What Blocks Performance Support from Becoming a Strategic Initiative?

This title implies that performance support is not strategic. The question I am convinced we need to address is this, “Why not?” Perhaps a better title would be, “Whadaya Need, a Knock on the Head?” Maybe I’m all raked up in a pile over this because I’ve witnessed performance support make a tangible difference in previous lives. Back to the question, “Why not?”  Here’s something radical…methinks it’s the stink rubbed off from Training.

Whoa thar, big fella…can’t ya be a bit more insulting to the profession of training? Honestly, this is NOT ABOUT TRAINING, and I am convinced that that is the crux of the problem. The “stink” I mentioned refers not to the discipline of training, nor the lack of excellence of the efforts of our training teams, but the implications of long term results falling short…the difficulty of transferring effective execution from classroom/e-learning course completions to the point of work. These disappointing results are what pop into the heads and hearts of business stakeholders when they hear the T-word.

If this triggers a sense of being insulted, you may be part of what is blocking progress. I mean, c’mon, I’ve been doing this for thirty years; I’m not going to bash my career choice, nor am I disrespecting cherished colleagues. The rules of engagement have changed and Training is still playing from an outdated playbook.

When Einstein defined insanity as “Continuing to do what we’ve always done and expecting different results”, he was on the money. We continue to train with hopes that some form it…some technology enhanced venue of it…some exotic blend of it…is going to produce sustained capability that produces tangible business outcomes. Does training contribute to results? Sure it does, but does it sustain them? No, it cannot. It was never chartered nor was it scoped to do so.

So what does Training do? It shrinks right along with the budget. Been there – done that – and have been part of that shrinkage and downsized right out of a Training job.

Okay…so…since sustaining capability is not within scope of Training, maybe we should not lump performer support into the same bucket with training. Makes sense on one hand, but what functional discipline within the organization is in the best position to embrace and integrate performer support? That would be Training!

Ach, such a vicious circle is this!

Perceptions Based Upon Content

Back in 1991, Gloria Gery, author of Electronic Performance Support Systems, wrote, “Our business organizations are extremely effective at hiding the performance crisis – from themselves as well as everybody else.” (pg 1) That is quite an indictment, and she makes that statement to kick off chapter one. The second count of that indictment points toward the Training organization when she kicks off chapter two saying, “The innumerable variables of truly effective performance are more than most can master.” (pg 7)

The word “indictment” points in two directions…at the business units…and at training. The business units are not addressing performance effectively because we [Training] did such a bang up job of convincing them that act of Training would drive performance. Hence, the tendency to keep requesting training and hoping for different results. The second part of the indictment that mentions innumerable variables…and more than most can master…land squarely in the Training shop. Training participants cannot possible remember everything we throw at them. And what they forget opens the door for less than flawless performance at the point of work and the implication of costs to the business for failure.

Gloria talks about a metaphorical place, “the performance zone”, where “things come together.”  I’ve given her metaphor a tangible face and choose to attach a physical locality as a place where the knowledge worker is @ the point of work. She refers to what happens there as the place “where the right things happen….where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situationand as the complexity of the inherent expertise required increases, “the chances of operating within the performance zone decrease.” Operating within the zone…effectively executing @ the point or work degrades. “Unless, of course, something is done to guarantee it.” (pg 13)

Wonder what that “Something” might be…yah…performance support.

But before we get all giggly about it, consider what kind of assets we think of when we hear the words performance support. I immediately think of some type of content asset that handles a just-enough-just-in-time moment of need. Back in 1991, there was no Web 2.0, there were no collaborative social networking venues, and there were not a lot of things we have today that can handle a multitude of venues and modes and media types. Still, what comes to mind is something that smacks of short, focused content. And that’s okay. But is that too close to what training has always been? Right? Content-oriented stuff.

Perceptions Based Upon Performers

This may really sound like a subtle distinction, but I think the perception is profound. Several years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to sit on a panel of experts in a Performance Support break-out session at a Masie Consortium event moderated by Bob Mosher and Dr. Conrad Gottfredson. The panelist to my right worked as VP of HR at Sprint’s University of Excellence, Dave Fogelman. He coined a phrase that resonated with me to the point I leaned over and whispered that I planned to rip that phrase off. He agreed.

My point is this – thanks to Dave Fogelman – we should probably reference performance support for what it is intended to do, not what it is.  The implied focus needs to shift away from a “product” or an “asset” and focus upon “WHO” is supported…hence, his label – PERFORMER SUPPORT (PS). But…I think those two words are not explicit enough. It is not only WHO, but it is also shaped by attributes of the work environment; the WHEN and WHERE in the workflow does the PERFORMER need SUPPORTED [a.k.a. Dr. Gottfredson’s Moments of Learning Need]. Now we are talking about flawless execution of a humanoid type person not an asset [content], and this is particularly important in our collaborative Web 2.0 world where PS may be in the form of a live chat or a dialog with the help desk, or even a more passive threaded discussion search. The emphasis is placed upon the PERFORMER and the OUTCOMES that performer produces.

Why I describe this as profound is the shift of perspective away from content and directed more toward the outcomes produced by performers. To me this is the “something is done to guarantee it” statement made by Gloria many years ago.

Who Owns Performer Support?

In my not so humble opinion, PS should be owned and implemented by whichever functional organization is responsible for sustaining human performance. If that falls into the lap of HR, then we have a whole other rant on the way. If it falls into L&D, there are implications that discovery efforts should evolve to address the SPACE, SYSTEMS, and MEDIA attributes of the work context. I am convinced there is a presence…implied as it may be…that there is a Learning Continuum that embraces the concept of a learning ecosystem that spans both formal learning [Training] and a variety of downstream, post-training, informal sources of performer support designed explicitly for application @ the point of work.

There’s more. There are additional implications that skill sets within L&D evolve to include learning and performance consulting competencies that can effectively interact with business stakeholders and determine root cause(s) behind performance gaps. We have neither the time nor the resources to treat symptoms of the problem with training solutions. We first must isolate the extent to which any learning solution can make an impact, and then architect a solution that spans the continuum from learning to work.

Where Does Performer Support Fit?

For thirty years I’ve been in this business of corporate learning, and I cannot ever remember being so excited about any other topic as Performer Support. PS is the solution for addressing the convergence of moments of need and the point of work. I caution you to not toss these thoughts into the jargon bucket and continue massaging your insanity. These are not new words slapped onto an old paradigm. I truly believe the rules of engagement have changed, and our learning environments have evolved into unique ecosystems.

The workplace seems to be increasingly characterized by continuous velocity…continuous need for flawless execution at the point of work…handling continuous aspects of Change from policies, to procedures, to the competitive landscape, to [insert variable of your choice here] in an agile and effective manner. What confounds me is why any business would tolerate NOT supporting performers at their moments of need, especially when those needs are equally as continuous…AND…when those moments of need are tied directly to driving business outcomes…or failing to do so. This point by itself should be enough of a reason to treat performer support as a strategic initiative.

If you have ever been involved in writing strategic goals or formulating strategic initiatives, one thing is consistently present – an explicit alignment with the creation of value and/or protecting value that already exists. All too often Training gets the nod within one of more initiative to deliver results, but we fail to recognize that nobody closes sales in a selling skill training class. No customer service representative saves a key account in distress during an on-line course. No manager effectively handles a tough performance conversation that prevents employee turnover in an interactive role play. No decisions avoiding the creation of material waste happen during simulations, nor are business liabilities mitigated during role plays. We try and we try to tie training to business impact. Our track record sucks because 20% or less of us even pursue level 3 evaluations and 10% or so go to level 4…and a paltry +/-3% may attempt a level 5 ROI.

What this tells me is there is a disconnect between training and the generation of tangible impact…with the exception of those few percentage points where levels 3 and above are even considered. It is a game of smoke and mirrors. Read Jack Phillips book on calculating ROI. The isolation of training impact is based upon a percentage estimate…and then on top of that, an additional estimate is applied of how confident you are that your first estimate is valid. Hmmm, guess in the absence of hard data, voodoo can sometimes pass for fact.

It is within the discovery effort necessary to create PSOs that make the PSO a significant factor in acquiring impact potential, and this is where the consulting competency I mentioned is so critical. A PSO is built to accomplish a work-level task…or a series of tasks…that generate/save/protect outcomes…and outcomes can be tied to tangible value…or the loss of it. If our discovery is focused downstream in the post-training work context, there is no way to escape garnering source data for deriving levels 3, 4 and/or…gulp…5…should the bean counters force your hand. Our business stakeholders know what it costs when somebody screws up, we just never ask them. Instead we write learning objectives to support nailing our level 2 evaluations. Never pass up the opportunity to snatch a hard dollar performance indicator as evidence of impact.

The integration of performer support does not eliminate training, but it may very well reflect back upstream and give you a chance to reduce the amount. Consider what would be the impact within training of integrating PERFORMER SUPPORT OBJECTS (PSOs)? Rather than placing the burden on recall knowledge, trying to remember Gloria’s innumerable variables, let’s shift the emphasis to using reference knowledge gained by training the worker to only focus on recognizing WHEN a PSO is needed to assist with flawless execution…and…WHERE to get the right PSO to satisfy the right MOMENT OF NEED.

Considering a Strategic Initiative Using Performer Support?

If not, you should be. No matter the size of the business, if you have workers who experience moments of need and a mistake has hard dollar implications, performer support is a very real tool that should be in their toolbox…or their smart phone…or their iPad…or clipped to a belt loop. Whether electronic or stupid simple, the design should align with the work needs. To go down this path, it is not an all or nothing proposition. Pick a critical process where flawless performance is critical. Map it. Identify the points where PSO opportunities surface. Consider the learning environment attributes of  SPACE, SYSTEMS & MEDIA before designing the first PSO to ensure anything you build can serve the upstream training world too. If you have never considered this approach, might I suggest an experienced coach to walk you through a few of them. Who knows, you might pick up a few new competencies along the way. More importantly, as soon as the light goes on, you are off and running.

We’re not talking a huge investment to pursue performer support. On the higher end [and at the fraction of the cost of a LMS] you can implement electronic performance support systems (EPSS). I’ve seen instances where, thanks to Web 2.0 capabilities, an EPSS might be the better choice over the two technologies. If you are running SharePoint, you have a platform that can do most of what you would need. You may even get by with a free WordPress platform to host your PS. Making the decision which end of the spectrum is the best fit requires a comprehensive look at who needs to be supported, where they are, what technology is in their possession, what assets or social interactions are required, and what kinds of tracking you need to extract to manage the effort. That certainly is not a comprehensive list, but it gives you some sense of making the decision is not just about money.

Regardless of the complexity of your PS implementation, chances are better than good that you will be creating tangible proof of your contribution to the business, not to mention payback in the same year as deployment…and then there’s the side benefit of sustaining one’s job. Seriously, that’s at least as important as sustaining the performance of those who fulfill the business mission, don’t you think?

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise