Death of an ISD

I can foresee the headlines now, “ISD flattened, impaled by own storyboard while attempting to merge into critical workflow, overrun by high velocity business need!” How is that for a frightening headline? To be certain it is a fictional scenario, but ready or not, it represents a truth rapidly approaching us from behind in today’s workplace. From behind or head-on, it matters not; a collision is imminent. The velocity of business demand is overrunning traditional training department approaches and their linear-learning airbags are likely to deploy at the next opportunity to meet a critical business need.

Do not misunderstand me; the role of ISD is not diminishing; it is expanding. It has to. Traditions of learning in a linear manner are not disappearing; but they are becoming secondary. To some who read this, I can see them taking that last statement as a downgrade in importance. Before any ISDs get all raked up in a pile, consider this – the role of the ISD is more important than ever. To be more specific, the role is changing and becoming more complex. The product ISDs produce is changing – has to if our learning assets we produce are going to meet the demands of agile and high velocity learning moments.

Certainly, we will still have the comfort of our linear learning methodology, and yes, our beloved storyboards. The classroom is not disappearing. In fact, the classroom is morphing to include the work context. Yes, my favorite topic – work context – that place downstream, post-training, where the workforce is expected to perform flawlessly, generating tangible business value. Also, it is where urgency and business risk are interwoven and workers contend with moments of learning need. In effect, the definition of “classroom” now includes the entire learning ecosystem. See Figure 1
Moments of Learning Need

Figure 1

The domain of the work context [k…the Point of Work] is where the urgency of learning moments three, four and five are manifested. Look at the informal learning options that best serve these last three moments. None of them fit the profile of traditional instructional design output; however, they all contribute to learning “just-in-time” within the workflow. Even more important is that “just-in-time” is also “just-enough” and it is role-specific and task-centric, meaning  “just-for-me“. We’re not wrapped around job aids here, we may have a social component that is critical just-in-time.

That collision I mentioned earlier is a function of a convergence of work and the need to learn. The first two moments of need [formal training venues] cannot satisfy this convergence alone; hence, we have to do something different if we hope to impact performance. And impacting performance is nothing to crow about unless the impact is sustainable. To that end, I think our deliverable as training organizations has to be greater in scope than ensuring knowledge and skill transfer, producing evidence of something much more tangible – contribution to sustained capability.

Josh Bersin’s research shared in July 2009 during the “Future of the Business of Learning” webinar revealed that we spend plus or minus 5% of our work year, on the average, in formal learning activities. The remaining 95% represents the post-training, on-the-job, work context. He also spoke of the need for training organizations to broaden their scope and begin to embrace more holistic learning environments. I like the word “ecosystem” better than “environments” because from an ISD perspective, there is an implication of interdependency between the 5% slice and the 95% slice of the ecosystem pie. The interdependency comes from the need to modify design criteria to shrink the output into stand-alone chunks [objects] that track closely with the actual work as opposed to a linear flow. This shift enables us to “extend the blend.”

Maybe my bias comes from a performance consulting background; I can see everything we do as a process. That said; every performance activity can be…should be… mapped in the discovery process. Then when we overlay role-specific responsibilities to transactional tasks on the process map, we have clarity of function and granular targets for the objects necessary to support learners in their work context. The good news is that the SMEs probably have done most of that work for us already when they wrote up their business process documentation. If not, that should be part of the new role of the ISD.

These implications to traditional ISD methods show us in the critical need to integrate EPS [Embedded Performer Support]. EPS is not a technology; it is a discipline. Technology plays the role of enabler and can range from a low-end WorkPress platform, to intranet-based SharePoint sites, to top-end electronic performance support systems (EPSS). Gloria Gery, the queen of EPSS and author of “Electronic Performance Support Systems” (1991) states; “We don’t need new technology, we need new thinking.” In the third chapter of her book, “Retooling Old Paradigms”, she convicts us all. What I find amazing is that she made these statements twenty-plus years ago!

