Friday, May 22, 2009

The Moment of Apply

At the Heart of it All

Our industry has made great progress in meeting the instructional needs of people who are learning something for the first time and when they want to learn more about it. We have rightly broadened our approach from the traditional classroom to include other formal means to help people learn quickly and effectively. We have employed innovative technologies to make these learning opportunities available anywhere, anytime. We are, for the most part, very good at focused, event-based learning—synchronous and asynchronous.

But on the whole, we have been negligent in addressing the most critical moment in any person’s individual learning process – their moment of “Apply.” Preparing learners for this vital moment should be at the heart of all we do. This is when learners meet the realities of what they actually learned, what they didn’t learn, what they have forgotten, what they have misunderstood, the unanticipated nuances, and the challenge of a constantly changing performance landscape.

I remember teaching an advanced instructional design course to graduate students at a university. I showed them an emerging technology that would literally coach people through a software procedure while they did their work. This was no simulation. A user could invoke a script that communicated directly with the operating system and the application. The script would literally walk a person a step at a time allowing the person to use her own data as she did her own work. One aspiring instructional designer raised his hand and asked, “What about practice?” I stared at him and answered – “Why would you need it?” “But you have to have practice to learn,” he said. He was unable to shake the formal learning event paradigm from his mindset. He was absolutely ignorant of his core mission – to develop learning solutions that will ensure that people can perform effectively when they are called upon to act. He needed to put and keep in his sights squarely on the “Moment of Apply.” So do the rest of us. The nature of the world today demands that we do this.

Today’s work environment doesn’t tolerate learners stepping out of their workflow to learn unless it is absolutely vital to do so. And the actual nature of 21st century learners is resistant to learning options that are delayed and removed from the here and now. They are self-directed, adaptive, and collaborative in their approach to learning. These kind of learners will ultimately abandon outright our formal learning solutions if what we provide them fails to efficiently prepare them to effectively perform at their moments of “Apply.” Why, because when facing a course that doesn’t do this, today's learners will simply begin to look elsewhere.

Responding to this need, of course, is the core calling of Performance Support. It’s primary mission is to support people at the critical moment of “Apply.” The good news is that doing this doesn’t require more effort than what most are doing now. It does, however, require a mindset shift. It also necessitates learning how to redirect current efforts to bring about this alignment.

We have within our Performance Support community an organization that has been doing this for many years with phenomenal results. They don’t view people primarily as learners, they view them as performers who may have formal learning needs. They see their mission as one of “performer support.” Their first response to any need for employee performance improvement is to focus first on the “moment of apply” and then wrap other learning support around the performer-support solutions they develop. The result? The learning function is demonstrating with hard metrics the positive impact of their efforts upon employee performance. Management at all levels, especially front-line managers have assumed greater ownership of learning at all five moments of need (i.e., when learning for the first time, when Learning more, when applying/remembering, when fixing, and when things change.) More importantly, people throughout the organization have become more agile in how they learn. They are learning, unlearning, and relearning more rapidly. They have become more self-directed, adaptive, and collaborative in how they go about their day-to-day learning.

Now, I’m not proposing the overthrow of formal learning events. But I am advocating that we move much of what we do as far into the natural workflow of the organization as possible; that we avoid, when we can, pulling people from their work for large periods of time to learn. There has never been a time when we have had greater capacity to do this than now.

For example, virtual classroom technologies provide us the option of allowing learners to synchronously gather online from where they are actually doing their work. The virtual classroom also provides the capacity to spread learning out over time so that learners, between online sessions, can act upon what they learn (Apply) in the context of their work and receive specific feedback. The VC brings instructor led training deeper into the workflow and much closer to the “moment of Apply.”

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character, when asked how he went bankrupt, replies: “First gradually, and then suddenly.” This will be the case for much of what we call formal learning today – unless we push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow and provide people the tools and preparation they need to successfully perform at the “Moment of Apply.” This must be at the heart of it all.


  1. Great post Con!!
    As you guys know I've been working at the moment of need for about six years now. Of course, six years ago we did not call it the moment of need it was simply "where the work got done." As I see it, there is one thing that could be done to move these concepts forward at a much faster rate - integrate the Performance Support model and steps into the popular instructional design models. By doing this, our PS movement does not look like it is outside of the standard learning design process and will be seen as more mainstream. This will drive more Instructional Designers to learn about PS design and will broaden and uplift the quality of training delivered.

    Keep at it guys, your message is not falling on deaf ears!

  2. great post, thanks! performance support and performance management (and i've heard 'productivity support/mgmt' in business as well) are growing topics... knowledge management is a related topic thats doing some great work in that area as well. if its helpful, i've posted a new and specific thought/concept regarding education (learning) reform that you might find related/interesting?