The relationship between learning and performance support

This post is the third in a series in which I deliberate over the semantics of education.

I dedicate this one to Jane Hart whom I was delighted to meet in-person in Sydney last month. Jane is a renowned advocate of performance support in the workplace, and I wonder what she’ll make of my latest musing.

While much of Jane’s work exposes the difference between training and performance support – and implores us to do less of the former in favour of the latter – my post here does not. The difference between training and performance support proxies (at least IMHO) the difference between formal and informal learning, and I do not intend to rehash that which others such as Jane have already documented so well.

Instead, I intend to explore the relationship between learning and performance support, with the former considered in its informal context.

I hasten to add that while much of Jane’s treatment of informal learning is in terms of social media, for the purposes of my post I will remain within the scope of broadcast content that is published by or on behalf of SMEs for consumption by the masses. The platform I have in mind is the corporate intranet.

Business woman typing on computer

A healthy corporate intranet comprises thoughtfully structured information and resources to facilitate learning by the organisation’s employees. While this content is typically delivered in an instructivist manner by the SME, it is probably consumed in a constructivist manner by the end user.

Much of the content – if not most of it – is designed to be consumed before it needs to be applied on the job. Hence I refer to it as “pre-learning”. It is undertaken just in case it will be needed later on, and is thus vulnerable to becoming “scrap learning”.

But of course not all pre-learning is a waste of time; some of it will indeed be applied later on. However it may be quite a while before this happens, so it’s important that the learner can refer back to the content to refresh his or her memory of it as the need arises. This might be called “re-learning” and it’s done just in time.

To support the learner in applying their learning on the job, tools such as checklists and templates may be provided to them for their immediate use. These tools are called “job aids” and they’re used in the workflow.

However job aids aren’t the only form of performance support. Content in the ilk of pre-learning may be similarly looked up just in time, though it was never learned in the first place. These concepts may be so straight-forward that they need not be processed ahead of time.

Business meeting

To illustrate, consider the topic of difficult feedback.

James is a proactive manager who reads up about this topic on the corporate intranet, watches some scenarios, and perhaps even tries his hand at some simulations. But it’s not until an incident occurs a couple of months later that he needs to have that special conversation with a problematic team member. So he refers back to the intranet to brush up on the topic before going into the meeting armed with the knowledge and skills he needs for success.

Jennifer also explores this topic on the intranet while she’s in between projects. Some time later she finds that she too needs to have a conversation with one of her team members, but she feels she doesn’t need to re-learn anything. Instead, she’s comfortable to follow the step-by-step guide on her iPad during the meeting, which gives her sufficient scaffolding to ensure the conversation is effective.

George, on the other hand, has been so busy that he hasn’t gotten around to exploring this topic on the intranet. However he too finds that he must provide difficult feedback to one of his team members. So he quickly looks it up now, draws out the key points, and engages the conversation armed with that knowledge.

The point of these scenarios is not to say that someone was right and someone was wrong, but rather to highlight that everyone is subjected to different circumstances. Sure, one of the conversations will probably be more effective than the others, but the point is that each of the managers is able to perform the task better than they otherwise would have.

Venn diagram showing the intersection of learning and performance support at JIT

So when we return to the relationship between learning and performance support, we see a subtle but important difference.

Learning is about preparing for performance. This preparation may be done well ahead of time or just in time.

Performance support is about, umm… supporting performance. This support may be provided in the moment or – again – just in time.

Hence we see an intersection.

But the ultimate question is: so what? Well, I think an awareness of this relationship informs our approach as L&D professionals. And our approach depends on our driver.

If our driver is to improve capability, then we need to facilitate learning. If our driver is to improve execution, then we need to facilitate performance support.

Arguably these are two different ways of looking at the same thing, and as the intersection in the venn diagram shows, at least in that sense they are the same thing. So here we can kill two birds with one stone.

