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.

1 comment:

  1. What a well written piece Conrad. Many thanks to you and Bob for this blog. I'm learning so much from you. Keep it coming!
    Lynn Murphy
    St. Vincent Hospital, Indianapolis