Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Charting Your Performance Support Path

Watch Out for the Quicksand

Collectively Bob and I have spent almost fifty years helping organizations figure out how to gain and maintain the competencies they need to succeed and survive in the marketplace. Inherent in this effort has been negotiating around, over, and sometime even through the quicksand that threatens their Performance Support efforts. For those of you who are on this crucial journey, here are some suggestions to help you miss some of the most treacherous quicksand pools.

Agree on Definition and Scope

Every organization needs to define clearly what performance support is but even more importantly what it isn’t – because it is in the “what it isn’t” that you’ll find the quicksand. Most organizations have entrenched formal learning practices and systems. It is absolutely unwise to attempt to reduce or, even worse, replace those efforts. Some of the early advocates of Performance Support walked right into this sand-trap. Eventually, though, you can help rethink some of these practices and bring greater effectiveness to formal training efforts. But in the early stages of any Performance Support strategy, you need to complement and extend all that goes on in the formal learning environment. Besides, the informal learning arena is where Performance Support delivers its greatest impact. Informal learning is everything people do outside formal learning events to perform effectively (see the last three moments of need in our “Definition of Performance Support” article posted November 1, 2007)

Focus on Process

Ignoring process is a real sinkhole. At some point, organizations who ignore workflow while they produce performance support solutions will find the ground suddenly move out from under their feet. Business process is the most helpful framework performers can use to store, retrieve, and then act upon what they have learned as they “do their work.” What is more, the business impact of all we do under the charter of teaching, training, and learning is determined by the degree these efforts result in people successfully moving through processes that deliver business value.

Now, this need to focus on process is not unique to performance support. But performance support ultimately becomes a mass of focused job aids with no overarching organizational structure. Business process provides a logical framework for tying together all we build and deliver in support of performance.

Provide a Performance Support Broker

A Performance Support Broker is a tool that provides the needed service of connecting all the performance support assets into a logical framework. As stated above, this framework needs to have, as its backbone, the work-flow processes you’re called upon to support. This broker also needs to provide the following services:

  • Role-based access. Each performer needs to be spared content and tools that are irrelevant to his or her work.
  • Immediate access. This is a vital capability. At any moment, performers need timely access to “just what they need.” One click is acceptable. Two clicks might work. At three clicks you stand a good chance they’ll never take the trip.
  • Scaffolding. The broker needs to do more than just present PS options, it needs to present them in a framework that puts the right amount of support in front of your learners at the right time. An effective broker allows the learner to effectively choose the amount of support they need immediately without having to journey through unneeded “layers”. This broker should scaffold the content in a way that presents the information at a detailed layer to a more robust one allowing the learner to choose the most appropriate amount. These amounts and entry points should be apparent, logical, and guiding.
  • Ability to “Zoom-in” or “Zoom-out.” Once a performers have found the help they need, they also need the ability to dive deeper (into greater detail) or back out to obtain a broader view so they can see what they are doing in the context of their overall performance requirements.
  • Accommodation of Transforming, Performing, and Conforming dispositions of learners. (See next section)

Accommodate Learning Dispositions

Dr. Maggie Martinez ( has provided helpful insight into how people approach learning. She has identified the following dispositions:

  • Transforming—these are learners who are highly independent in how they go about learning. They prefer to learn in their own way and resist being constrained by any type of learning structure.
  • Performing—these are learners who are independent but appreciate predefined learning structures as long as they aren’t locked into them. They want the ability to skip or dive deeper, depending upon their determination of their own needs.
  • Conforming—these learners require structured learning environments and become unsettled if they are dropped into an open learning environment where they are required to establish their own path for learning.
  • Resistant—these are transforming, performing, or conforming learners who resist learning for reasons that may or may not be independent of the learning environment.

These dispositions, unheeded, can quickly create quicksand that will sink a stellar performance support effort. For example, simply dumping a set of wonderfully designed performance support tools onto the lap of a conforming learner is a formula for absolute failure. These kind of learners need to practice using those tools in the safety of highly structured formal learning environments. They also need to have all their performance support assets organized into a logical framework that not only makes sense to them but also feels structured.

Performing learners will also benefit by having opportunity to practice using the tools in a formal learning environment. In addition, they appreciate a structured framework – as long as it allows them to enter the framework at any level and then dive deeper or broader if needed.

Transforming learners are your best subjects for initiating any performance support strategy. They prefer learning at the moment of need. And they often become your greatest proponents (as long as you provide them the kind of support they need and want.)

Obviously, designing performance support solutions for audiences with these differing dispositions requires thoughtful design. But hey – we should be doing this for all of our learning environments (e.g., eLearning, ILT.)

Don’t Attempt to Boil the Ocean or Board a Sinking Ship

Start small and focused—then grow your performance support influence. And for any project you take on, do your homework so you know that it will succeed and yield recognizable benefit to individuals and the organization. Your initial steps into performance support need to be unencumbered. They need to have the best chance possible to demonstrate the value of your performance support solutions.

Too often, well meaning proponents of performance support rush in to help whenever they hear the cries from a failing initiative. There will be plenty of sinking ships to save down the road. A safe policy, as you begin, is to wait to take on troubled projects after you have established a winning track record.

Also, we often talk about the advantages of picking the lowest hanging fruit. But this isn’t always the best path to take. Our family has a small organic orchard on our property. Because we don’t spray our trees, sometimes the low hanging fruit is partially eaten by bugs and birds or even by one of our goats that has somehow escaped its pen. So in our garden area, whenever I reach out to pick an apple, I generally bypass the low hanging fruit. Often my search takes me higher into the tree. You may want to consider doing the same thing as you determine which performance support projects you will “take on” (e.g., bypass what appears to be low hanging fruit.) Early on, you need to be selective and make sure the fruit you pick is something someone will want to eat, that it has narrow scope, the capacity to deliver high yield return, and clear potential for success.

Prepare for the Challenge of Maintenance

The greatest challenge in any performance support effort isn’t in building effective solutions. The real rub is keeping it all up-to-date. Early on this may not appear to be so, but at some point along the way maintenance turns into quicksand—unless you have planned ahead and made provisions for it.

Now, don’t let this threaten you resolve to pursue performance support. The benefits outweigh this and every other challenge. But wisdom dictates you think this through and then take on learning content management (if you haven’t already.) Best practice in this area calls for XML-enabled multi-channel publishing where content authors write once, translate once, and then publish from that single-source of content out to all the different forms needed by performers (such as a printed job aid, an online help file, a web reference guide, a student manual for classroom learning, and an eLearning module.) This capacity isn’t vaporware. It can and is being done. And it is clearly cost justifiable. This is where the efforts to build reusable learning objects should have been directed in the first place!

Invest in an Overarching Strategy

Thirty years ago I challenged my future brother-in-law (who was 10 years old at the time) to a game of pool. He cleaned my clock. At one point during the trouncing I asked Brandon to explain his secrets for his success. He responded with, “I just hit the ball and hope for the best.) Now, this approach worked for Brandon in that particular game. But sustained success over time requires more than brute luck backed by hope. As you move forward to embrace the power of performance support, invest in a plan that will ensure you the greatest potential for a high-yield return on your efforts. Performance support has much to offer. The trip is well worth taking. But your success requires a plan that includes charting a path around the quicksand described in this article.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Finding the True ROI in Learning

Finding the TRUE ROI in Learning

As long as I've been in training we have been debating its ROI (Return on Investment). We have struggled long and hard to link measurable business results to learners who attend some form of formal instruction, in class or on-line. Why has this been so hard? Why do so many still find this exercise exhausting, expensive, and often inconclusive at a meaningful level?

Maybe the problem lies in the original goal? Maybe the correlation between a training event and improved business outcomes is fundamentally flawed? Is the jump between mastering content and being able to apply that content in an effective and productive way just too great? I would argue that we've gotten this wrong from the start, and without venturing into the performance support arena, training will continue to have a difficult time, if not impossible time, tying itself to true ROI metrics.

Let's take a closer look at the learning journey to better understand where this might lead. Classroom training, and other formal training "events", including many e-Learning models, are about knowledge gain and transfer (which, by the way, is a wonderful and necessary thing!) But this is short-sighted. Even though people can't become productive without first having a fundamental understanding of what they are being tasked with doing we mustn’t stop here. We must take the learning experience all the way to true business ROI.

The journey to true ROI is actually divide into two parts:

  1. Mastery - A learner's ability to demonstrate gained knowledge
  2. Competency - A learner's ability to effectively apply what they've learned to their job or work environment.

Training has typically stopped at Mastery and has not ventured as deeply as it needs to into supporting Competency. This is where performance support delivers its real value! Training without performance support (As defined in Con's first Blog entry shown below -"What is Performance Support") will never move successfully beyond the first 2 phases of learning to sustaining learners in the last 3 moments of need where ROI really happens!

If we only stop at Mastery (or training) all we can ever fairly measure is:

  • Knowledge gain
  • Certification
  • Demonstrable skill recall
  • Compliance

But when we venture into Competency with the full range of Performance Support practices now available to us (its tools, strategies, and frameworks which compliment training) we can begin to measure our impact on:

  • Productivity gain
  • Time to proficiency
  • Lower support costs
  • Completion of job-related tasks
  • Increased user adoption
  • Optimized business processes

ROI manifests itself in the work flow and on the job. Until training departments design, deliver, and maintain learning strategies across the entire journey from mastery to competency ROI will remain a frustrating and often futile exercise.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Beginning Discussion

What is Performance Support?

It only makes sense that we begin this blog with a definition that can help drive a very important follow-up discussion. We need to work together to clearly define the scope of this practice we call performance support. This can also help us make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing when we discuss this topic. So, here’s a starting definition:

Performance Support is providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance.”

Now, this definition merits further explanation to make sure our discussion moves in the right direction. You see, historically, definitions of performance support, like this one, have been applied too narrowly in the context of all we are charged to do. Today there is much we can and need to do under the umbrella of performance support. And the benefits of embracing a broader view of Performance Support can be astounding for people and the organizations where they work.

This Broader Understanding Begins With The Five Moments of Need.

Early in my career I ended up managing the training, documentation, and help-desk teams for a company that relied heavily upon the full range of computing capacity then available to the world. There was everything from supercomputers to PCs. In that setting, our collective work was straightforward – we had complete responsibility for helping every person in that organization successfully perform their work without any wasted effort at any time, of any day. This required us to pay attention to the full range of performance support needs people have in their journey of becoming and remaining competent in their individual and collective work.

There are five phases that people pass through which require support in order to successfully perform. The training industry has primarily focused their practices upon the first two moments of need:

  1. When people are learning how to do something for the first time

  2. When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned.

Documentation teams have primarily assumed the responsibility for providing printed and online help information for people to use when they face the third moment of need:

  1. When they need to act upon 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.)

Help Desk practices have also assumed a role in supporting people in this third area of need. But their primary work has been to address the fourth moment:

  1. When problems arise, or things break or don’t work the way they were intended.

Finally, there is a moment of need that few organizations have addressed well:

  1. When people need to learn a new way of doing something (which requires them to change skills that are deeply ingrained in their performance practices.)

Since spending those early days overseeing the efforts of these three groups (training, documentation, and help desk support services), We’ve had the opportunity to view up close the efforts of hundreds of organizations in addressing these five moments of need. In almost every case their combined efforts have been limited, fragmented, and wasteful. Now this is not to say that great work isn’t going on in each of these performance support silos, but those we are charged to support deserve “intuitive, tailored aid” that is orchestrated together to “ensure the most effective personal and collective performance” during all five moments of need. Solving this requires an understanding of the role of performance support during each of these five moments of need.

What Is the Role of Performance Support During the First Two Moments of Need

The primary benefits of performance support are achieved during the final three moments of need (3. applying, 4. fixing, and 5. relearning.) But a common challenge in these areas is whether or not people choose to use the “tailored aid” available to them. Often this aid isn’t as intuitive as it should be. Also, some performers aren’t as independent as they need to cause them to take full advantage of the performance support offerings.

It is during the “1. start-up” and “2. ongoing learning” moments of need, that performers can learn how to use the performance support aides you are making available to them. It is also vital that you help learners become more self-reliant in their disposition to use these aids.

In addition, performance support aids can change the scope and nature of formal learning events. For example, when you have an embedded job aid that will walk a person through software related tasks as they actually perform those tasks, then why not teach performers how to use that job-aid and then focus their learning on more critical skills tied to business processes and collaborative work.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Applying”

This is the sweet spot of performance support. There is much that can and needs to occur here. And today we can do more than we have been able to do in the past. When people are at this moment when they need to actually perform, on the job, they need instant access to tools that will intuitively help them do just that -- perform. This help must be immediate and tailored to the role and situation of the performer. The aid needs to allow the performer to dive as deep as necessary depending upon a person’s need to plan, remember, adapt, or reference information required for successful performance.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Fixing”

This is another area where performance support practices deliver great value. Often the job aids created for this moment of need are tools that walk performers through the problem solving process – automating all that is possible to automate.

What Is the Role of Performance Support At the Moment of “Relearning”

This moment of need has been the least attended to and yet is the most challenging. And since we don’t attend to it very well, it is often the most costly to organizations. Once skills have become ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations, replacing them with new ways of performing is a significant learning challenge. This need cannot be adequately met by only bringing performers into formal learning events devoted to teaching “the new ways” of doing things. In addition, these learners absolutely need job aids that will guide them through the new way each time they are called upon by their job to perform. This challenge is ultimately resolved over time on the job.

What Is “Intuitive, Tailored Aid”?

Job aids are intuitive and tailored to the degree they:

  • are readily and logically available— The harder people need to work to get to a job aid the higher the probability they won’t go.

  • are simple, straightforward, and role-based—tailored aid must be focused directly upon the specific role of the performer as well as the situation she or he faces. It can’t contain irrelevant information. It can’t be fluffy.

  • map directly to the way a person actually performs—The most logical way people approach performance is by business process. Process maps provide performers the capacity to “keep it all together” and not become lost in all the detail.

  • are integrated to allow deep diving— As any organization’s performance support practice expands, at some point they will face the challenge of “job-aid” proliferation. This calls for development (sooner rather than later) of a performance support “broker” that can help ensure that aid is not only readily but logically available. These brokers must also allow performers the option to dive deeper into learning at every moment of need.

What Is “Effective Performance”?

Effective performance must inherently include efficient performance. That is, it isn’t truly effective if performance is achieved in a wasteful manner. Effective performance must also embrace collective as well as individual actions. It must also be time independent. In other words, effective performance is achieved by helping every person in an organization work together to successfully perform their work without any wasted effort at any time, of any day.

Where To From Here?

So, here’s our definition to start this vital dialogue:

Performance Support is providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance.”

We invite you to join us by considering the ideas presented in this blog and then contributing your insights based upon your own experience. Together we can do for Performance Support what we have too often failed to do in other areas of our profession – clearly define its boundaries. We can then move forward to bring Performance Support to its full contribution to this great journey in which we are all engaged— helping people and organizations succeed in their work.