Whatever Happened to Performance Support?

by Jay Cross on August 24, 2008

Where did the dinosaurs go? The most respected scientific speculation today suggests that most dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago when a massive asteroid collided with earth. One group of dinosaurs did survive the asteroid crash: today we call them birds.

And what happened to performance support? In the 1990s, many people expected performance, to shove technical training into the shadows. Yet eLearning, blended learning, and virtual worlds seemed to have elbowed performance support into oblivion. Recent research finds that this is not the case. Performance support is stronger than ever; it simply hiding in plain sight, having taken on a new form.

The Birth of Electronic Performance Support Systems

Performance Support (PS) was founded on the premise that providing information to a worker when it’s needed is generally preferable to having the worker memorize it in advance. A respected professor of instructional design has written that “Information is not instruction.” A performance support enthusiast might reply that if information gets the job done, it doesn’t matter whether it’s instruction.

Thirty years ago, expedient mainframe programmers upgraded applications by slapping overlays atop original code rather than rewriting the user interface. Users had to jump back and forth between three or four screens to complete a transaction. No matter that applications were clunky and inefficient; that could be covered up with a training program.

Gloria Gery, a training manager at Aetna manager, saw the folly in this approach. Why should people have to learn something that could be designed into the system in the first place? Why not provide them with information when they needed it?

In her ground breaking 1991 book, Electronic Performance Support Systems, How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology, Gloria described an EPSS as:

…an integrated electronic environment that is available to and easily accessible by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualised on-line access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit job performance with minimal support and intervention by others.

Performance Support empowered novice employees to get up to speed rapidly, to perform with a minimum of outside coaching or training, and to do the job as well or even better than experienced workers. Gloria’s goal for EPSS was to enable people who didn’t know what they were doing to function as if they did.

Some organizations heartily embraced EPSS, incorporating it into airline reservation systems, platform automation at financial institutions, and a variety of applications at AT&T. Many people were creating performance support systems without calling it that. The advent of packaged software for consumers required a PS approach since it would hardly be cost-effective to send tutors home with people using TurboTax and Will Maker.

Improved productivity at lower cost is a compelling proposition. Practitioners attended annual EPSS conferences. Large companies and government agencies implemented EPSS. Some traditional training firms feared that EPSS might put them out of business.

Then the cheering stopped. EPSS were not a cure-all. Unless it was tightly baked into an application from the get-go, EPSS required continual maintenance. Few people considered themselves EPSS designers. Modifying EPSS took scarce programming skills. EPSS did not have a home in the typical organization structure.

EPSS runs counter to the traditional goals of IT. IT is more concerned with technical performance: response time, hardware utilization, and throughput; EPSS focuses on the user. IT develops an application and is done with it; EPSS requires perpetual updating to stay abreast of changes in the job environment.

Marc Rosenberg, author of E-learning, former ISPI president, and an early proponent of performance support, describes EPSS as “an enormous opportunity overlooked by the training community.” EPSS is not training, isn’t developed with the ADDIE model, and has been eclipsed by the new kid on the block: eLearning.

EPSS became homeless and slipped off the corporate radar.

Enterprise Performance Support

Bob Mager was the guru of instructional design in the late seventies. His Designing Instructional Objectives and Analyzing Performance Problems were the gold standard of clear thinking, behaviorism, and the discipline required to get government contracts.

“Could he do it if you held a gun to his head?” If the answer is yes, you don’t have a training problem, you have a motivation problem.

Bob saw training as a last resort, chosen only after exhausting all the other possibilities. His thinking meshed with Gloria’s, but he didn’t confine his applications to technical training.

Gloria had started by training staff to use computers; designing performance support into the job was necessarily “e.” Bob built his models to cover any performance problem; his performance support often resided on a piece of paper.

In October 2004, Gloria and I jointly delivered the keynote at Training Fall in San Francisco. It was her last pubic presentation before going into retirement. Our topic was enterprise performance support. We noted that “Business issues around getting to performance are enormous. It takes too long, costs too much, is inconsistent and becoming increasingly difficult due to churn, complexity, and learner differences. We made the learner responsible for integrating and organizing information, and that focused effort on learning, not doing.” And since then, performance support has again fallen off the CLO’s watch list.

