Reduces Stress

When a worker is trying to recall all information needed for performing a task, considerable strain is being put on learning memory. A performance support tool or system comes in handy here, as it reduces the load on the memory because a worker now has access to information needed to perform a task. This reduces the stress of a worker.

Increases Confidence

A well-designed performance support system will produce confident performers. Confident performers will operate at a higher level of efficiency resulting in better output for an organization. A performance support system provides guidance and information needed for them to get that "early win." This will fuel their confidence to keep on persevering. As they continue to do well in their work, their confidence levels increase and they can keep getting better at what they do.

Faster Development Of Novice Workers

Another benefit is the speed of development of novice workers in gaining expertise. When there is sufficient performance support to help learners transfer newly acquired skills into the workplace, novices can learn at a faster pace, and this helps them gain expertise sooner.

Learner Satisfaction

Timely support improves learners' ability to use what they have learned and, therefore, there is overall satisfaction with the whole learning experience. A satisfied learner will be inclined to pursue more learning opportunities and recommend learning programs to others.

When Is Performance Support Most Useful?

Allison Rosset and Lisa Schafer mention the following 8 situations where performance support is very valuable:

  1. For infrequently performed tasks and procedures
  2. For tasks that are complex and involve many steps or attributes
  3. When the consequences of an error are very serious or costly (airline pilots, for example)
  4. When performance depends on a large body of information
  5. If procedures, approaches, or information change frequently
  6. When self-assessment against a standard will help improve performance
  7. If employee turnover is high and tasks are straightforward (for example, fast-food restaurants)
  8. When there are few resources or not enough time for training

Examples Of Performance Support Systems 

  • Reminders
  • Step-by-step guidance
  • Flow charts and decision trees
  • Templates
  • Checklists
  • Videos or illustrations
  • Coaching
  • Information access
  • Expert help

As can be seen, a good performance support system augments a learning environment. It increases a learner’s probability of success, enhances motivation, and accelerates learning transfer. Choosing a learning partner is an important activity that cannot be taken lightly. Performance support requires the same level of attention as in our learning initiatives. A good learning partner understands this and will have a robust timely performance support system that enhances learning transfer. This can result in training being more efficient and producing a workforce that is more confident, motivated, and less stressed.


  • The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results, Roy VH Pollock, Andrew Mack. Jefferson, Calhoun W Wick. John Wiley & Sons. (2015)
  • Job Aids & Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere, Allison Rosset & Lisa Schafer John Wiley & Sons. (2007)
  • Electronic Performance Support Systems, Gloria Gery (1991)