Training Industry

Professional Education

  • Now's the Time for Performance Support

In 1991, Gloria Gerry pioneered the initial ideas and practices of Performance Support (PS) in her book, “Electronic Performance Support Systems”. She rightly proposed that the learning strategies of organizations needed to “be reconceived to influence the primary purpose of organization: to perform effectively and efficiently.” She also observed that the “information, rules and knowledge” that workers needed in order to “optimize performance” were “spread all over the place” and needed to be made “within easy reach.” According to Gerry, organizations needed to “give up the idea that competence must exist within the person and expand [their] view that whenever possible it should be built into the situation.”

Unfortunately, Gerry’s vision of what PS can do for organizations experienced a short period of adulation and then waned primarily because the costs of implementation were too great. Organizations have since given what could only be viewed as “lip service” to PS when scrutinized against what she has challenged them to do. They have developed job-aids, created archaic online help systems, and published vast amounts of information onto SharePoint sites—all in the name of performance support. 

Because of recent advances in technology coupled with compelling evidence that formal learning, alone, is failing in its charter, there is a resurgence of effort in this vital discipline. The good news is the transformational impact of Gerry’s work is beginning to be realized by some organizations. 

The What and Why of Performance Support

Gerry’s definition of performance support throws down the gauntlet of what it needs to be in order to “optimize performance” in the workplace. Gerry defined PS as an:

Orchestrated set of technology-enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people

This definition has six attributes that any effective PS solution needs to have: 

1. Orchestrated Set of Technology-Enabled Services

Technology exists today that enables the kinds of PS services that can realistically deliver on Gerry’s requirements. Today’s PS authoring and delivery technologies have, at their core, the functional capability to:

  • Embed PS into the workflow via the full range of needed modalities published from a single source (see On-demand Access below).
  • Support performance via multiple contexts (see Integrated Information below).
  • Broker reference and learning assets by allowing them to remain in their many different locations, but making them contextually available to performers at the task level (see Integrated Information below).
  • Provide access to cascading levels of support within two clicks/10 seconds across multiple contexts (see Integrated Information below).
  • Facilitate performer feedback and collaboration within PS solutions (see Guidance, Advice, Assistance, Training and Tools below).
  • Integrate business-rules into software application performance support (see Guidance, Advice, Assistance, Training and Tools below).
  • Contextually adapt as performers move across applications (see Enable High-level Job Performance below).
  • Minimize IT involvement in the creation, integration, and maintenance of PS solutions embedded within software applications (see Minimum Support from Other People below).

2. Provide On-demand Access

The ability to embed PS into the workflow via the full range of needed modalities (i.e., online help, Web, mobile, print, e-learning) is the fundamental entry point of any PS capability.  Performers need “On-demand Access,” and with people on the move like they are in today’s work environment, no solution can rely, for long, on a single means for on-demand access. Performers often need on-demand access from within software, at their desktop, through their mobile devices, and at times in print.

Obviously, providing on-demand access through multiple modalities could create a maintenance nightmare unless the content is published out from a single source. Any PS authoring software, worth investing in, will support single-source publishing practices in order to provide performers immediate, intuitive access to just what they need when and where they need it. 

3. Integrated Information

At the moment of “Apply” when most performers need immediate access to the specific information necessary to do their job they have to go searching. In most instances the information is scattered everywhere; across SharePoint sites, locked within an LMS, buried deep in a knowledge repository, stored on someone’s desktop, or hidden in someone’s mind.  If they find the specific resources they need, performers then must integrate them into a cohesive solution to accommodate their “moment of need” performance requirements.

Consider the performance pyramid in Figure 1. It reveals a methodology hierarchy for anticipating the evolving information requirements of a performer. This layered approach is a guide for providing fingertip access to the specific information performers need to perform “effectively and efficiently” at any specific moment in their workflow.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Cascading Levels of Support

The pyramid shows the workflow process as an overarching context of on-the-job performance. This is a fundamental principle for any PS solution. At any moment when performers require help, there is a fundamental need to get to the specific task for doing what needs to be done at that moment. Most people think about their work in the context of the flow of their work. And any workflow consists of tasks that they need to perform. These tasks have steps. Once a performer gets to the specific steps (within two clicks/10 seconds), there are potentially other needs – beyond the steps. The pyramid in Figure 1 shows the cascading levels of support that are needed to address all Five Moments of Learning Need.

Figure 2 (below) shows how this pyramid works in a Salesforce PS solution.  In this example you see the steps for converting a lead, and the pyramid is represented in a tabbed format across the top of the window. The power of this tabbed approach is that the learner is not forced through the pyramid in a top-down or linear fashion. 

Figure 2

Figure 2: How the pyramid works

In addition to this pyramid hierarchy, information needs to be integrated based upon other unique contextual needs of performers. An effectively designed PS solution will accommodate the most relevant contextual access requirements.

4. Guidance, Advice, Assistance, Training and Tools

In the real world of work, when people need to perform, there isn’t the luxury of time to search through endless hits offered up by search engines, wander through websites, or dive down into a learning management system to find, and then plow through, an e-learning module to get to just what is needed.  PS authoring software has the capability to broker, which allows these scattered resources to remain where they are, while providing contextual access to the guidance, advice, assistance, training and tools specific to every performance (task) that the PS solution must support. 

Figure 3

Figure 3: Brokering to the Pyramid

5. Enable High-level Job Performance

The core mission of PS is to enable high-level job performance, and to ensure people perform “effectively and efficiently” at every changing moment of their work. Developing and delivering learning events that are aligned with ever-changing organizational needs without PS can’t and won’t meet those needs. Here’s why:

Figure 4 

Figure 4: Learning to competency

The red portion of Figure 4 represents the formal side of learning. This shows the reality that whatever a learner begins to master during a learning event (whether instructor-led or e-learning) enters a rapid death spiral once the event ends. This creates a serious challenge to learners as they move from the formal learning environment into the phase called learning transfer. As the influence of their learning experience rapidly diminishes, somehow learners must find their way to on-the-job competence. On-the-job competence is what Gerry describes as, “performing effectively and efficiently.” Some make it and some don’t. Random failure happens. And, without PS, most who achieve effective performance don’t do so efficiently. 

An organization is competent to the degree it performs effectively at every changing moment. This can’t happen unless organizational knowledge is current, staff skills are up-to-date, and required resources are readily available to support optimal performance. The question is, how can organizational competency be achieved in today’s turbulent business environment? How can a company enable and sustain high-level job performance? The answer lies in addressing all three phases of the journey, with PS as the foundational component of that strategy.

6. Minimum Support from Other People

Without effective PS, human resources within an organization are all too often pulled away from the work they are doing to provide support.  Although there may be times when human support is justifiable, it is an expensive proposition for organizations when it is the default option. An effective PS solution will provide justifiable support from other people, but will first and foremost enable self-reliant high-level performance.  Self-support is the best option for all but the highly critical, complex skills. You can judge the effectiveness of a PS solution by this standard. It will “enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”      

Conrad Gottfredson is chief learning strategist at Ontuitive with 30 years of experience in the learning and training industry.

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