Judgment Support

Loretta Donovan, an expert in Appreciative Inquiry and similar group processes who coincidentally went to high school with Gloria, points to the shift of PS from rote tasks to decision-making. Maybe we should call it “Judgment Support”

Earlier generation performance support was most easily applied to non-creative, routine tasks. That meant the architect of the support system or tools could assess the challenges typically met and engineer the support aids, collect more data on where performance stumbled, add support aids, and so on. The user (an individual) was a passive participant in the process, albeit eventually benefiting from the help. That may still make a lot of sense if we are supporting the call center at LL Bean during the Holiday rush.

Learning, and now work, are increasingly collaborative. What’s the opportunity for collaborative performance support? Loretta Donovan again:

…collaborative performance support could be within a formal team or project, or a less structured work situation. What I am envisioning is real time communication, generated by the ‘performer’, using online tools. So a task is being performed, and in an effort to improve/enhance/problem solve, etc, a question is posed electronically: “who’s the expert on this? what should I watch out for? do you have a record of? can I borrow the template for?” This moves the issue from the individual performer being ‘watched for errors’ and suffering their consequences, to the performer as collaborator initiating the network of collective intelligence towards continuous improvement.

Learnscape Architecture

Today, the greatest leverage in corporate learning comes from building on-going, largely self-sustaining learning processes. This process orientation focuses on the organization’s architecture for learning, a platform a level above its training programs and regulated events. The learnscape is a foundation for learning that is self-service, spontaneous, serendipitous, drip-fed, and mentored as well as the formal training that will always be with us.

People who read my book on Informal Learning generally agreed that most learning at work is informal but that most corporate investment goes into formal learning. “But what can we do about it?” they asked. Learnscape Architecture is my answer to their question.

Knowledge workers are responsible for their own learning. Instead of taking whatever was pushed at them, they pull in what they need to know in the form that seems most appropriate. Knowledge workers are their own instructors. They are also their own instructional designers. And they are becoming their own PS consultants. The challenge presented to Learnscape Architects is making self-service learning simply, relevant, attractive, and cost-effective.

Performance Support Reborn

Performance support is blossoming in organizations today under the label of Web 2.0.

Remember the original premise of PS, making information available to workers instead of forcing them to memorize it? That’s how we use Google and corporate wikis and instant messenger.

Gloria sought easy, immediate, individualized on-line access to information, software, guidance, advice and assistance. Learnscape architects have implemented miniature versions of the internet behind corporate firewalls that provide all of these things, from peer-rated FAQs to wizards, on-line help desks, and best practices repositories.

We have given up the idea that competence must exist within the person. Competence exists within our collaborators and within the net. George Siemens and others have given up on the idea that knowledge resides within individuals’ heads; it’s collective intelligence.

The information, rules, and knowledge that used to be spread all over the place can often be found by the in-house Google Appliance. What used to be out of reach is now a keystroke away.

A powerful form of performance support is asking someone who knows. Expertise locators direct workers to the person most likely to have the answer they seek. Presence awareness software shows whether that person is online, mobile, in a meeting, or available by phone. Instant messaging facilitates swapping brief questions or asking if the person has time to deal with a more complex question.

Overall, what are corporate blogs, feeds, aggregators, wikis, mash-ups, locator systems, collaboration environments, and widgets, if not performance support?

Ten years ago, at the Online Learning Conference in Anaheim, Gloria declared that “Training will be strategic or training will be marginalized.” Most chief learning officers chose the second option and ceded PS to others.

It is high time for CLOs to start looking at the entire learnscape. We are overdue to be mindful that in terms of effectiveness, performance support often trumps training. As Gloria said,

Learning must be re-conceived to influence the primary purpose of organization: to perform effectively and efficiently. Good design puts what workers need to do their jobs within easy reach and shows how to use them to optimize performance.


Jay Cross and Tony O’Driscoll, Workflow Learning Gets Real, Training Magazine. February 2005.

Gloria Gery, Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and Why to Remake the Workplace Through the Strategic Application of Technology. 1991.


Conversations and correspondence with Gloria Gery, Marc Rosenberg, Allison Rossett, Jeathr Rutherford, Stan Malcolm, Gary Dickelman, Burt Huber, Hal Christensen, Frank Nguyen, Clark Quinn, Harold Jarche, Loretta Donovan, Buthaina Al-Othman, Allison Anderson, Jim Schuyler, Harvey Singh, and Karyn Romeis.

An excerpt from Learnscape Architecture

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