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When training doesn't work

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by Clive Shepherd
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Could it be that the world's moving too fast for training? Your job, perhaps even your career, changes every year or so. The products and services that your organization delivers change monthly. The whole basis of the industry in which you work may be challenged every few years. There's so much to know and so little time to learn it. Maybe the answer is not training, certainly as we know it, but top quality information and performance support materials, accessible on demand, when required, electronically. In this article, Clive Shepherd argues the case for EPSS (Electronic Performance Support Systems) as an important ingredient in a training and knowledge management strategy, but warns that getting it right is not as easy as it may seem.

Contents
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The only constant is change
Who do you turn to?
So what's an EPSS?
What does an EPSS look like?
When to call in the EPSS
Not all plain sailing
Making a success of EPSS
Resources

The only constant is change
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There was a time, or so we're always told, when life was more sedate. When you left school or college, you would learn your trade safe in the knowledge that your skills would serve you for a lifetime of stable employment, in an organization whose products and services changed moderately only every decade or so. Even the trains ran on time (on second thoughts, that's probably overstating it).
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Whether this was ever true, it certainly isn't now, as we can all attest. If we're employed at all, rather than being self-employed, on contract or just resting, then we know the situation can change at any time. If we don't keep up-to-the-minute with our chosen field then we soon become worthless. At the same time, products and services are constantly being adapted to meet ever-changing customer needs, competitive pressures and market opportunities. At companies like Cisco, new products are launched every week. To compound the pressures upon us, we're bombarded with information by post, email and mobile phone, some of it critical, most of it superfluous. So how do we cope with this unprecedented learning challenge? Well let's take an example and check out the options.
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Who do you turn to?
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The deadline's looming and you've run out of excuses, so finally you have to get down to working on next year's budget. As if this wasn't bad enough, your budget submission must be made using the Company's bespoke financial system, Aquarius, which was introduced last year. You run into difficulty. For the first time in your life, you have to make a request for a capital budget, to enable you to purchase some new equipment. You haven't a clue how to go about it. So what do you do?
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How about a course? No, that's no use, because they're only run once a month at head office. The deadline will be long past before then.
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Well, an e-learning course then - the training department's really pleased with their new online tutorials taking you through the basics of the system. OK, not a bad option, but each tutorial takes an hour and involves a lot of activities and quizzes. I'm not sure I've got that long. And anyway, this is a one-off exercise that I'll probably never repeat - I really don't need to understand the underlying concepts nor do I need to learn the procedures off-by-heart.
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I could ask Frank, he's a real whiz with Aquarius. But no, that would be the third time I've bothered him today - there's a limit to which I can call on favours.
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The help desk? Well, they're only really interested in the technical side of the system. And anyway, they're so overworked, it'll be a while before I get a response.
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There's always the manual as a last resort. Trouble is, they keep sending me out updates and I keep forgetting to update my copy. I'd have to reassemble the whole three volumes before I could look up a thing.
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If only there was a resource available online, which would give me the information I need straight away - just enough, not too much - and all in clear English. I'd say we need an Electronic Performance Support System. An EPSS.
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So what's an EPSS?
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Here's a simple definition from Gilly Davis, formerly with PTS Learning Systems and one of the UK's foremost EPSS experts: "An electronic performance support system delivers information online to the desktop which is specific to the user's immediate need."
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The first point to note about this definition is that EPSS is online. That means, of course, that it's not on paper, like a traditional procedures manual or job aid. What's the advantage of being online? Well, paper documents are not only bulky and use up trees, they are also hard to keep up-to-date, while there's only one copy of any electronic performance support document, and that's on your intranet web server.
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The second point about this definition is that the EPSS is delivered to the desktop. This is perhaps a little limiting, in that a laptop, palmtop or mobile phone will do just as well. However, an EPSS is of no use to an employee who doesn't have constant access to a suitable piece of hardware.
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Lastly - and this is key - the EPSS delivers information on a just-in-time basis. You get the information when you need it in order to perform a task, not on a just-in-case basis, as you would with a typical training event. And to make the contrast with training even clearer, we are talking about information and not knowledge, understanding or skill. Information is for reference - you use it and, more often than not, you forget all about it. That's not to say that, if you refer to information often enough, some of it won't stick, in which case it becomes knowledge. And if you apply that knowledge often enough to your job, it could even become a skill. What I'm driving at is that the objective of the EPSS is, by definition, to support performance, whether or not that requires learning. With training, the route to performance improvement is always through learning.
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Let's try one more definition for an EPSS, this time with more words. The source is epss.com: "An EPSS is the electronic infrastructure that captures, stores and distributes individual and corporate knowledge assets throughout an organization, to enable individuals to achieve required levels of performance in the fastest possible time and with a minimum of support from other people." They go on to make some important distinctions: an EPSS focuses on information and not merely data; it takes advantage of the relative ease with which humans can recognise rather than recall knowledge from long-term memory; it captures content in a format that leverages the computer's ability to reason with a large number of facts, as in a knowledgebase or expert system; it produces measurable on-the-job performance improvements rather than other results such as the transfer of knowledge.spacer
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What does an EPSS look like?
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It's easy to think of an EPSS as just an online procedures manual. It can be, of course, but it can also be a lot more. Imagine a support system that included templates, wizards, context-sensitive help, expert systems (and simpler forms of decision aid), short tutorials (yes, a bit of learning's OK), agents, flowcharts, diagrams, tips and hints, war stories, demonstrations, simulations and case files - in all media, not just text.
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"Sounds good", you say, "but most of that is already built-in to Microsoft Office." True and some of it is actually useful, but an EPSS is more than just online help. For a start, an EPSS is more likely to be task-specific than application-function specific. In other words, you learn how to send out invoices in your Company's format, rather than how to format paragraphs. Secondly, an EPSS is often company-specific rather than generic - it deals with the specific policies and procedures of your organisation.
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It's possible to combine generic application training with an EPSS. The Department for Education and Employment used an interesting strategy when they launched Windows 95 across their organisation. They used off-the-shelf e-learning from NETg to teach the general principles of the new system. They used a web site on their intranet, developed internally using standard web development tools, to provide specific support for the way Windows 95 was to be used in the DfEE. To back this up, they also provided face-to-face coaching at the desktop, because although e-learning and an EPSS make a great combination, humans can be quite nice too.
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In a way, what an EPSS is doing is formalising the process of on-job training that constitutes the major part of all workplace learning (90% according to a study by SRI Consulting). They could even have called it eNellie - although, unlike human Nellie, an EPSS is not a drain on staff time, it's quick and consistent. Not that on-job training is inferior to other methods - research by Streibel (1989), Seeley Brown (1989) and Suchman (1987) all shows that learning is most effective when performed in the context of actual work.
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When to call in the EPSS
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Electronic Performance Support has the potential to be a useful tool in enhancing workplace performance, but not in every situation. First of all, as I've already stated, the employees in question must have immediate access to a PC or another suitable network device. Even a short walk to another room may be enough to discourage someone from using the system.
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Secondly, the work must be of a nature that demands performance support. If the task is simple, who needs a support system? If the way that a task is to be performed stays constant over a long period, it might be easier to train it properly right up front. If the task is performed extremely regularly, the same applies. An EPSS is worth considering when tasks are complex, constantly changing or infrequently undertaken.
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Thirdly, the characteristics of your audience are also important. The higher the turnover, the less time you can spend on formal training and the greater the need for performance support. Also, when employees are widely distributed geographically, they are likely to find it difficult to get a quick response locally to a query, so performance support helps here.
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Lastly, an EPSS must be the most appropriate form of on-job support. It must be the easiest to access, the most accurate and the most cost-efficient. In some jobs, employees require extremely fast response to a query. If cue cards, reference manuals or human support (ask your colleague or supervisor) will be easier and faster, then why not use them?
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Some hard thinking had to be done by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) when they undertook a project to assist a major financial services company in retraining its 600 call centre staff in the UK. Not only was a new system being introduced, but all staff had to be able to respond to all forms of customer query - a task that had previously been split over a number of specialist teams.
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The sheer volume of new knowledge required would have necessitated an 18-day course, with the risk of low retention. Instead, PwC adopted a blended approach, including a 3-day course to put across the major concepts and principles of the new system - supported by a specially-developed system simulation - alongside an EPSS, to deliver the body of procedural knowledge.
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The idea was that the EPSS would provide just-in-time support, particularly for exceptional and complex queries, while a call was in progress. This required the EPSS to be both easy-to-use and extremely responsive. Simon Brown, who worked on the project for PwC, describes the pressures that put on the design of the system: "We decided that the user must be able to reach any information in just three clicks. And we inserted links into the system itself, so that, in many cases, the user would get to the support they required with just one click. We also kept the size of data files to an absolute minimum to speed up retrieval, and used a structured format for information design to ensure total clarity. The EPSS is a great step on from the paper-based procedures that preceded it, and made a near-impossible training task achievable."
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Not all plain sailing
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Making a success of an EPSS requires more than a "build it and they will come" approach - because often they simply won't. Donald Clark, Chief Executive of e-learning developer Epic, believes that EPSS systems often suffer from the same fate as 'help' functions: "There's a reluctance to use help because it often fails to solve the problem at hand. It fails because the software cannot diagnose the actual cognitive problem. Even simple arithmetic tasks can be completed 10-15 different ways, and so there's the same number of ways of going wrong. The software usually guesses wrong, giving you help that doesn't hit the mark. It's usually easier to ask someone else close to hand or use email". Donald goes on to recommend a human, email-based system, such as the one developed by Orbital Technologies: "These guys recognise that most of the useful help in an organisation lies in the heads of its employees and simply puts people who need help in touch with those that have the skills."
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Anyone considering introducing an EPSS should take the issue of maintenance very seriously. Often all the effort and the budget are put into the development of version 1 of the system, when that is only the start. Sue Welch, formerly Customer Services Training Adviser for American Express, played a key role in introducing an online support system. Her advice is: "Dedicate a resource to maintenance, probably full-time. If users spot just a single inaccuracy in the information, they lose faith in the system as a whole and simply won't use it."
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Sue also points to the cultural shift required in moving to an EPSS: "People change more slowly than technology. A person's paper-based notes act as a sort of comfort blanket and it takes time for that person to adapt to an online environment. And for that change to take place, it's important that the support system can sit alongside the application on the screen. It's too disorientating to have the support system replace the application - in that case, paper-based notes are much more usable."
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Making a success of EPSS
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So, how do we take advantage of the promise of an EPSS while avoiding the pitfalls? Well, first you need to pay due attention to the usability of the system, to ensure that it can provide support at the required speed. Make it your aim to design an interface that enables the user to achieve the required level of performance in the fastest possible time and with the minimum of support from other people.
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Also important is the way in which the content is constructed. Three ingredients are needed to ensure success: first, up-to-date subject-matter expertise; second, a writing style that's clear and concise; and thirdly, a knowledge of how best to present different types of information. Ideally make use of well-researched techniques for information design, such as the approach developed by Information Mapping, Inc., marketed in the UK by TMS Information Systems. Perhaps, the ideal would be a performance support tool for content developers themselves, a project to which I have been devoting my own energies (LODA - the Learning Objects Design Assistant).
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You don't necessarily need a dedicated development tool to create an EPSS, but some excellent tools are available on the market (for details of a selection of tools, see the end of this article). One feature that you should look out for, according to Gilly Davis, is a tracking device that monitors usage, which will help you to continually develop and enhance the system.
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Simon Brown, EPSS expert at developer Brightwave Learning, believes we must learn from our early experiences. "There must be clear responsibilities for design and maintenance, with a single source for each piece of information. Next, it's vital to obtain management buy-in to the system, so they will encourage its uptake. Finally, listen to the users; take account of their comments and suggestions to make sure the system truly meets their needs."
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Where now for electronic performance support. To quote Gilly Davis: "Change is our only constant. We are moving on from traditional training practices and conventional models for task support. The emphasis now is on developing effective business processes that can be operated by highly-productive and self-sufficient users. EPSS's underpin the e-learning world.
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Resources
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Sites
Epss.com!:
By their own admission: "The premier site for innovative approaches to the analysis and design of software systems that result in improved business performance (EPSS, Performance Centred Design, Knowledge Management), and Performance Support Engineering."
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EPSS Infosite
According to Gloria Gery, US EPSS guru: "The best place on the web for finding and sharing information, ideas and opinions about planning, designing and developing electronic performance support systems."
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ASTD Performance Improvement Page

Books
Electronic performance support systems
by Gloria Gery, Gery Associates, 1991
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Designing and developing electronic performance support systems by Lesley A Brown, Digital Press, 1997
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The Performance Support Engineering Reference Handbook by Barry Raybould, Arial PSE Technology, 2001

Tools
On Demand Personal Navigator from Global Knowledge Networks (formerly PTS Learning Systems)
http://www.kp.globalknowledge.com/index.htm
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Coachware from Sterling Resources
http://www.sterlingnet.com/sterling/coachware.htm 
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Assistware from Baydon Solutions
http://www.assistware.ie/ 
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MM Helper from ESMM
http://www.esmmi.com 
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Robohelp from Ehelp Corporation
http://www.ehelp.com 

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