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10 Comments on “The relationship between learning and performance support”


  1. Excellent post Ryan and the distinction between facilitating learning and facilitating performance is very useful – we must remember however that the 2 are very much intertwined or there becomes an over emphasis on the latter. Tim Galweys work balance triangle is very useful as a tool here

  2. LearnKotch Says:

    So Ryan are you (in your current role) a performance supporter or a capability improver? IMHO they are different and need distinct skills and capabilities to carry out – but that’s a discussion for another time.

  3. Ryan Tracey Says:

    @ eGenius – Thank you and yes indeed, the two are very much intertwined. There can certainly be an over emphasis on the latter, and I’ve seen an over emphasis on the former too! I will look up Tim Galwey’s work balance triangle; thanks for the tip.

    @ LearnKotch – Good question, Con. While my deliberation over learning and performance support draws an intellectual distinction between the two, I think in practice they are much more integrated (and rightfully so). As eGenius has cautioned, we must remember that learning and performance support are very much intertwined. So in my current role, I would say that I am both a performance supporter and a capability improver. Indeed these roles are different in important ways and we need distinct skills and capabilities to carry them out, but I would argue that we in L&D *need* those skills & capabilities.

  4. Steve Says:

    Thanks for the Gallwey reference, eGenius! Took a quick scan and his book The Inner Game of Work looks fantastic. Will be my next read.

    We’ve been doing quite a bit of work on individual development planning and supports for helping people reach development goals. In doing this, we’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly people want or need to develop.

    We started from the point of skills. It quickly became clear that development of capacity goes way beyond skills. It’s obvious but we intuitively tend to reduce the package of characteristics that comprise “ready to perform” down to skills. We leave out dimensions of capacity when we focus exclusively on skills. Things like confidence, connection, insight, perspective, grit, empathy, etc.. get very little attention with just in time support (unless that just in time support is a well equipped human).

    I think this is where the overlap above comes in. JIT learning and performance support provide temporary competence (possibly permanent competence) and skill readiness for task performance. This might boost confidence but could completely miss other important dimensions.

    There are hundreds of ways and dozens of great ways to address the full spectrum of capacity (both the things we anticipate and the things we might not be able to predict). Another scale of the work we’re doing with IDP is helping folks see the opportunities for capacity development. We added some examples of these opportunities in six categories. Discover, Achieve, Connect, Apply, Create, and Lead.

    It’s working OK so far. Folks are used to passive development in a very narrow set of opportunities (training, performance support, elearning.) Change effort. Fun. Worth it. But a long road.

  5. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Steve. It sounds like you are facilitating your people’s development in a comprehensive manner.

    Your point that JIT learning and performance support provide temporary competence (possibly permanent competence) and skill readiness for task performance really resonates with me. Essentially this is about task execution – get it done now, get it done right.

    I agree that those dimensions of capacity that you list get very little attention with JIT support, and I think I interpret you correctly in that this kind of development can’t really be done just in time. Things like confidence and perspective need time to explore, to consider, to challenge, to mature, to develop, as per your six categories. An example might be a prep program for HIPO’s who are earmarked for leadership roles. Not only is this kind of development pre-learning, but also ongoing.


  6. I think they are, in fact, intertwined – but that the confusion lies in people’s understanding of the distinction. The process for creating performance support is very different to that involved in creating learning materials, for example. At heart, people struggle to understand that performance support is more accurately/emphatically framed as ‘learning elimination’. I wrote more about his here, if you’re interested: http://www.aconventional.com/2014/10/the-learning-elimination-team.html

  7. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Learning elimination – I am indeed interested, Nick. I like your observation that “we should more clearly differentiate the methods useful in building capability and the resources required to exercise that capability”. Will comment…

  8. Douglas Mark Says:

    I also agree that they are intertwined. Each item contributes to effective learning and retention. While pre-learning can help an employee be prepared for a situation, learning in the moment can aid in their experience for problem solving and decision making.

    If you’re interested, here’s an example of how improving pre-learning education was implemented: http://blog.learningzen.com/2014/10/guiding-student-pilots-through-their.html

  9. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks Douglas, I’ll check that out.


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