Friday, July 17, 2009

What's in a Name? ... EVERYTHING!

As we've shared many times in this blog, the label "Electronic Performance Support System", or EPSS, was first originally claimed by Glory Geary in her 1991 groundbreaking book which shares the same title. Performance support (PS) as a discipline has matured tremendously since that time, and has truly come into its own over the past few years especially due to the current economic climate we live in. It has also risen in importance and impact due to a maturation in the way we look at learning. Thanks to the innovative thinking of thought leaders such as Conrad Gottfredson, my colleague and friend who co-authors this blog, and Allison Rossett out of San Diego State, we now see learning as more then just a series of formal learn events, but rather as a journey between BOTH formal and informal learning moments. Many have used Conrad's 5 Moments of Need to illustrate this very powerful concept. The learning organizations who are architecting learning solutions across these 5 moments are the ones who are providing a level of service learners have been waiting for and needing for years.

With all this fine work, it still troubles me how our industry tends to put PS into a box where it can't truly reach its potential. I blame the "shiny penny" phenomenon which often inflicts our industry. when a trend or "cool" approach/technology comes along we tend to gravitate towards it and leave other approaches behind. We can become so enamored with these methodologies that we can often to lose the overall context of all that we've learned and can go so far as offering unbalanced and ineffective learning strategies.

The current "shiny penny" is social learning. Now before anyone gets angry with me, I am a HUGE fan of social learning and all it has to offer. Social learning includes all the powerful collaborative web 2.0 technologies which are emerging today. It also includes many non-technical approaches such as mentoring or peer instruction. Social learning is, and will continue to become, a very powerful part of any effective learning strategy, BUT it's not in and of itself PS.

In two articles I recently read on learning, PS was positioned as a subset of embedded or contextual learning systems. I would argue that the sequence or classification needs to be reversed. Embedded or contextual learning systems are actually a subset of PS. Not the other way around. If we want to promote PS to the level of effectiveness and influence it deserves we need to move its overall positioning to its rightful place.

I would argue that PS is actually the "informal learning" many of us have been struggling to define, fund, and defend for years. In an earlier blog posting Con and I defined PS as "providing intuitive, tailored aid to a person at his or her moment of need to ensure the most effective performance.” This is meant to be an all encompassing definition. It is not technology dependent, although many PS offerings are technology based. If we look at PS from this perspective emerging and other long standing approaches such as:

  • EPSS

  • Social Learning

  • Coaching/Mentoring

  • Help Desks

  • Job Aids

  • FAQ websites

are all subsets of an effective PS strategy. To say that PS is limited to a job aid or an on-line support tool is also limiting its overall effectiveness within your learning organization. It is limiting its ability to be designed, funded, and integrated as a larger and more powerful part of an overall learning architecture.

Would it be appropriate to stop speaking in terms of "formal and informal learning" but rather group them into "formal and performance support" buckets? My argument here is that when we us as broad a term as "informal learning" we begin to bring in assets such as parking lot conversations which, although they are clearly a place where learning and knowledge transfer occurs, they are also an area where we as a learning profession will have little impact and control. PS should include all those informal assets we can and should impact, design, and facilitate.

For PS to reach its full potential we need to begin discussing the discipline on a broader scale. You might be saying, "Bob, you're splitting hairs here. What's in a name anyway?" My 28 years in learning have taught me that branding and a shared vocabulary is EVERYTHING when it comes to effectively introducing and promoting a sustained learning approach. We need to do the same for PS!


  1. Read your earlier post, What is Performance Support and Conrad Gottfredson's 5 moments...Have been trying to understand the implications...some of my thoughts here: What is Performance Support? My understanding is very rudimentary but as I read your posts, some of the grey areas started to become clearer...

  2. Really interesting and incisive post, Bob.

    I absolutely agree with your statement:

    "I would argue that the sequence or classification needs to be reversed. Embedded or contextual learning systems are actually a subset of PS"

    And also with your proposition that PS is more than embedded or contextualised learning systems.

    A term I came across a while ago and have been using to describe contextualised learning systems - the common 'traditional' ePSS - is BUSINESS PROCESS GUIDANCE (BPG). To me that describes the more narrow field of ePSS/PS quite well.

    I posted a piece on my blog recently ( that describes BPG as a "GPS system for performance" rather than having a map.

    Providing a map and expecting someone to commit to memory every turn, intersection and way point on the journey is the front-end training model. Providing a GPS, which just tells you the next 2-3 turns, intersections and way points as you travel along is the BPG model.

    I agree with you. This is part of the overall PS approach, but only a part of it. There's a lot more to PS.


  3. A good article to understand the needs