Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Achieving a High Performance Workforce in “Times of Radical Change”

A colleague recently pointed me to a December 2007 article in HR Magazine that purported to make a business case for “creating a High Performance Workforce.” Since performance support is all about optimum (or high) performance the topic captured my full attention.

My problem with the article and others like it is they are to often shortsighted in their definitions as well as their proposed solutions. For example, it most certainly isn’t enough to create a “High Performance Workforce” The real challenge lies in maintaining one--especially in today’s market reality of constant turmoil. Now, you might say that if you create a high performance workforce, the nature of these high performers will inherently ensure proper maintenance and adaptation of knowledge and skills. Not so. If you look under the hood of most discussions around “high performance” you will find the faulty prevailing view that:

“A high performance workforce is comprised of engaged employees that have the necessary skills and motivation to contribute to the growth of the business.” (see the December 2007 HR article.)

The word “have” shows the problem. It suggests that there is a point of arrival. Today, there is no such place – competency is a continual journey. With all that performers need to know and do today, tomorrow, and next week, who can master it all and remain competent? Actually, why should organizations even attempt this?

In 1932 Eric Hoffer described a reality of our global age:

"In times of radical change, the learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves perfectly equipped for a world that no longer exists..."

Clearly Hoffer understood that learning isn’t about achieving anything, it’s about growing and adapting through continuous learning. Simply gaining mastery of “the necessary skills” may have been sufficient in a stable slow moving economy, but this view ignores realities today. Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma describes a deadly path organizations often take. They become lulled into a state of unfounded security because of remarkable “ongoing growth.” They ultimately awaken one day to the reality that the market in which they have been constantly successful has changed and they’re unprepared and unable to adapt to remain competitive. The result is catastrophic failure. Today it is simply unrealistic to assume that employees will ever “have” all the necessary skills and attendant knowledge called for at any given moment. The market place is too dynamic to allow it.

A high performing workforce must have the disposition to be ever learning and ever changing. And a high performing organization must have in place the capacity to support that disposition and business need.

Performance Support is fundamental to this capacity. Performance Support is everything an organization does to provide intuitive, tailored aid to its workforce at their moments of need to ensure the most effective performance (collectively and individually.) These moments of need include when they are:

  • Learning something for the first time
  • Expanding their understanding and/or capacity to perform
  • Applying or attempting to remember what they have learned
  • Faced with something that has gone wrong, and
  • Required to learn a new way of doing something because of change.

This fifth need—to learn a new way of doing something because of change has been the least understood and most ignored need in the area of performance support. Organizations will never achieve an agile workforce without addressing this need head on.

Years ago I was doing some work in Atlanta and one of the people with whom I was working offered to drive me to the airport. The offer provided us time to continue our discussion so I accepted. After sufficient travel time had passed, I began looking for signs of the airport. There were none. I casually asked, “How long before we reach the airport.” My driver hit the brakes and said, “I’m almost home.”

There is a principle of automaticity associated with performance. Certain things that we do over and over again become so ingrained within our skill set that they become automated—we do it with little to no conscious thought. When organizations invest in embedding skills into the workforce, and then solidify those skills via on-the-job application over time, those skills become deeply embedded. In such cases, changing to a new way of performing can be beyond tough. Little wonder why the track record of enterprise wide efforts to change behavior has a 75% failure rate (see: Peter Cheese, “Disturbing the System.” Accenture: Outlook Journal, June 2004, p. 34. See also: Mark J. Dawson and Mark L. Jones, “Herding Cats: Human Change Management,” PriceWaterhouseCoopers Publication http://www.pwc.com/extweb/pwcpublications.nsf/docid/2ff7d96b5313a034852570b50042102a.).

I recently upgraded my operating system to Vista. It has been a painful journey. Although I love the functional changes when I finally find them, I am continually searching for things that aren’t where they used to be. I especially become frustrated when there is a time crunch and I’ve got to get something done right now. And, guess what, my life is just like yours—a continuous time crunch. And may I just say, without intending to offend anyone, the Vista performance support tools stink. I have no disposition to even try to use them again. I’m not sure where they are anyway. So far, my experience with Vista performance support was like a night parachute jump into the middle of a vast jungle of stuff. I’m certainly a long way from being high performing with Vista. Maybe I’ll take a class—when I get the time. Let’s see, checking my calendar that will be when I have my next knee replacement – mid December of this year.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Categorizing PS Solutions and Their Authoring Tools

Several weeks ago, we extended an invitation to this growing community to join us in the LearningTown Performance Support Group (http://www.learningtown.com/). There are currently 138 members in this group and it’s growing. We have moved our forum discussions there to take advantage of the rich environment. For the time being the blog and wiki will remain where they are. We believe that LearningTown is the place to be. It not only allows all of us to expand the influence of Performance Support across our industry, but also provides us the opportunity to participate in other learning related groups simultaneously.

