EPSS: When Change Overruns Competency

They hired me as Director Sales Training, and I had not a shred of medical device or the associated manufacturing, or fulfillment, or servicing background. It had to be either my performance consulting background, or my dashing good looks and/or charming personality that influenced the hiring decision. Right. Let’s go with consulting. This diagnostic medical device manufacturer wanted to improve sales performance, and they had the foresight to see that training played a critical role in this effort. They already provided training for sales reps, and plenty of it, but felt it had to change in order to meet two primary demands – improve sales performance – and leverage a massive Customer Relationship Management (CRM) investment. The key operative phrase in all this is – “they felt training had to change.”

Fortunately, I parachuted into the middle of three simultaneous Change events; the introduction of a new sales force automation project, marketing training curriculum redesign, and a multi-module SAP implementation that was not going nearly as well as the GoLive party at deployment. Change was kicking butt and taking names across many organizational disciplines – marketing, sales, customer service, training, and IT support. There were others, but these five were the bloodiest. In each discipline there were a lot of very competent individuals who found themselves no longer at a state of readiness to perform under new processes, new systems, new business rules, new customer issues, and new expectations.

After my first six weeks, mostly spent executing a diagnostic front-end assessment (D-FEA) on the sales process, I had a comforting revelation – odds were in my favor that I probably could not screw things up any worse than they already were, no matter what recommendations I made. Funny, how knowing that emboldens the spirit and willingness to take Change and run amok with it. Boldness, with a dash of recklessness, showed up in the meeting where I shared results of the sales process D-FEA. The first PowerPoint slide had two words on it in 72-point Arial Black – SALES TRAINING. I animated the slide with that red circle with the diagonal slash through it, having it overlay both words while flatly stating that this was the essence of my recommendation. That was the reckless part of my amok-ness.

Every eye from the executive staff shot down to the other end of the boardroom table to look at the EVP-General Manager who hired me, most with jaws agape, looking a lot like trout. The EVP-GM did not say a word but looked at me with that “Wise-this-better-be-good look”. The second slide said something along the lines, “Instead, we need to integrate the implications of the Changes we face and bring learning into the workflow where sales performance is going to happen.” Several mouths slowly closed, a few eyes rolled, and the EVP-GM winked at me. Yes, the wink of empowerment. Sweet. When I asked how many sales we closed in classroom role-plays – and how many orders we placed accurately into the SAP fulfillment module while off-task in training, and how many customer services issues we resolved while taking on-line courses, they knew the answer. Best of all, the implications of where we realized those results came home to roost. It was not while folks were in training. Sold. The rest of the mouths closed, and it appeared I had everyone’s attention. Though I had not started using the phrase “work context” in those days; that is exactly where the Change in sales training had to take place – downstream, post-training in the work context.

So…you might be asking what has this reckless story have to do with electronic performance support systems (EPSS). Hold that thought. This story and the next set up the background where EPSS was the hands-down most effective solution available. Ten years ago, the technology was in its infancy, but the need for an EPSS-supported solution was very real. More recently, the next part of the story illustrates the situation where EPSS was a no-brainer – the SAP implementation. More importantly, the application of performance support [with or without the benefit of EPSS] is something we cannot overlook. I say this because you do not needed to own an EPSS to gain some of the benefits of the learning methodology an EPSS can maximize. Stay with me, the next story is an example of how we evolved to an EPSS solution.

I arrived on the scene just as the seventh module had passed the GoLive deployment party with the clowns, the DJ, the balloons, the three-bite shrimp, and I heard rumors that they had a cash bar at the off-site celebration. Cannot say as I blame them for offering alcohol, considering it was a SAP deployment. You needed to be German, a programmer, or a German programmer to really follow the user-unfriendly logic of an otherwise amazingly powerful platform. Deployment had been hugely successful. Implementation was turning out to be pure chaos. High error rates on input, excessive user down time searching for answers, a help desk bordering on suicide watch with the overwhelming call volumes 24X7, and the list goes on. It was not pretty. The training solution was not sustainable.