“…we are applying radically different technological alternatives to an old framework without reexamining the underlying assumptions and structures…We apply sophisticated technology to an obsolete paradigm of human performance development. And as a result, we are not making the difference we should.” (page 17)

I highly recommend her book as it serves as an excellent field guide to anyone considering integrating performance support into learning assets and delivery; especially if considering EPSS as a solution. EPSS is not a new technology. Why has it been ignored by so many for so long? I think we were distracted by something else that happened about the same time – e-learning. I swear that the advent of e-learning did more harm than good, and e-learning is the perfect example of applying sophisticated technology to an obsolete paradigm. True, we took learning out of the classroom and made it self-directed, but it was a self-directed version of the same broken paradigm. We just digitized a linear delivery model, and then we were further distracted when Flash came along, and we piled on and made a bad linear delivery model sexier than ever. Hey, I did it too. I had fourteen Flash developers converting classroom content as hard as they could go and we were pleased with some really cool stuff. By then, EPSS was old news, and quite possibly, it had been largely overlooked because it was not considered current for training purposes, and it certainly wasn’t as sexy as Flash. Heck, it was not SCORM compliant at any level. How uncool and how un-LMS was that? Fact is, EPSS was downplayed as an add-on, often confused with “Help Systems” and job aids, something you did after training.

I admit the earlier versions were very “help system-like” in their deliverable. Context sensitivity meant a job aid matched up to a point in the workflow.  As an ISD, I built my job aids, but they were for post-training use, the learning flow in my formal training event was something else altogether. Training and job aids were two different media types and delivered at two distinctly different times. Training happened in a classroom or on-line and job aids supported post-training activity. We could live with that methodology because we did not have to deal with the velocity of business demands we face today. Additionally, the technology options we had to work with were nothing to write home about.

The EPSS technology of today blows the doors off the earlier offerings and is postured as “new” technology [despite tenure of the EPSS moniker] with the additional sizzle of smoothly interfacing with other learning systems, and some of them even integrating with social learning venues. Still, when you consider successful EPSS vendors like Panviva and LearningGuide, and they have been around for at least ten years, it is hard to believe the technology remains a mystery to many training organizations. The bigger mystery to me is why…especially when they are not that expensive and  return on investment is usually less than a year.

I dealt with the mystery first hand when I worked with an organization that kicked and screamed all the way to purchasing an EPSS to support a massive rollout of a new electronic medical records system AND a wholesale upgrade of three components of their ERP [Enterprise Resource Program] suite. It was the toughest “internal sale” I ever had to make. The big lesson learned – NEVER try to sell it within the training department first. Bad move. EPSS was misunderstood, and no one really wanted to understand it because it broke ranks with traditional approaches to ISD.  It meant Change. Even weirder, in this case, it was perceived as a threat.

During the first phase of the EMR [Electronic Medical Records] launch, the IT training team decided to follow tradition and treat performance support as a post-training effort. And they did…in a very big, expensive, and unsustainable way. Before phase two went Live, I took a different tact and went to the clinical operations side of the business. There I found a high-level sponsor who was all over the business impact potential of EPSS. Reread that…business impact potential…actually we never really talked about training at all. The focus was equipping the clinical staff with fingertip knowledge INSIDE of their respective workflows. And that approach my friends, is the secret sauce to selling EPSS. Write this part to memory – Do not go through the training organization, bless their hearts; instead, sell into the operational side of the business. Call out tangible productivity impacts, reduction of errors, reduced time searching for answers, increased accuracy of system inputs, reduced calls to the Help Desk, and efficiency gains that impact customer satisfaction. Talk to the CFO, not the VP of Training. Talk to somebody who gets torqued down tight over financial impacts. In most cases, EPSS will render a hard dollar payback in a year or less. Include soft dollar impacts and payback may be realized in a matter of months.

Okay, starting to rant here. Sorry. Getting back to the ISD impact, having an EPSS does not eliminate the ISD function. Implementing an EPSS does not mean the LMS is unnecessary; instead, the EPSS can off-load the job some LMSs are trying to support – informal, just-in-time learning. The expanded ISD function shifts emphasis to actual workflows. Business process documentation becomes source material for learning content…a.k.a. learning objects…representing task-level transactions by role. Developing learning assets in this manner has a positive upstream ripple effect that can actually reduce classroom-training time. Notice I say, “reduce”, not eliminates. We now have the opportunity to make design decisions with an eye for maintaining a thread of continuity throughout the blend, meaning the objects used on the job are the same objects used in training. Emphasis shifts from retaining “how to do something” to practicing “how to use the tools to do something” – and takes considerably less time and considerably less recall knowledge.

Consider a GoLive of new systems that takes place four-to-six weeks after completion of training in the traditional way. Can you say “Chaos!”? Plan on chaos, because that is what you face given up to 85% of knowledge is lost after only three weeks elapsed time from completion of training to application on the job. Keep in mind I am only talking about preparing for and surviving GoLive. What about post-GoLive when workflows change, and believe me they will…or installation of system patches…or even worse, system version upgrades. What about refresher training? And then you have new hires to onboard, seeing the system for the first time right after their orientation. The need to train to competency cannot happen in the classroom or on-line. That mindset is just not sustainable.

Is the EMR the only system in use? Uh, no…what about the Enterprise Resource Program (ERP) that supports HR, Finance, Purchasing, Manager/Employee Self-Service, and who know what else? Surprisingly, EPSS can also support “systems” that have nothing to do with software applications. A system can be a formal or informal process among humans with no software applications involved. Think about the process of onboarding. Is that not a process? It is, and it happens more than once when you consider corporate-level onboarding followed by departmental-specific onboarding and then down to role-specific onboarding details. Onboarding truly is process after process after process, and the deeper you have to go to get to individual functions, the more granular objects are designed, and the more role-specific the discovery by the ISD before falling into the comfort of our familiar ADDIE methodology.

Does that change the competencies of the ISD? You bet it does! The discovery process alone expands dramatically and requires greater business acumen and working knowledge of process flows. Addition of performance consulting skills supplying the ability to ferret our root cause(s) that promote performance gaps. Identification of key performance indicators becomes essential during early discovery to target evidence metrics key to measuring impact. Essential attributes of the work context related to risk, urgency to perform are critical to making effective design decisions related to creating compelling and readily consumable assets. And we cannot overlook the implications of technology on multiple delivery options, venues, and whether end-user devices promote untethered access [mobility] to assets in a moment of need.

So…is the job of ISD as we know it today a terminal sentence, or is there hope for redemption? Hey, if they can pull me from the linear depths of storyboarding to drink the performance outcomes Kool-Aid, there is hope for the other ISD professionals out there. It took me a while to move from skeptic to advocate, and my stimulus stemmed from saving a SAP implementation over eight years ago using the PDR performance support model embedded in the Learning Continuum.

Recently, I have worked with clients considering their first LMS. Call me twisted, but I swear I would strongly consider an EPSS before dropping a dime on a LMS when starting from scratch. Ultimately, the LMS may need to be in the mix if learner registration, tracking history and administration of learning are critical requirements. That being the case, I might consider the LMS as a cloud-based solution to minimize the investment, and wait for a savvy EPSS vendor to add that functionality to their platform in the near future. Not sure I would be in a hurry to buy LMS technology to see it go the way of the brontosaurus.

Until then, we always have the option of building a web services learning portal to front-end the LMS [cloud-based or behind the firewall] and the EPSS and whatever robust content repositories one might have holding and/or streaming learning assets on demand. Maybe some savvy EPSS vendor will even posture their EPSS as the portal and shove the LMS into the background so it can truly serve as a transparent technology that handles compliance and other track-happy training curricula.

Bottom-line…if I were still an ISD, I would be busting my hump to become business savvy enough to map processes and workflows and buddy up to the SMEs writing business process documentation because they, in reality, are doing half the work I would have to do otherwise. The collision is coming if some of us have not already felt it. We have to either evolve our ISD approach to make a direct impact on performance and contribute to sustaining business outcomes, or we need to prepare for the fallout when demand overruns our ability to keep pace. Be careful attempting to merge into workflows without a viable, turbo-charged, performance support strategy under the hood.

Agree? Disagree? I welcome the dialogue either way.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise