Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Who Needs Training, Again?


At some point in time I am sure we’ve all found ourselves with an answer staring us in the face, but we just haven’t managed to see it yet.

Spending money, time and effort providing face-to-face training or eLearning courses for workers in an attempt to equip them to use new processes and systems as they’re rolled out across our organisations is one of these cases.

Most of us know there are better solutions, but few Training and L&D people utilise them.

The Systems and Processes Training Dilemma
Many of us have faced the challenge of ensuring that employees can navigate and use new processes and systems as they're deployed across our organisations. All of us in corporate or organisational L&D roles are tasked with ensuring new hires come to terms with their ERP and CRM environments and with other specific processes and products quickly and efficiently.

Almost without exception this challenge is met with some form of training solution. Equally, there’s usually a call for more training when systems and processes change or when the initial training hasn’t ‘stuck’ first time around.

However there are far more effective and efficient approaches than training that address this challenge of improving ‘speed-to-competence’. It’s just that they seem to be out of the range of vision of many L&D practitioners.

The Power of Performance Support - Integrating Learning into Work
One of the most powerful alternatives to the ‘train-and-train-again’ approach is some form of Performance Support. Performance support has been part of the toolkit for building human performance and productivity for centuries. In fact the master-apprentice model is based on the concept of performance support and it’s been around almost since the dawn of mankind. A worker with a higher level of mastery ensures on-the-job support is always at hand as the apprentice develops their own mastery.

Over the years a wide range of job aids, whether delivered with the help of technology or not, have been used as simple forms of performance support. However the implementation of performance support tools and solutions as a more effective alternative to training is still on the periphery rather than at the core of how workforce development is done.

Most of us know quite a lot about ePSS - Electronic Performance Support Systems. They are job aids’ younger brothers.

ePSS has been around in reasonably developed form for at least the past 20 years. Gloria Gery’s excellent 1991 book ‘Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology’ which emerged from earlier ideas at AT&T was an important waypoint for the concept and practice and should be on every L&D professional’s bookshelf.

Although ePSS as a mindset has grown up considerably since Gery wrote her book, it hasn’t been adopted by the L&D community.

Gloria Gery – a prophet ahead of her time
Think about the following extracts – taken from a 1994 interview by Training & Development Journal with Gery:

At the heart of an EPSS attitude is a belief that most organizations today face a performance crisis that training alone cannot solve….

….conventional training events are inefficient learning tools compared to an EPSS that makes learning just a point-and-click away.

….an EPSS provides task structuring and puts learning tools and data at a performer's fingertips--something conventional training can't do.”

Gery goes on to say:

“When you strip away the collusion about what is working and what isn't, you have to face the fact that training methodologies are based on a set of fallacious assumptions from public education in the 19th century”.

“Until the 1960s the only model for transfer of knowledge was the Socratic dialogue and the apprenticeship. And that only changed because the number of people needing training grew too large for one-on-one methods. That's what gave us group training."

“Group training may have worked in simpler times but now work complexity and instability of knowledge lessen its effect."

“Training events remove novices from real life and from the experts who really know the work. People are trained and outfitted with manuals and job aids, but they still don't have the competence of experts. Back on the job, most can't perform at the experts' level on tasks they were trained to do. And for tasks not covered in training at all, they are left to their own devices.”

All the above still makes great sense. Remember, Gery was making these statements almost 17 years ago.

What have we learnt in the intervening time? Have approaches employed by the majority of Training and L&D professionals when faced with the roll-out of a new system or process altered, adapted and improved?

Not much, I would suggest.

Most organisations are still spending large amounts of time and money developing and deploying structured training programmes to accompany new system and process initiatives. Yet we know the impact of training usually isn’t great. Workers still tend to turn to their colleagues (or floor walkers or help desks if they exist) for support the first time they need to work in the new environment because they haven't actually learned much from the training.

Training for these purposes just doesn't work.

Yet every ERP and CRM deployment plan I've ever seen has had a ‘training budget’ line in it. Programme and project managers seem to feel that if for no other reason than there is money allocated, structured training is an essential part of any roll-out.

Thinking about alternative and better ways of ensuring workers can use new platforms and processes is often considered just too hard.

The Range of Performance Support Approaches
Over the past 20 years the Web has provided a platform for the development of some sophisticated integrated performance support tools and environments. Some of these are being used by more enlightened organisations that are focusing on ‘working smarter’ and can see the benefits of integrating workforce development with work.

As a result there are some excellent performance support tools and approaches available for today’s learning professional. Some are very simple (a paper-based quick reference guide often works for simple systems) and others more complex, ‘smarter’ and more closely integrated into workflow. Either way, they are available and generally far cheaper than the cost of training.

Business Process Guidance
Recently a new label has appeared for advanced performance support - ‘Business Process Guidance’.

Business Process Guidance can be seen as ‘performance support on steroids’ and is specifically focused on ensuring policies and procedures are followed by providing context-sensitive on-screen assistance at any time within a rich support environment. These systems take context-sensitivity to a highly granular level (often down to a specific field in an input screen) and provide what Wayne Hodgins described to me almost 10 years ago as:

“Getting just the right content to…
Just the right person at…
Just the right time on…
Just the right device in…
Just the right context and…
Just the right way…….”

A few organisations offer solutions in this area. Panviva and LearningGuide are two companies at the top of the pile, both with excellent ePSS/BPG suites of tools.

Work=Learning. The Challenge for L&D Practitioners
The core principle of ePSS and associated solutions is that learning and work should be integrated and that workers need easy and ready access to the right information to help them with their jobs at the time they have a problem to solve, not some time beforehand and out of context.

In other words ‘just-in-time’ not 'just-in-case’.

The challenge for L&D practitioners who focus on training solutions alone is that training principles are based on preparing workers for the possibility of challenges they may face sometime in the future in a context that hasn’t occurred yet.

In other words, a great deal of training design is based on high-level assumptions at best, and on guesswork at worst.

Integrating Learning with the Work
In the next few years I believe we will see ePSS/BPG replace most of the systems, process and product training that is carried out today. The rising interest in workplace learning, integrating learning with work and ‘working smarter’ will help drive this change.

I have no doubt that the sooner performance support practices find a firm place in training and development portfolios the sooner we will stop wasting time, effort and money on using a sub-optimal train-and-train-again models.


  1. If I have a scraped knee, the bandaid goes right on it.
    So if I want to improve performance I'd put the fix right there.
    Too often we try to fix people when we should be fixing the job.

  2. I want my organization to get out of the "refresher training" business. Enough already!

  3. Bob Mosher wrote an excellent book on performance support just released recently.
    Bob Mosher is LearningGuide's chief strategist & evangelist.


    Cees Louwers

  4. Thanks for pointing Bob's book out, Cees. 'Innovative Performance Support: Strategies and Practices for Learning in the Workflow ' by Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson. Very worthwhile reading. http://bit.ly/g5cw0k

  5. Hard to disagree. And I've tweeted you my opinion on why this won't change in a hurry – a lot of training people are fossils with limited skillsets. They spent their whole careers learning ice-breakers and valueless games and this looks like something hard for them to learn.

    More importantly, they no longer have a headstart in this area, so they'll block it. Why would you even think of transferring your training people to this duty? (As a comparison, back in the early 1990s, I worked in Czechoslovakia re-training Russian language teachers to be English language teachers – you can imagine how dispiriting that was.)

    If we move the T & D portfolio, we'll see faster change perhaps.

    It's also worth pointing out that the kind of performance support you're talking about is pretty much exactly the kind of support the #KM-ers have been trying to offer for years.

    Interesting times.

  6. I agree with you Simon! None of this is new. As a perfect example, I made the suggestion that performance support was missing from the training plan on a massive roll-out of a new Electronic Medical Records System at a large healthcare concern, they flatly stated that they were planning to handle performance support in the post-training world. When I pointed out that they may want to reconsider the initial training using performance support objects at the role-specific transaction level...I was un-invited from further planning meetings.

    To your point, it was the traditional linear training stalwarts to whom I made the suggestion. Had the clinical operations staff been approached the outcome may likely have had a very different reception.

    Lesson learned - never try to "sell EPSS" or performance support to a training geek or anyone else fueled by acquisition of knowledge and skills. Always go to the operational side of the house first where emphasis is on sustained capability and tangible evidence in the form of outcomes!

    Truly, we're just attempting to bring task-level knowledge to those who need it in their respective work contexts. I use Bob Mosher's and Con Gottfredson's Moments of LEarning Need as the tool to make the case to all my clients. At that point, the rest comes easy.