By the fifth module GoLive, the IT Training department had evolved to using a blended approach versus the classroom only effort. In effect, they converted ineffective linear classroom learning to an ineffective digital linear format…but hey…it was Flash-based…and they used Captivate…and it looked good. I mean it looked really good. They were a top-drawer design and development shop. And then they went out and bought a LMS from the home shopping network or in some back alley someplace just to handle the new e-learning components. That is about where they were the day I showed up. The LMS, a Binford Turbo-XLT, was more SQUIRM than SCORM, but it was a LMS and psyched they were to have it. Their infectious joy even sucked me in. And then we saw the results of deployments six and seven yielded about the same level of implementation success as the first five supported by classroom training only. How could this be? They had a LMS, and they were producing amazing e-learning? In both cases, the end-users could not recall what to do when it came time to do it. See Figure 1

Learning Retention

Figure 1

We were weeks downstream from the blended training events. Figure 1 tells the story. I have seen another version of this slide that rolls out 30 days and the retained knowledge is only 10%. Who knows what remains after six weeks or so? Learning retention was the culprit, not less than stellar training. In fact, even the most stellar of stellar formal learning efforts cannot slow knowledge retention loss without some kind of reinforcement. The key word here – reinforcement.

What I have just described was the birthplace of the PDR Learning Continuum I am so passionate about. PDR stands for Prepare, Deploy & Reinforce and the link will take you to the an earlier post that goes over what it is, the discovery process, and why one might care. In particular, the Reinforce Phase of the Continuum was where results were falling way short of expectation with the error rates and other issues I mentioned earlier. The work context is where implementation takes place. Training is a precursor to deployment. The 100% side of the graph in Figure 1 illustrates accurately the result of awesome Level 1 evaluations, and passing test scores on Level 2 assessments. Implementation [six weeks later] in the work context is where we were failing our workforce. Heck, loss of knowledge by the time folks got back to their desks an hour after training was at risk. Informal learning in the form of performance support, as shown in Figure 1, is what saved the day.

Enter performance support. As a newly hired Director, I got a healthy dose of SAP and all the flashy training I could stand. As an end-user, make that an infrequent end-user, it must have been 60 days post-training before I had to utilize Manager Self-Service in SAP for the first time. I was able to login successfully after searching for my ID and password, and then I was ready to do absolutely nothing…done. I was part of the typical end-user population who might have the occasion to touch SAP every now and again. No way could I remember how to do any of it. That is where I needed performance support that matched my role and the transaction I needed to complete. Period. No training. No calls to the help desk.

Performance support, in the form of a role-specific reference guide [job aid – cheat sheet, etc.] was all I needed to get through entering a staff member’s promotion and transfer into the SAP HR system. And that learning moment of mine was the catalyst that ignited my newly acquired IT Training team to begin creating. By role and by transaction, we developed stand-alone performance support objects (PSOs) [job aids] and made them available to classroom trainers for exercises based on role-specific scenarios built around using the PSOs; as downloadable handouts on the SAP intranet site; and we made them available to the Help Desk staff who could push them out to callers needing assistance. We reduced classroom-training time by 50% because we trained people using the 80-20 rule – trained them to use the few PSOs that they needed in their roles 80% of the time, and showed them how to access the PSOs for the other 20% of transactions that might be nice to know in case they ever had to survive one…a year later…if ever.

Enter EPSS. In those days, we had nothing like the robust EPSS systems of today. We bought into a package called InfoPak made by RWD specifically for SAP. It was limited in functionality, but it at least it gave us context-sensitive help within the SAP application. Key point here – within the SAP application. Users did not have to leave the application to access the just-in-time fingertip knowledge. All we got in those days was a pop-up window framing a text file with screen-relevant instructions. We built the text instructions necessary to get the user through the transaction steps on that screen. The little “help icons” in SAP were…well…they were SAP-ese and virtually useless after company-specific workflow customizations were added; hence the gap was filled with InfoPak.

