EPSS – In Pursuit of the Dynamic Learning Ecosystem

Sunday morning I stumbled over a post in one of the community groups I follow on LinkedIn. The question put to the community asked about the use of performance support. The author referenced hearing a lot of buzz lately about performance support, but there was not much evidence of success stories short of application to computer systems training. I had to agree, and I believe there is a purely business reason for that – it is called protecting competitive business advantage.

This is pure opinion on my part, but think about what we see happening at this moment in time. The velocity of business is peaking and showing no signs of slowing down. The race to recruit and retain the best talent is at an all-time high and showing no signs of slowing down. The need to build sustained capability within the work force is spiking as well and showing no signs of slowing down. What are we [training organizations] doing about it? We are training our fannies off, and I dare say are having to choose one critical development area over another to best use the limited resources and budget dollars that we have left. What is it going to be – leadership development or technical competency or an array of compliance-based training requirements? We should never have to make choices like that. Anyone unlocking the code to better learning and performance effectiveness may choose to keep their success to themselves.

Sadly, we find ourselves on a burning platform with three [at least] valuable business enablers, and we have to choose which one [maybe two] to save. Why? Again, with the opinion…we do not have the capacity to save all of them following our traditional approach of training our way to competency. I see no one in our training organization slacking off. Do you see any in yours? I DO see many decisions made to prioritize resources [or costly out-source options] when learning opportunities surface that we have neither the bandwidth nor the infrastructure to address. Is bandwidth falling prey to our focus on the wrong learning context?

I do not see a one-off solution to our dilemma, but I do see a two-pronged approach to alleviate some of the pressure – expanded methodology and technology. However, both prongs promote discomfort to those who do not “see it”. Amazingly, those that DO see it are the clients. The tougher sell is consistently within the halls of training. I hate to use the word “paradigm” but that is exactly what we must shift.

As in earlier posts, you may recall my ranting about the training organization needing to break the addiction to formal learning – get out of the classroom and get downstream into the work context. That is only part of the solution. We need to address both methodology and technology along with the downstream focus.

There is a new generation of technology on the market that takes the limited “job aid” definition of performance support into a more holistic realm of learning that I refer to as a dynamic learning ecosystem. Just for grins, I searched for these three words and found them scattered in titles and documents but never used together in this context. Surely, I cannot be the first. The closest I could find was work done by Vanessa Chang of Curtin University of Technology in Perth Australia and Christian Guetl of Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria in a document titled “E-Learning Ecosystem (ELES): A Holistic Approach for the Development of more Effective Learning Environment for Small-to-Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)” [No date available].

I found a lot that validates my thinking in this document, but I think the scope can easily include larger enterprises as well. Their abstract definition of a learning ecosystem includes “…the stakeholders incorporating the whole chain of the learning process and the learning utilities, the learning environment, within specific boundaries, which we call learning environmental borders.” [Page 2]

What I hear in that abstract definition are several key components:
Stakeholders – that include learners, managers, SMEs, peers/colleagues, etc
Learning Process – that include formal and informal learning venues
Learning Utilities – that include learning technologies and methodologies
Learning Environment – that include work context and all relevant attributes
Specific Boundaries – defined by strategic business mission and purpose

What I found missing was a deep understanding of the work context and the attributes that shape the environment where we expect workers to render flawless execution and create value for the business. These environmental root drivers represent a bulk of what is behind everything we do in order to train and promote learning and performance within our workforce.

I had the privilege to sit on a Performance Support panel at Learning 2008 with Bank of America, Disney, and Sprint, and I heard a new phrase used by Dave Fogelman, VP at Sprint, that forever changed my thinking…he shifted my paradigm with two words – PERFORMER SUPPORT. He felt we needed to shift the emphasis on the end product of training and performance support to those consuming that end product. I have taken that a step further and focus on “where and when” that consumption takes place, and as you might guess, I find it happening in the same place – in their work context.

I wrote recently about the convergence of learning and work. We all see it, and we all feel it through the velocity of work volume and the urgency to perform that work flawlessly. Traditional training cannot match that pace. Training budgets have been whacked as it is. Who has the time to increase the volume of what we currently do to satisfy the demand?

Short answer – stop trying to meet it. The alternative reminds me of a basic tenet of judo – take the power and momentum of your opponent and use it to your advantage. Budgets and volume of work are on their respective tracks, and I see no signs of either one changing direction any time soon. In light of that, we [training organizations] must face that reality with a new paradigm that I define in “Take This LMS and Shove It” as…

“Providing seamless, frictionless and ubiquitous access for the right learners to the right learning assets at their moment of learning need – in the right amount – in a work context-friendly format – to/from the right devices.”

That is indeed a mouthful, and it represents a challenge to the tradition training philosophy of “train our way to competency”. We need to take the momentum of our resource-restrained environment and find a way to leverage it. Rare is the judo match decided upon by a single move. Likewise, our battle to become more effective within our constraints requires shifts at several levels:
Thinking – training strategies that focus on creation of awesome programs whether ILT or on-line will not ever go away. BUT…what happens within that domain needs to shift to a new outcome – creating sustainable capability within the workforce…AND…within their work context?
Discovery – our training staffs need to expand their “A” phase of ADDIE to address the actual work that must be accomplished, focusing heavily on what the learner must DO not simply what they must KNOW.
Design – ISD traditions are safe as they are, but they too must expand to embrace the attributes of the work context…all of which manifest outside of the domain of training in a downstream environment – the work context.
Development – Authoring decisions must reflect the objectized nature of workflows and processes. While linearity is still congruent with how our minds work, learning moments of need are anything but linear…and, for the most part, unique to the learner. Do not force me into an on-line Excel learning asset to page through to find the section on pivot tables when that’s all I need during my “moment”. Better yet, do not force me out of the application I am in to go find it in SharePoint or stashed out on the Intranet or on the dreaded “shared drive” the burying grounds for any and everything that would prove useful if only you could find it.
Technology – In “Take This LMS and Shove It” I talk about “shoving” the LMS over just a bit to include another technology called Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS). In all honesty, both have core competencies the other needs to be complete by themselves. As it is, EPSS completes the holistic circle needed to provide a dynamic learning ecosystem.

EPSS and the jargon around performance support have been around for a while, so as a technology and concept, this is not new news. What HAS changed is what we can do with the next generation of EPSS. This new generation provides a capability to shift from a “procedural learning concept” [linear focused] to one of “conceptual learning” [work context-centric]. This is a perfect fit with meeting the learner in their moment of need…and within their work context.

Perfomer Support however, is not a silver bullet; hence, we will always need a linear component to segments in the learning flow. In a perfect world, there is a blend. Where that formal learning linearity fails us is when we introduce moments of learning need driven by role-based performance gaps. I find it impossible to plan/design any linear learning asset that can address scenarios crafted upon actual workflows and processes down to the task level incorporating the potential for variance of learning moments of need without a ton of redundant effort. The solution is a new look at objectization and granularity and a shift from watching simulations to engagement in emulations.

Our focus needs to shift toward designing concepts that render “site maps” and “graphically illustrated workflows” and “role-specific task paths”. This requires an expansion in design-think and new definition around object granularity development. Sounds like “systems” training, right? Great fit in that role, but do not fail to consider that “systems” do not always have to be software or hardware based.

“On-boarding” is a perfect example. Consider a new employee launching EPSS to engage in their “First 90 Days” of development in their on-boarding process. The new generation of EPSS serves as a portal in this context with multiple tiers of support from formal learning [LMS-based training] – to just-in-time assets – to feedback loops with managers – to connections to social communities – to additional link addressable resources – all from within their work context. The beauty is that this robust capability permits the learner to individualize their choices on how deeply to drill through the layers of learning assets.

This capability truly opens a new frontier in learning with – surprisingly – a concept that began with Gloria Geary more than a few years back. Without recent advances in EPSS technology, the capability for the concept to mature into much more than “job aids” would likely remain relegated to a post-training development effort to patch the leaks in the performance dam. My vote is to drop the post-training “performance support” thinking and shift the spotlight to a more holistic “performer support” approach that embraces and blends all aspects of our new mandate – creation of dynamic learning ecosystems.

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning