In workplace learning, our objective is to improve employee performance and solve organizational problems. To meet this objective, we must give their workers the right tools and support they need to perform better on the job —  but how can you get started?

Although it’s tempting to jump to training as a one-size-fits-all solution, the best way to maximize the impact of your learning intervention is to understand your employees’ performance needs: What do they need to perform in their roles, and what is currently getting in their way? In this article, we’ll review five tools that can help you leverage employee feedback and expectations to improve performance support.

1. Surveys.

Surveys are an effective tool to gain quantitative insight into your workforce. They can be used to set a baseline from which to measure change, and by segmenting your data based on factors like department or tenure, you can identify different needs across employee populations.

It’s also easy to get surveys wrong. For example, if you ask, “To what extent did you enjoy the training?”, participants may not understand if you’re asking about the content, the trainer or the delivery. As a result, this could skew results. In an article, Annamarie Mann, Gallup practice manager and consultant, says, “Ill-designed questions are one of the most common and avoidable mistakes in survey design.” Misleading, general or simply confusing questions could result in uninterpretable or unreliable answers from respondents.

Instead, partner with experienced data scientists or knowledgeable department leaders to ensure conclusions are methodologically sound. Survey questions should also be written by an objective third party to avoid unintentional bias.

2. Interviews.

While surveys give you a great breadth of understanding, interviews can give you depth. It can be tempting to treat these as a “chat,” but planning questions in advance help maximize the value of the time you spend speaking to learners. Questions should be clear and unambiguous, without leading the learner toward any particular response.

If you already have a lot of data, perhaps from a survey, you probably want to take a more structured approach with questions that test your assumptions. If you are just starting out, then you can take an unstructured approach, where broad questions let the interviewee take the conversation toward areas of concern for them.

3. Focus groups.

Focus groups are an effective technique for gathering insight from a small number of colleagues at one time. Like interviews, it’s important to have a set of ready-made questions to explore, but focus groups have the added benefit of surfacing different perspectives on an issue for a more in depth discussion of what’s going on.

A critical element of focus groups is facilitation. Establish clear rules at the outset about confidentiality, honesty, and respect, and encourage everyone to participate. To make sure the group isn’t dominated by one or two people, you can ask participants to anonymously write their response to each question, before discussing these answers as a group.

4. Observations

How people speak about their job doesn’t necessarily correspond with how people act on the job. By observing your learners in their actual work environment, you can strip your investigation of any bias and reveal what’s really going on.

When carrying out observations, think about how you explain what you are doing to participants. “I want to understand more about your role” is less threatening than “I want to see if you’re doing this correctly,” for example.

Take notes, describe the impact of the environment on behavior and reflect on your findings. And, if you can, bring along a second pair of eyes. A critical part of observation is acknowledging that your own bias will affect your results. Working with someone else can help to reduce research bias.

5. Digital exhausts

Finally, every action your workforce takes on any digital platform creates what’s referred to as a “digital exhaust” —  aka the footprints left behind by every click.

How you interpret these is context specific. For example, everyone in your workforce has probably logged into your learning management system (LMS), but that doesn’t mean they love it. Likewise, a lengthy session on your LMS might imply that colleagues are engaging heavily with learning, or that it takes a long time to find a useful course or resource.

To gather meaningful insights from digital exhausts, ask yourself what behavior it is that you want to see, and validate your interpretation of the data by leveraging one of the other techniques outlined above.


The techniques outlined above can be time consuming, so adopt a pragmatic approach. Although using a mix of these techniques is better than using just one, using one is better than using none.

After all, your learners are speaking all the time: to their managers, to each other and to your digital platforms. Rather than find out later that they’re grumbling about your learning intervention, take some time to speak to them upfront and uncover what they truly need to overcome challenges and perform better in their roles.