Bob and I are currently the mayors of the PS LearningTown Performance Support group and we have committed to watching the discussions and contributing the best we can.

For example, on April 10, 2008 at 9:11 am, a member of the PS community entered the following request:

  • “My organization is in the initial stages of evaluating EPSS solutions to bundle with one of our software applications. Is anyone familiar with available tools to enable us to assess a number of solutions side-by-side? No vendors please, we're comfortable undertaking this activity in-house.”

This request sparked thinking about the ever pressing need to sort through the types of solutions we build and the tools necessary to build and deploy them. I provided a quick response to this question and have since felt it would be helpful to elaborate on those comments for this blog. So, here’s my extended response.

  1. Consider Allison Rossett's categories of sidekicks and planners. She defines sidekicks as performance support solutions that “coax, remind, direct, and inform about what to do at the time of need.” Planners are “in our lives just before or after the challenge. They help us decide if Avian Flu should alter trip plans or to reflect on how we could have improved the presentation offered at the sales meeting.” Check out the following podcast to hear Allison discuss these two types of PS solutions in greater detail: http://www.xyleme.com/podcasts/archives/5

  2. Distinguish the degree that sidekicks and planners are embedded into the workflow and how immediately they support performance.
    PS solutions differ across these two fundamental dimensions—the immediacy of their application and the degree in which they are embedded into the workflow of performers.

    Obviously sidekicks are more immediate than planners, since sidekicks support performers at the immediate moment in which they are required to act. Planners help them prepare to act or debrief following action. But some sidekicks are more immediate than other sidekicks. The same holds true with planners.

    For example, if you are at the moment of “Applying and/or Remembering” what you learned in a software training course, a user manual would not be as embedded and immediate as context sensitive help.

    We have been encouraged by the emergence of at least one authoring tool that develop PS solutions for software that are more immediate and embedded than captured simulations. ShoGuide (see http://transcensus.com/ ) is an authoring tool that allows PS developers create “software guides” that coach performers through software tasks as they perform them. Whereas a simulation will walk a performer through a captured task with a pre-determined scenario, ShoGuide creates a script that interacts with the application and operating system to guide performers as they perform the actual task they need to complete. This EPSS capability is as immediate and embedded as a PS solution can be.

    Not all PS solutions merit being immediate and embedded like the Transcensus example. Each of the Five Moments of Need call for their own unique mix – especially when bundeled with the differing types of performances that require support.

  3. Create a matrix to reflect these categories and the types of performances they need to support. The following is an example that reflects three types of performances that call for unique mixes of PS solutions. These solutions will obviously vary in the degree in which they can and should be embedded in the workflow and the degree that the support can be immediate.

    In the table above, Transcensus is a tool that is imbedded and immediate in its support of performers using technology to do their job. This tool can also provide solutions that support planners that are embedded and immediate. But, Transcensus probably isn’t the best tool to use when supporting performers as they use interpersonal skills or make decisions.

  4. Create a separate table for "Performance Support Brokers." These are tools that help you orchestrate or "broker" all the performance support solutions you create and make them available, in the best ways, to performers at all five moments of need and across all types of performances. Brokers also provide layered access to other learning assets.

    There are some very powerful technology based brokers that support that can help you support performers across all Five Moments of Need as well as the various types of performances. I haven’t yet seen an example of SupportPoint supporting interpersonal skills, but suspect they have and it will (hence the ? mark.)

  5. Plug your PS authoring tools into the appropriate spots of the matrix where they can effectively produce the PS solutions you need. As you do so, you will begin to see which tools can provide you the strongest set of capabilities you need. Also, it would be extremely helpful if our community compiled examples of PS solutions that accommodate these various areas. Let’s do this! Bob and I will work to create a place where we can all access these examples as well as categorize authoring tools in a way that is helpful to us all.