Infopak evolved to a platform called uPerform and is decidedly more robust as are two other leading EPSS vendor’s products – SupportPoint by Panviva – and LearningGuide Manager by LearningGuide. If I had to invite three vendors to bid on an EPSS solution, these would be on the list. If I only needed two, it would be down to Panviva and LearningGuide. In my most recent EPSS adventure in 2010, LearningGuide beat out uPerform to support a massive electronic medical records system implementation and an Oracle/PeopleSoft HCM upgrade. We neglected to invite Panviva to bid primarily because of prior knowledge of both RWD and LearningGuide, plus we only needed two vendors to satisfy procurement. Had it been between LearningGuide and Panviva, I expect the decision would have been more difficult to make as both of them have awesome platforms.

From the two stories I shared, one was about a SAP systems application and the other about a selling process where only parts of it required use of a system. The other components in the sales scenario were very much oriented to the process of selling but required no software interaction. I shared that selling story for that very reason. The new breed of EPSS platforms do not require interface with a software-based system to render a viable performance support solution.

Maybe it is the performance consultant in me, but I consider that virtually anything we do is a process.  Selling is a process whether there is a sales force automation system involved or not. When you get right down to it, Onboarding is a process. Six people working together on an undocumented process can represent a “system”, and are fair game for a solution in the eyes of an EPSS. Quite frankly, any time an end-user needs access to specific task-level information or a learning asset to execute the steps of a transaction or complete the steps in a process, there is the potential for utilizing EPSS. And today’s EPSS can tap any rich-media type you might choose to use.

Cost justification comes easily when you start considering what the impacts deliver in terms of hard dollar return on investment. Benefits realized typically translate into a payback period of a year or less. EPSS often provides benefits like:

  • Reduction of system input errors – What does a mistake cause? What does a mistake cost?
  • Reduction in rework – What does it cost to fix errors? What is the cost of added delay?
  • Improved quality – What is the cost of returned products? What is the cost of a service call?
  • Improved compliance – What is the cost/liability of being out of compliance?
  • Reduction in training – What is value of off-task productivity saved? Trainer & material costs?
  • Reduced time searching – What is value of productive time saved? Value of time redeployed?
  • Reduced frustration by users – What is value of reduced churn? What is cost of a new hire?
  • Reduction in material waste – What is the cost of mistakes that generate material waste?
  • Improved customer satisfaction – What is the cost of a lost customer?

Certainly, you may be able to think of others where a member of our workforce can make a mistake and cause us to incur a cost, generate material waste, or expose us to a business risk and/or liability. And if they do not have accurate knowledge support at their fingertips, where do they go for help? Training is not the answer because the workers with needs are downstream in the work context faced with urgency to perform. Scariest of all, who do they ask? A neighbor in the next cube…who may or may not know? Tribal knowledge has a tendency to perpetuate bogus information…with confidence. Satchel Paige supports my fears best when he stated, “It’s not what you don’t know that can hurt you, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

We cannot view EPSS as a singular training solution. I say that because EPSS can support so much more that has nothing to do with training. Enabling our workforce to be competent in their roles involves getting the right information to them at the right moment of need and in the right amount and in a format that satisfies their work context, and…to/from the right device(s). I would never consider an EPSS solution that did not have the ability to “push” the right assets to the end-user. We often think of the learner confronting a moment of learning need and being the source of a help query by “pulling” a job aid from a context-sensitive EPSS window floating on top of the application they are using. While the concept of “pull” is essential, sometimes it may be prudent that we “push” critical information to specific roles – I.E. product recalls, price changes, workflow changes, system upgrades, critical alerts, etc. –   none of which have anything to do with formal training.

Currently, I am flirting with a design scenario where the EPSS serves as a learning portal positioned in front of the LMS. In fact, one of the EPSS portal options would be to drill down into the LMS for formal learning. In support of the learning continuum, I can also interface collaborative social media from the portal. Chat with SMEs or Help Desk live. I can push content to untethered mobile users. Another exciting capability is my ability to harvest [extract] real-time feedback from users on PSO relevance and usability. I can connect end-users to content owners for direct feedback on the objects being used. I can provide access to a playground to practice using the business application and the fully integrated EPSS. Learning to use the EPSS by using the EPSS…what a novel thought. I can track WHO downloaded content and WHAT content it was, and HOW OFTEN, serving as utilization tracking and as a trigger that may indicate the need for training follow-up.

