Home > Discovery & Consulting, EPSS, Learning @ the Point of Work, Learning Ecosystems, Performer Support, Sustained Capability > What Blocks Performance Support from Becoming a Strategic Initiative?

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 The rules of engagement have changed and Training is still playing from an outdated playbook.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
LinkedIn Profile
Twitter: Gdogwise

  1. October 10, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Gary, thanks for once again highlighting the importance of performance support at work. I do agree with your phrase that “training is playing from an outdated playbook”. While training remains important, performance support has become much more so because of the speed of change in the business world. To answer your question – what blocks performance from becoming a strategic initiative? The answer comes from another question you ask – who owns performance support? Ownership is widely spread throughout the organization but mostly rests on the shoulders of management. Until they are expected to include performance support as part of their job this won’t become a priority and performance will remain tactical rather than strategic.

    • October 10, 2012 at 8:11 am

      You hit the key to this being accepted, Ara. What I fear is that management may not know it is their shoulders upon which PS rests. I think it should be a collaboration between the business stakeholders and Training, and before that can happen, Training needs to position PS as part of their solutions. I’m not so sure they will ever be “expected to include PS as part of their job” until top leadership treats PS as a strategic tool…and that won’t happen until they see evidence that it truly is. I’m not disagreeing with you…quite to the contrary. My point is that this is an effort of “selling” more than it is designing. And I think that Training has to shoulder that responsibility. Until there is a convenient, non-threatening way to do that, it will be a difficult sale…and that’s where the Learning Continuum framework kicks in. The continuum and the 5 moments of need are the two strongest tools I’ve used in positioning this with business leaders.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read my posts, and for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Adrienne
    October 14, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    For performer support to succeed there definitely needs to be an ‘owner’ as you rightly say. But not just for implementing the PSOs; the owner needs to update for accuracy and communicate its existence.

    • October 15, 2012 at 7:56 am

      Adrienne, you are correct about ownership. Currency of content is sort of a “back-office” consideration that cannot be overlooked. I would go so far as including a “channel” so that owner is accessible by performers to ensure changes experienced at the point of work that either improve the PSO content, format, or function. The feedback loop is essential. Communication is also critical. Maybe the PSO itself is not “pushed” but a “What’s New” tickler is…and it would be role/task specific, to prevent “spamming” other performers with irrelevant information. Thanks for adding some additional value to the post. I appreciate you taking the time to read and then share your thoughts!

  3. October 15, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Another awesome post penetrating to the heart of a huge problem and/or opportunity for trainers and instructional designers, self-included. One question not addressed is this, “How to convince a worker who works among peers not to turn first to those peers for help and not to the EPSS?” I recently finished a gig at a large company where an EPSS is–sometimes–in use. My cube was adjacent to those of potential users of the system, and I heard a lot of “how to” conversations going on. I have no way of knowing whether the EPSS contained relevant content, but I would bet that it did.

    • October 15, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Tribal knowledge has always been a source of easy-to-get information and/or knowledge that is missing. Unfortunately, it has also served for the spread of not-so-accurate information/knowledge. I’m not sure there IS a “cure”, but I DO think that properly positioning the EPSS or “portal” of whatever stripes cannot be under-estimated in importance. The focus on performer support (PS) is every bit of a cultural issue as it is a technical one. Building the use of the EPSS/portal into the actual training event is one way to “force” using the system even if for the limited interaction of an experiential exercise. I fully intend to weave this through the next post I mention in my earlier reply to your other comment. This is of major importance and it shines a very bright light on what happens when a new technology is deployed and NOT fully implemented. That gap is even important for training when you get right down to it…thorough IMPLEMENTATION is the key.

  4. Val
    November 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    I know I’m late to this conversation but printed your article (yes, archaic as that sounds) and just got a chance to read it. There were definitely some epiphany moments for me as this applies to our company and the use of our electronic medical record. The good news is that there is a dawning recognition for a few that PS is not only needed but inescapable if we are to improve our efficiency, effectiveness, etc. It’s liberating to think that maybe the dissatisfaction with the tool is not in direct correlation to the training received. Rather, the training could never have met the prodigious needs of assimilating this tool. We have to rethink all of this, and I believe we’re coming to that realization. Your article just gave me even more fire to tackle this. Thank you!

    • November 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Val, there is so much truth in your observations. My own passions and focus on this evolution in learning are based upon similar first-hand observations. It’s a shame that PS has such a limited following within the profession of training, but to your point, I share the belief that inclusion into the strategy is “inescapable”. Methinks the organizations that can embrace and integrate a PS strategy first will be the true winners. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your “spot on” comments!

  5. Bryon
    November 17, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Thank You Gary for a great post. I think a lot like you do, but it doesn’t come out as clearly when I say it, so hoping to make it come out more clearly be rereading and integrating your post.

    My question is regarding your comment: “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.”

    Everything else in your post I was tracking with, however this seemed like a leap without support. Why can’t training sustain results? Is this presuming that there is only initial training, and not more advanced training later or as needed? Thanks!

    • November 17, 2012 at 11:30 am

      Bryon, great question. My comment is based upon data that shows knowledge retention dropping off by over 80% in as little as three weeks from completi9on of a training event if the learning is not reinforced. Your mention of “advanced” or additional training would be one variety of reinforcement. There are others; specifically, routinizing [implementing] the knowledge into the workflow…converging objectized learning and performer support assets with the point of work. In other words, performance support is the post-training source of sustainability here. This kind of reinforcement extends the life and effectiveness of training, and many organizations don’t go here. They train their workforce and then wonder why successful training does not consistently translate to sustained capability at the point of work. When performance does not measure up, leadership questions the validity and effectiveness of the training…often deciding that more training is the solution…to the same or similar results. Sometimes the performance does improve, but nearly as often it is a short-term spike…and not sustainable. That is because training was “deployed” but performer support was never implemented. Your question has just triggered another blog post…so off to jam on it now.

      Thanks for taking the time to read postings here and then leaving your thoughtful comments and questions.

  1. October 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm
  2. October 15, 2012 at 11:06 am

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