The Performance-Learning Relationship

intersection abstractFrom the perspective of Learning & Development, performance support and learning are very different things. One is to help succeed in the moment without learning, and the other is to achieve a new capability. But from our audience’s perspective, particularly in the flow of work or use, the distinction is less clear. They just want to perform! And it’s important to understand the relationship to be able to meet a full suite of needs, such as the support relationship with a customer or client.

Look at the support page of an organization like Apple. There are a range of options right at the very start. You can choose your device or a problem with purchasing or music. You can drill down for more if those weren’t it. However, there are also options about your relationship with them, getting things fixed, and further down there are resource like videos, courses, and ways to communicate with help folks.

From the visitor perspective, it’s oriented around the things most likely to be your problem. Some things are tools to diagnose, some are self-help resources, some are people. It’s not organized around the business unit, it’s organized around the (most likely) problem.

To be able to talk about this sensibly, it makes sense to characterize the two extremes, and then find middle ground, before working through to a systematic strategy. Again, from the customer’s perspective, it’s about being able to (get back to) be doing things.


To start with, formal learning is actually a range of things. Formal learning is mostly about helping people acquire new skills or giving them sufficient information to make decisions. Depending on the complexity, it can be 15 minutes, 15 hours, or 15 days. And, as we now know, it mostly shouldn’t be all at once.

We create courses when we (should) have determined that there’s a need for significant new knowledge or skills, or new knowledge that must be processed sufficiently to render a decision. So, for instance, we might provide information about a significant product or service feature that helps learners take full advantage of that capability, or help individuals make a choice about different ways of accomplishing things through the product or service.

Note that in the latter case, the learner might not be intended to retain the information, but must reach sufficient awareness to make important distinctions. There may be other ways to accomplish this, such as asking questions of the individual to then make recommendations, but this isn’t always the most expedient approach.

In general, however, we’re trying to impart knowledge and need concepts, examples, and sufficient spaced, varied, and deliberate practice. This is quite different qualitatively from performance support.


Many times, however, we don’t care if anyone learns. I use the example of looking at YouTube to repair my broken dryer.  With the help of a video, I was able to diagnose the problem, identify the solution, and execute it. And if I ever had to do it again, I’d have to watch the video again. I can only vaguely remember where on the dryer it was, and I have no recollection of the symptoms, cause, or remedy. And that’s okay! Hopefully it never happens again, but if it does, I’ll follow the same path to success.

And that’s the point, performance support is about helping someone succeed in the moment. Here we can invoke the Least Assistance Principle, and say that when people have a goal to accomplish, they don’t want everything, they just want what they need to get back to doing what they need to get done.

There’s a nuance here. If it’s something that they’ll be doing over and over again, that makes it worth learning. If, however, it’s rare or unique, or changing rapidly, it’s not worth making a course about. If you can provide a set of steps, or a lookup table, or a checklist, people don’t have to learn it. I like to talk about putting information into the world instead of in the head.

And that’s an important point: learning something to be remembered is much harder than just looking it up. Particularly rote or arbitrary information, or finely nuanced information that can get confused. So, putting information into the world is really a better solution: more reliable and less effortful. Of course, there are design nuances on creating useful information resources as well, but that’s a separate topic.

The Intersection

Now here’s where it gets interesting. There is a spread of situations that span the space. And, there are a number of intersection points between the two.

For one, if you are doing performance support, you have a person performing in a context, which is an opportunity for the ‘teachable moment’. That is, you are providing information to succeed in context. You don’t need to, but you could, add a very little bit of information in the situation that would connect the rationale for the way and means of the performance support. It doesn’t take much, because you already have the context and solution, you can just add some information about why that solution works. This would make sense when this might be seen more frequently than rare, or you want to build the ability of the individual to adapt the approach to slightly different contexts.

Of course, in many cases learning to use the performance support resources is combined with a course.  In a sort of ‘backwards design’, you look at the ideal performance as you desire, and then work backwards to figure out what can go in the world and what has to go in the head. Then you design the ‘in the world’ part, and finally the ‘in the head’ course that incorporates the ‘in the world’ piece.

Similarly, you could have a series of more challenging real-world tasks that you wrap learning around in small chunks, and these tasks are designed to provide the spaced and deliberate practice needed (with other interstitial tasks accomplishing the ‘varied’ part of an ideal practice regime.

Also, sometimes you might have such a small learning goal that it might seem like performance support except that you do intend that they keep the outcome.


The important thing to think about is the customer perspective, their ‘experience’. They want to perform, either just getting something done or acquiring a new capability. They only care that the solution is as short as possible. And that includes information architecture as well as performance consulting and design.

The goal is to anticipate client/customer needs and organize appropriately. Data on customer problems and requests can help prioritize the solutions. Similarly, working with the individuals to create a solution site that maximizes their chances of finding the solution is an information architecture task that draws upon cognition as well as learning and performance. There’s also the design (or curation) of the solutions after the initial analysis.

This where we get back to the point that customer experience requires integrating across business units to meet needs. And this is true for internal as well as external customers. It’s a useful exercise to do it internally as part of the application of the knowledge in doing it externally. So think experience, and develop it as well.