    Interesting times indeed. I do think; however, that traditional training is finally being seen as unable to keep pace with the velocity of work. That said, those clinging to their storyboards and linear tendencies will have to relent or get out of the way...but then budget cuts should handle some of the obstructions.

  7. Charles
    It is an interesting article and has certainly made me think and a little angry.

    It maybe my old L&D roots (and my defense network cutting in) but I found it very black and white (performance support = good, training = bad). I also found that you misrepresents L&D professionals as a bit simple to strengthen your case (e.g. the proposition that training sets out and fails to make people experts is wrong. I have never heard a trainer say this course will make you an expert. Everyone understands expertise takes a combination of many factors especially experience)

    I believe learning support and training both need each other (or are one and the same thing) and it is more a case of getting the balance right rather than doing all of one and none of the other. I think that all L&D professional would agree that performance support and integrating learning with work are a good things and I don’t think that you would find many who aren’t actively doing so now (e.g. quick reference guides (you use this example as if no trainer could have ever thought of it), online help & FAQs, coaching, floor walkers, nursery environment, briefing sheets, buddy schemes etc). Most L&D staff would also agree that they need more help and understanding but are they likely to be open to it from individuals view them so poorly.

    You seem to suggest that your preference would be to rollout a new CRM system without any upfront learning but rather allow the team to learn while they work. I am interested to know what this would look like in practice? If you are suggesting that this could simply be done with well configured Business Process Guidance at go-live, I feel that 'just-in-time learning' could be in danger of becoming 'just-to-late learning'.

    The challenge for the growth of performance support may therefore not be about the products (some of which seem excellent) but as with most things understanding the real needs of all the stakeholders (e.g. users, customers, operation, learners, L&D etc) and meeting these needs with genuine benefits. This can only be done from a position of respect rather than one based on a rather patronising view of L&D professionals.
    David Thorogood

  8. I think David is right in that training and performance support should work together. Here's my thinking on their respective roles:


    - A place to practice in a safe environment
    - A place to make mistakes
    - A place to raise questions
    - A place to discuss ambiguities in processes
    - A place to develop answers that work
    - A place to stimulate ideas for further thought and practice

    NB. This is why I don't like it being called training, as that implies a Pavlovian response to stimuli. It's far more than that.

    Performance support

    - Provide specific help at the point of need (from all the methods David lists
    - Provide guidance where there is ambiguity in the process (therefore needs to be kept very up-to-date to reflect user experience)
    - A place to find people and content that might be able to help

    When talking about learning software, the sort of training that takes you through processes and tells you what button to press should be unnecessary with well-designed software (a rarity in corporate enterprise software in my experience...)

    If you look at most games or web2.0 tools (eg. SocialCast), they are superb at guiding you into the software and at helping you get the best out of it. This is lacking in much of what we put in front of people in our organisations. Which is why we have to have up-front training, which, at best, will only get people started (as long as they use the software immediately afterwards).

    For a really useful performance support tool, take a look at: http://www.trainer1.com/Context_Sensitive_Learning.html

    On the point of the CRM rollout - ideally the team would have been involved in the design and testing of the system in the first place, so they would have a good idea of what it's meant to achieve and how...



  9. I understand your challenge, David, and agree that there's obviously a place for formal training in the kitbag. However I would take issue with your reading of what I proposed in this piece:

    In my experience training is still used as the cornerstone for system and process rollouts. I think this is a wrong approach. Certainly, quick reference guides, online help, FAQs etc. are usually in the mix. I think it’s being a bit disingenuous to suggest that I’m not aware that L&D professionals use a range of tools and approaches in helping workers get to grips with new environments. If course they do. However, the point I was attempting to make (and maybe missed making) was that the mindset of many L&D professionals is often that these are adjunct to getting people into a classroom or in front of a structured eLearning programme.

    Often this L&D mindset is driven/dictated by the often narrow mindset of deployment programme and project managers who have a ‘training’ line in their project budget and assume that ‘training’ means just that – a series of formal (often classroom) training sessions.

    Just for the record, for system and process roll-outs and upgrades I recommend a three-tier approach:

    1. For change management and high-level ‘conceptual’ understanding of the new environment (the pieces of the puzzle that people need to memorise) such as ‘how will the new system/process help the organisation/team achieve its objectives?’ – use formal training/communication approaches such as classroom, eLearning, corporate comms. channels, newsletter/updates, brown bag lunches etc. etc.

    2. For contextual understanding (the pieces of the puzzle with which people need to familiarise themselves) such as ‘what does the new system/process mean for me in my role?’ and ‘what are the major changes that I need to be aware of?’ – use short manager-led briefings, small manager and L&D-led seminars/workshops.

    3. For task-based understanding (the pieces of the puzzle for which people need to have easy access at the point-of-need) such as ‘what do I do next?’, or ‘something’s gone wrong, what options do I have?’ – use one of the many performance support approaches.

    This isn’t throwing formal training away. It’s simply using training where it’s been proven to work – preparing people for change and providing high-level familiarisation. But NOT using training where it demonstrably has little impact. Trying to teach detailed processes is one of those.

    There’s plenty of evidence that formal training, no matter how well designed, does a poor job preparing workers for roll-out or upgrade of new systems or processes at the detailed level. Just look at the rise in level of help-desk support requests, the calls for retraining, and survey results following rollout asking ‘what did you do when you first needed to use the new system/process?’.

    Finally, I'm sorry you think I 'view L&D so poorly’ and ‘misrepresent L&D professionals as a bit simple'. That's certainly a misreading my views and experience. I've seen a range of absolutely excellent performance solutions implemented by high-quality and innovative L&D and performance improvement teams over the years. However, I've also seen quite a few 'one trick ponies' in the L&D world who, even if they do extend their solutions beyond the walls of a classroom, find it difficult to think outside a 'core training' mindset. There’s enough evidence of lack of transfer from formal training to the workplace to suggest that L&D has a lot of headroom to improve.

    Thanks again for the comments – L&D as a profession will only get better if we think about the challenges, question and probe and find better ways. I’m sure both of us agree there’s room for improvement.

  10. Charles
    I totally agree with your response (and Mark's) as it gives an objective view of the relative strengths and weaknesses of different forms learning and how through better understanding of all the options available you are more likely to develop an effective solution.

    I still however feel that your original piece lacked this balance and that could lead people to believe that performance support is always a better solution than other training options, when in reality its a matter of selecting the right tools or for the job at hand.

    Thank you


  11. I'll try to make myself clearer in future, David!

    I also think Mark's criteria for 'training' is a useful one. Something to hold any formal training design up to by means of a checklist - e.g..
    - does the design 'provide a place to practice in a safe environment (as opposed to being a place where the trainer can download lots of content)
    - does the design allow (and encourage) participants to make mistakes (as opposed to stepping through a script of exercises to do it the 'right' way)
    - does the design encourage questioning (as opposed to setting aside the final 15 minutes of any session for 'Q&A' - knowing that it's likely this final slot will be squeezed)

    and so on...


  12. Charles, I've only now just come across this discussion and I'm way to late I know but I can't help wanting to offer a thought or two.

    Part of the problem with training verses performance support is the very structure of L&D departments. We have instructional designers creating programs that instruct for the purpose of learning, we have facilitators who 'run' learning events in classrooms and then a range of project managers and multimedia specialists etc all geared towards creating events.

    But there are very few 'Ongoing Learning or Performance Support' roles and any argument that good ISD'ers will take this into account falls over when you realise that they are mostly goaled on ensuring learning, not ensuring performance. It's a massive difference in focus and output.

    The struggle is convincing L&D management that they need to invest in people with PS skills and knowledge who have a legitimate function within L&D. I like asking L&D how their solution will be sustained after the event. Often you can hear a pin drop.

  13. Peter - I agree with your well-made points and suggestion. I've certainly heard 'pins drop'.....

    Traditionally, L&D has been focused on 'learning' rather than 'performance (i.e. inputs and process rather than outputs)and 'events' rather than approaches that best help workers achieve their goals. Their incentives have driven this focus. Incentives drive behaviours. Skills and capabilities ensure that the behaviours result in desired actions. This says two things to me:

    1. L&D managers need to re-align their teams' incentives towards tangible outputs (i.e. improving the performance of their workforce rather than simply ensuring people have 'learned')

    2. L&D managers need to focus on developing their teams or acquiring people with a more rounded skill-set in workplace performance improvement techniques. They could start by ensuring that all their L&D team members have some level of Performance Consulting skills and an understanding of Performance Support approaches.