Courses alone are no longer enough, nor have they ever been. Trying to put information into our employees isn’t always feasible, let alone being the best approach. The way our minds work means that many times, there is a better solution.
As things move faster, organizations need two things: optimal execution of those things that must be done, and continual innovation around that. The latter is a separate story, but as our understanding of how we really think and work plays out, we are finding that many of the approaches we have been taking to support execution aren’t optimal.
The problem lies in our cognitive architecture: we are particularly good at meaning making and pattern matching. We remember the gist of things, not the exact details. We’re really bad at remembering lots of arbitrary details, and there are limits to our ability to do computations in our heads. And we have some randomness built into our performance. There are good reasons for that, but the end result is that trying to put lots of information into our heads is difficult.
Why is Performance Support Important?
It’s actually very hard to get someone to perform perfectly. Look at athletes, for example. They train literally for years, and what decides the outcome of a competition is whoever makes the fewest errors. On the other hand, in areas where it’s not a game and errors have far more important consequence, pilots or physicians for example, we create robust systems to support minimizing errors and their consequences.
Another way to put it is that there are systematic flaws in our reasoning. While our brains have been very successful, we aren’t biased towards logical reasoning, and instead tend to err on the side of snap judgments (logical reasoning is surprisingly effortful). And we tend to overgeneralize, meaning we’re prone to a variety of errors including set effects, functional fixedness, and more. External support in a variety of ways can help us overcome those problems that training really can’t do.
What Does the Business Need?
What we should be focusing on is making better decisions, but those often require information. What can we do? What we find folks in these critical positions doing is putting as much information in the world as possible, and then training massively to get them to be able to use those systems under extreme duress. They use checklists, lookup tables, and more, to let people look up information when needed, and have the tools at hand to operate on that information to help people make decisions based upon information, not having them recall the information. Sure, there are times when it has to be in the head, and we have drill and kill quiz show apps, but that’s not the way to bet. Particularly if the information is volatile, changing frequently. Most of the time, we can and should be putting information into the world and using training to help people use that information to make better decisions.
For instance, if you’re a company with lots of products that are, at best, clearly differentiated (but too often there’s a lot of overlap) and change frequently, trying to get your sales force or your service folks to remember them all is a mug’s game. They’ll either focus on a few products, or they’ll cheat. And cheating is good! This isn’t school, we want them to succeed however they can.
So what smart companies do is not try to train them on all that information, but instead train their employees to access information to solve problems and succeed in their tasks. And this isn’t just for manufacturers, but for any products or services that have some complexity, and complexity is growing. They can be battle cards, product guides, and more.
Such resources don’t have to be static, either. They can ask questions and then customize the interaction and the output based upon your data. If you’ve ever used a tax preparation program like TurboTax, you’ve seen an example of this sort of wizard. This is particularly valuable for those tasks that are infrequent but important. Or for those where there are many small variations.
There are pragmatic reasons as well as principled. First, as companies increasingly use software to accomplish things like testing airplane designs and develop models of markets, the software is getting more complex and there’s more of it. Training groups just can’t keep up if they’re trying to train on all this, and need a more streamlined approach. Second, smaller is better for several reasons. Smaller more naturally maps to mobile delivery. And users prefer it. Once they’re beyond novice, they know what they need and why it’s important, they just want the information. The lean approach (I call it the Least Assistance Principle: “what’s the least I can do for you” isn’t a rude question, it’s the best response) works for website design, mobile, and your regular eLearning as well. It’s a worthwhile habit to get into.
How to Do Performance Support
And the same tools you use to build the media for your courses, or even the courses themselves, can be used to create these resources. How to videos, trouble shooting guides, look up tables, and more are all viable ways to help people. Let me ask: have you ever looked up a how to guide for a recipe, or looked at a video how to build or fix something? That’s what we’re talking about.
And I note that the pieces you create can be part of a training to help them learn to use the tool, and they can also be pulled from training and made available for access outside. The point is to make small bits that help in the moment when and where possible, as opposed to trying to have people try to have it all in their head. It’s a more efficient use of resources, and the kicker is that it can be vastly more effective as well. When they just need the answer, get it to them!
You can get there by a process called performance consulting, where you look to the root cause of the problem and then decide if it’s a knowledge problem (performance support) or skill (training) or motivation (something else again).
Or you can get there by what I call ‘backwards design’, where you start with how the person would be performing in an ideal world, and then figure out what resources they’d be using, what knowledge they’d need that they don’t know, and what skills or decision-making ability they need for the context and resources. Associated with that is a principle that says “put as much in the world as you can”. Not least because it’s much easier to change information in the world, and it likely will change, than it is to change information that’s in the head. And, again, it’s faster and easier than developing an effective course (rapid eLearning typically does not build effective courses). And ineffective courses aren’t a worthwhile effort.
Performance support is a tactical response to supporting people in the ways we really perform in the world. And it’s a strategic response to the need for optimizing execution. It’s about meeting people in the need. Making small resources to get the job done in a simple and accessible way is just good sense. And cents.