Performance Support and Formal Training

Is formal training necessary? Is it always the answer for our learning needs?

So much of our continuing, lifelong learning is informal. We are doing our thing when we run into some roadblock or confusion. We don’t quite know how to proceed. What do we tend to do in these situations? Do we seek a formal course to sign up for? Not usually. At least not as a first, second, third, or probably fourth resort. Usually, unless we know absolutely nothing about the skill or tool, whenever we have a question, we seek out an answer, either from people we know and trust or from online search. We will usually seek out one or more informal sources of learning. For example, we might:

  •  Ask a friend
  • Check out eHow
  • Look on YouTube
  • Check out the helpfile of the software, whether embedded or online
  • Check out the FAQ section of the company website
  • Go to the user forum of the makers of the software to consult the user community for an answer
  • Check out the internal corporate knowledge base or wiki

We quickly get our answer, and then return to what we were doing before we got stuck. We don’t look through a course catalogue, we don’t register for a set course with a curriculum and syllabus and schedule and sequence of fixed topics and tests at the end. We are missing some specific skill or piece of knowledge, so we seek it out. Researcher definitions of informal learning vary, but at heart, the idea is the same. Informal learning is learning that takes place outside the strictures and structures of an organized course. This is the natural way we tend to learn in life. Most of our learning is informal; some research indicates 80-90% of all our learning is informal.

Knowing this from our own experience when we need to know something, we can reflect a bit as Instructional Designers about the solutions we craft for our clients. Is formal training really the answer for the client’s needs? The answer is not always yes, not always no. We must examine this case by case in a critical way to see what meets best the training and performance improvement needs of our clients.

For many things, why take learners away from their workplace, away from productivity to take part in lengthy beginning to end formal training if learners could  potentially just get specifically what they need, when they need it, with a minimum of time, and would actually prefer it this way? Instead of building a course, why not build selected snippets, FAQs, short how to guides or screen capture videos, wikis, help files, Q&As? Put them on company web space, make the most recent or most frequently used questions prominently visible and make the archives easily searchable. This intentional, organized sort of effort to provide of online tools to help the employee in the course of their job is known as electronic performance support.

This is taking the self-paced, as needed promise of eLearning and learning objects and taking it one step farther. If the users don’t find what they need, they can get in touch with someone in charge to make a request. These requests become a source of areas to work on next.

Now, this reasoning should not be taken to exaggerated conclusions. I don’t mean to argue, as some simplistically do, that all formal training can be replaced by informal learning or performance support. Some sorts of skills or subject area you probably still need full formal documentation and training. Where safety is an issue, or government regulations must be complied with, or the learners will be using big, expensive, multi-million dollar equipment, formal learning may be a necessity to ensure that learners were exposed to and tested on all relevant objectives and teaching points.

This may be the only way to ensure standardized, compliant performance on the job right away. When lives and dollars and equipment are at stake and a “get-your-hands-dirty” playing with it and getting support on the fly doesn’t work or will lead to incomplete or unsatisfactorily uniform levels of learning or proficiency. Or when there needs to be a formal assessment as a gateway for formal certification. Simulation-based formal training may be a better solution in such cases, allowing a supported, learn by doing approach without risking real lives and real equipment.

And with many things, even if a lot of the formal training can be replaced by informal learning and performance some level of formal training will still be useful, whether classroom, eLearning, Blended Learning to establish support, formal training on certain basics may be needed before turning the learners loose again. A lot of formal training courses, much of the content could be heavily stripped back to such essentials. Give the learners an overview and enough basics to get a good start with the equipment and software, some warnings about big mistakes to avoid, and then let them go to it. Then the rest of the material can be chopped up into bite sized pieces, reworked to just-in-time, as needed, on-request online support or reference material.

Within an organization, performance support materials, as informal learning, would not be on the LMS, but the usage levels of different materials could still be tracked by whatever content management system in which they are stored. New developments in eLearning tracking data standards such as the Tin Can / Experience API allow easier tracking of such non-traditional forms of learning materials. Impressions level evaluation data can be collected relatively easily from learners, giving feedback on how useful the support information was and how easy it was to find. Furthermore, if completion of materials was tracked, correlations could potentially be made with on the job performance to try to evaluate the effectiveness on a higher level.