The argument for on-demand learning

The new learning architect

Over the past year we have been publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We continue with the third part of chapter 9:

On-demand learning is necessary because, in many jobs, it is impossible to know everything there is to know. And even if, through prolonged study and training, you were lucky enough to get to know it all, you’d soon find that most of it had changed. There’s too much to know and it changes far too quickly. In the knowledge economy, it is more important to know where to look – or who to talk to – than it is to have the knowledge yourself.

Alison Rossett and Lisa Schafer have identified a number of situations in which performance support makes particular sense:

When the performance is infrequent: There’s no point learning how to carry out a task if you rarely get to perform it, not least because, with insufficient repetitions, the information is unlikely to stick. An example might be setting up a home office network – chances are, you’ll only have to do this every 4-5 years, with little reinforcement of the information in between. An exception would be a task that, although carried out rarely, simply has to be carried out proficiently from memory, the most obvious example of which is an emergency procedure.

When the situation is complex, involves many steps or has many attributes: The more complex the task, the less likely you are to be able to remember every important detail. Even if you have been trained formally, performance support materials are a good backup.

When the consequence of error is intolerable: Highly critical skills may need to be formally developed through intensive training, but when every detail is important, it pays to provide clear instructions at the point-of-need, just to make sure.

When performance depends on knowledge, procedures or approaches that change frequently: There’s no point acquiring knowledge which is soon outdated. Take that example of the home office network – five years ago you’d have been laying Ethernet cables, now it’s all wireless.

When there is a high turnover and the task is perceived to be simple: It’s not only information that’s constantly changing, it’s people too. In some industries with high employee turnover, there’s little point in devoting training time to simple tasks – just provide clear instructions.

When there is little time or few resources to devote to training: In other words, if all else fails, at very least make sure you provide a decent job aid.


Job Aids & Performance Support by Alison Rossett & Lisa Schafer, Pfeiffer, 2007.

Coming next: The on-demand learning toolkit

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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