There is a time and a place for training just as there are times and places for EPSS. On the PDR Learning Continuum, the Prepare and Deploy phases align most with training. If I am in the work context, the Reinforce phase is the time and place for EPSS. If I am in a situation where my hair is on fire, I do not have time for a fire safety course in the LMS; instead, I may need a job aid that reminds me to stop, drop, and roll. Sorry, that was a bit over the top, but you get my drift. The decision of what is needed and how much and when does not belong to the training department, it belongs to the performer and is driven by urgency and the risk potential of failure to perform flawlessly. Interestingly, implementing EPSS provides the opportunity to integrate the technology into the Prepare and Deploy phases in the PDR Learning Continuuum. Not only does it embed a thread of continuity through the entire learning experience, it produces deep familiarity with the technology. All of this promotes the need for LESS formal training time.

Change is constant. Work is constant. Work demands for flawless performance are constant. Why would we not build an infrastructure that enabled learning opportunities and performer support to be constantly available? Time to competency improvement is a guaranteed target for any training organization – the shorter the better. The hard truth is that we cannot train our way to competency. Competency builds over time in the work context. EPSS shortens the journey. The scope of training needs to expand to embrace the entire learning ecosystem. That is exactly why the PDR Learning Continuum exists – to support an ecosystem-wide framework for learning.

Learners – our workforce – in their respective work contexts, represent ground zero for tangible value generation. EPSS is the best technology solution going to support both learning at the moment of need and creation of value at the point of work. One would think the sale internally should be a lay-up. If the sales effort targets the operational side of the house, and with line-of-sight to the CFO, it may very well be a lay-up. Mark my words, if targeting training first, you may as well take the shot from mid-court. You could still make the sale but the degree of difficulty just went up. I own the t-shirt on that approach.

It is a matter of impacting what matters. To the operational side of the house, you are driving impact, productivity, adding tangible value and other business-result kind of metrics. On the training side of the house, you’re threatening linearity, status quo, busting paradigms, you’re threatening the jobs of traditionalists who are unwilling to embrace change, you may not need SCORM at all, and “You must know how much money we’ve already spent on the LMS!”, and if it can’t go on the LMS is it really considered training…and…and…and if your training department rolls up under HR…just punt. Sorry HR, been there, done that!

Is EPSS a technology? Sure it is. Whatever you do, do not lead with it. Find the “pinch points” where competency is not consistently reached. Do your discovery and root cause analysis and find out what learning assets are/would be most effective to close the gaps. It may well require training, but I can guarantee training only serves as a small part of the total ecosystem solution. Remember to whom, where in the workflowe, and when ground zero must be addressed with learning and support. Define a methodology to address the moment, the need, and the urgency and let those work context attributes define the technology. Remember the most effective performance support could be a bright yellow laminated card that reads, “Remove pin to discharge” for those moments when hair is on fire.

EPSS is a proven shortcut to productivity and shorter path to competency. It requires a willingness to turn loose of some training traditions and embedded expectations that are rapidly losing the race with the velocity of business. Moments of learning need are converging with the need for flawless performance and that convergence is happening in the work context – not the classroom and not on-line with e-learning. We have to bring learning and support assets into the workflow in order to meet this need. The LMS requires that we leave the workflow to learn whereas the EPSS integrates inside of the workflow and addresses the moment of need at the point of work.

Does EPSS have a place in your organization? Is your training effort stretched to the max, and there is still much that needs attention? Are online business applications frustrating your workforce? Comsidering new or different learning technology, and not sure what “best fit” looks like in your organization? If “yes”, “maybe”, or “not sure” are the answers to any of these questions, we should talk. I have survived numerous implementations of LMS, virtual classroom, EPSS and integrated Web 2.0 into the workflows for a lot of years. I do not have to do it all for you, but can assist with developing a road map and a plan to achieve readiness to proceed. Like I said, we should talk. Looking forward to the opportunity!

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise