ATD Blog

Learning at the Moment of Need

Thursday, November 1, 2018

“It is not about what they know; it is about what they can do.”

—Bob Mosher

Many years ago, learning scientist Roger Schank stated “learning is the work.” Today learning in the workflow is getting renewed interest as organizations realize the opportunities new technologies provide to make assets available at the point of need. The nature of work is changing, and therefore the need for access to learning assets is changing. The modern worker wants learning that is personalized just for their needs and available on a variety of devices. They are more adaptive, collaborative, and self-directed than earlier generations of learners. They use smartphones to search for answers at any time, and expect immediate access to information.
Several years ago, Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher of APPLY Synergies conducted studies on learning and authored Innovative Performance Support: Strategies and Practices for Learning in the Workflow. Their research identified five unique moments when performers are learning: learn new, learn more, apply, solve, change. The first two are associated with formal training while the last three exist in the realm of performance support. Unlike traditional approaches that encourage learner dependency and begin with a training solution framed by the deeply ingrained assumption that performance challenges are best ameliorated by new learning, the five moments of need methodology encourages independence and launches from the moment of application (when learned skills are applied to the performance of a job task). The corresponding assumption in play is that performance challenges are best addressed by providing performers access to cascading levels of support, from simple (for instance, a reminder of the basic steps required to complete a task) to comprehensive (targeted training oriented around job roles and tasks for which the result of failure is catastrophic).

These moments include:

1. When people are learning how to do something for the first time (learn new).

Example: A first-time supervisor, promoted from within, needs to learn the progressive discipline policies of the organization.

2. When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned (learn more).

Example: The first-time supervisor needs to learn how to conduct a verbal counseling session under the progressive discipline policies of the organization.


3. When they need to act on what they have learned, which includes planning what they will do, remembering what they may have forgotten, or adapting their performance to a unique situation (apply).

Example: The first-time supervisor needs to perform the task of conducting a verbal counseling session (acting on what they have learned). This requires the supervisor to plan the encounter, remember what they may have forgotten, and possibly adapt their performance to a unique situation.

4. When problems arise, or things break or don’t work the way they were intended (solve).

Example: During the verbal counseling session, the employee presents the first-time supervisor with new medical documentation and notice that legal counsel has been retained.

5. When people need to learn a new way of doing something, which requires them to unlearn deeply ingrained skills and relearn to adjust to new practices, requirements, and so forth (change).

Example: In response to legal challenges, the organization has significantly changed its time and attendance policies and procedures. The first-time supervisor, formerly a line employee of several years, must overcome familiarity with the way it has always been and internalize the new approach.


Learning new and more is the traditional stronghold for L&D professionals. It is what we have done for years and years. Learning used in apply, solve, and change moments is performance support; it is needed when it is needed—just in time, not when someone is attending a class. It is also needed in the right amount, not the amount deemed important for the length of a class.

According to Gottfredson and Mosher, all learning needs to focus on application. This means addressing the entire journey performers make, from the beginning stages of learning through the full range of challenges when learners are called upon to actually perform, to use what they’ve learned to take actions. If organizations are interested in advancing employee performance, they must understand the moments when employees need access to learning.

The Complete Learning Journey is depicted as three phases—training, transfer, and sustain, as illustrated in this image.


Designing for this model requires pairing team members who are certified in the five moments of need methodology with practitioners who are experts in the role for which content is being designed. While in concept this approach is not so different from a traditional designer–subject matter expert collaboration, in practice it becomes more of a relationship between the designer and the larger professional community being served. Approaches differ based on the moment (for example, new is taught differently than more), and content associated with formal instruction is generally limited to those tasks that, if performed incorrectly, result in significant or catastrophic outcomes. Tasks carrying less risk are addressed through instruction or performance support in the workflow.

This is a framework that various modalities can easily fit into. For example, there are ways to support the moments with e-learning, microlearning, videos, gaming, and so forth. However, this design requires a complete change of mindset about the learning portfolio and an understanding that five moments of need is not a different version of ADDIE. Some tips from experience to better navigate your “new” moment with this methodology were recently provided to ATD Forum members and include:

  • Invest your time and professional development dollars in getting up to speed holistically on the five moments of need methodology. Allow yourself to be confused as you learn; it all makes sense eventually.
  • Don’t waste your time trying to explain the shift to a performance-based approach. Just assume that the broad community of stakeholders won’t actually get it until you have a no-kidding demonstration product to show them that’s applicable to their work.
  • Target an individual stakeholder in an underserved area of your business as your partner. The underserved are more likely to be willing helpers and will appreciate getting top-of-the-line, impactful learning support in return.
  • Get started, but start small.
  • Work under the radar.
  • It’s much harder than you think. Stick with it anyway and trust the process. As Mae West is quoted as saying, “I never said it would be easy; I just said it would be worth it.”

ATD Resources:
Technology to the Rescue
Performance Support Certificate Program
Science of Learning 101: When to Build Performance Support, Part 1

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

About the Author

Doug Holt was appointed executive director of CIGIE’s Training Institute in June 2016. As such, he provides executive leadership, planning, direction, and coordination for all activities relating to the institute. He also oversees its three academies: Leadership and Mission Support; Audit, Inspection, and Evaluation; and the Inspector General Criminal Investigator Academy.

Previously, he served the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in a variety of positions for more than a decade. His last assignment with the DIA encompassed the dual responsibilities of chief learning officer and chief of academy services for the Academy for Defense Intelligence. Before moving to the DIA, Doug worked in higher education, as the chair of adult and continuing education for Frederick Community College, associate director for training and professional development at Baltimore City Community College, and contract training representative for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Doug’s professional awards and recognition include the Defense Intelligence Agency Excellence Award, Frederick Community College President’s Award, a Maryland Senate Citation for Contributions to Gifted and Talented Education Programs, and being named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

Doug is a native of Pasadena, California. He holds an MA in applied behavioral science from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in political science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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