Book Review-Job Aids and Performance Support

I’ve been a big fan of job aids for years. It’s my awareness that job aids are more impactful than training that led to the creation of the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide. I’ve read many materials about how adults learn – like The Adult Learner and Efficiency in Learning. However, I’ve not found many resources that focused on the humble job aid – that is until Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere. Finally there’s a book that focuses on the fundamental reality of today’s world – that we can’t possibly take it all in and memorize everything. We have to leverage brain augmentation systems to cope in today’s world.

Brain Augmentation Systems

I don’t know about you but I keep forgetting things. Sometimes it’s what I was supposed to be getting from the grocery. Sometimes it’s why I went into the other room. Other times it’s more frustrating as I can’t remember the name of a movie or song. I can feel it just on the edge of my consciousness but still can’t put my finger on it. It’s these frustrating experiences that has lead me to develop a set of brain augmentation systems that are designed to work around my limited memory, frail attention, and other limitations. Many of us have turned to searching the Internet before spending a moment struggling to remember some obscure fact.

My brain augmentation systems are equally simple. When my son is with my ex-wife I set an alarm for 30 minutes before his bed time so that I remember to call and ask him about his day. I write notes to take to the grocery store or create a list on my phone.

I’ve spoken before about how I take notes in my post Research in the age of electrons. I leverage my blog as a place to go back and search for how I related topics to one another. I send myself an email when I’m out and want to remind myself of something. This system works because I don’t leave any messages in my inbox.

I have these systems because I know that I can’t keep up with what’s going on around me. I’ve decided that I’ve given up trying to keep up with the world and all of the details on my own. I have accepted that there are more things going on than I could ever possibly keep up with. I’ve accepted that I have to find ways around depending on the old things that have worked. I have to create new solutions.

Discover the Truth

Cheat Sheets

I tell the kids and the folks I work with that I “cheat” all the time. However, I don’t quite mean it in sense that I’m being dishonest. Instead I mean it that I’m changing the rules. I’m using information from outside of the context of the question or I’m using learning from outside the sphere of influence.

For instance, when I do project management for a technical project I cheat. I do that because I have a large amount of experience in technical topics so I actually understand what the folks are talking about. I can logic out what can and can’t work. I leverage my awareness of where the problems can be. So in one sense I’m “cheating” as a project manager because I’m not relying on just my project management skills to help the project be successful. However, there’s nothing dishonest about it. It’s just leveraging skills that a typical project manager wouldn’t have.

So sometimes cheating isn’t about being dishonest, it’s about getting things done. Such is the case when people refer to productivity aids as “cheat sheets.” The term itself is pejorative – implying dishonesty where none exists. So while “cheat sheets” is often how employees refer to their productivity aids – they’re not indicating their dishonesty. They’re indicating their desire to do what’s effective even if it goes against the culture of being well trained.

One of the challenges that productivity aids have is that “cheat sheets” took the place of traditional training – and thus cheated the instructor out of their work. We’ve kept this terminology despite the fact that the productivity aids have been hugely helpful for organizations of all sizes. We sell quick reference guides (a less pejorative terminology) to help users better navigate in SharePoint. We know from experience that they work.

Types of Performance Support

The world today is a world of electrons and atoms – in that order. More frequently than not we’re staring at resources electronically. Whether it’s a desktop computer, a tablet, or a mobile phone, we’re looking at a tool that has the capability of bringing performance support to us. That’s why it is important to understand the types of performance support that are available to us. One way of thinking is how integrated the support is into the flow of what you’re doing. Consider:

  1. External Support – You’ve got to stop what you’re doing and go someplace to get support.
  2. Extrinsic Support – You have to stop what you’re doing but the support is available directly in the system.
  3. Intrinsic Support – The support you need is integrated into the system so completely that you don’t stop your work.

One example of external support as the written manual for the software. You get up go find it, read it and then resume your work in the system. An example of extrinsic support is clicking on the link included in the system and then searching an online help from inside the application. An example of intrinsic support is a wizard that is walking you through the process.

However, all of these examples are examples of productivity aids that help you at the moment you’re in the task. That’s only one type of productivity aid.

Planning and Partners

The Job Aids and Performance Support speaks about two different kinds of productivity aids. The first kind is a planner. It helps you prepare for the task before it begins. It’s a checklist for what to pack before travel. It’s a resource planning worksheet that helps you select the right hardware. The second type they call a Sidekick. They’re with you at the moment of need – such as a language translation application, a French-to-English dictionary, or other resource to take with you.

Obviously each has its place. I’ve talked about my use of checklists as a pilot in my review of The Checklist Manifesto. However, checklists aren’t the only productivity aids that pilots use. When we’re doing planning we’ll use weight and balance worksheets, maps to plot our course and worksheets to plan our route, fuel, etc., pilots have a long history of using productivity aids that aren’t electronic and a growing dependence on electronic tools to reduce workflow, reduce errors, and improve safety.

In fact, I built a set of tools for myself for both planning and for use as a sidekick. Consider my diagram of the different kinds of airspace and the separation and communication requirements. It’s useful during the planning process – and sometimes as I’ve got to make changes to my plans in flight – say for instance due to cloud cover. I need both of them to be as safe as possible so sidekick or planner isn’t an either or decision – it’s one of what can you do as a planner and what can you do as a sidekick?

Integration and Tailoring

We’ve developed a fascination with the idea that we should personalize and tailor every experience but the jury is still out as to whether or not that’s the right way to go. As discussed above, the level of integration into the task being performed can have a massive impact on utility of the performance support. Research on the impact of tailoring – often called personalization is more dubious.

In a Jupiter Research study they found that the impact of personalization on a web site was about 8%. That is only 8% of respondents increased their access of web sites based on personalization. Jupiter Research called personalization a myth.

We’ve seen how advocates of personalization have cited the rise in calls like one-to-one marketing. One book, The One to One Future, was initially published in 1993. IBM is now selling Verse as a way to personalize your view of your work. Microsoft is selling Delve with the same aim. We’re already seeing our Facebook feed and our Google results silently adapted to what the algorithms believe are more like our interests – whether or not this matches our desire or not.

The idea of tailoring in all information – not just performance support – has been with us for a long time but the advent of big data has driven this to a new level where everyone seems interested in filtering the information we get for us – so that we don’t have to do it ourselves.

Amazon.com in particular, but other web sites as well, have used predictive analytics to improve their sales by recommending products that might be interesting based on the relationship of what we’ve searched for and what others have purchased. These patterns of behavior are aggregated and reflected back to us as suggestions in the page and an email if we fail to buy something after searching for it. They’ve built an efficient machine for getting us to find – and buy what we’re looking for.

The integration dimension is the dimension of how connected the productivity aid is to the process being done.

Should You Learn?

A more thought provoking question for the use of productivity aids is whether the productivity aid should teach the user – or whether the user should grab the productivity aid every time that they need the skill. Some are of the mind that productivity aids are replacement for training and therefore the goal of the productivity aid is to teach – but my belief system is different. I believe that in most cases in business we don’t train people so they’ll learn. That’s the side effect.

We train people in business to get them to be productive. We use training as a proxy for productivity because we don’t know how to measure productivity. If you view productivity aids from the lens of being a replacement for training it makes sense that you want to measure their effectiveness. However, consider the use of the humble calculator. While we teach every grade school child to be able to do basic math, we don’t rely on them executing large numbers of math operations without error. We give them a productivity aid in the form of a calculator so that we can eliminate the error rate as they learn more advanced mathematical concepts. So is the goal of the calculator to generate knowledge of basic math problems – no. The goal of the calculator as a productivity aid is to reduce the effort (cognitive load) and the error rate – not to teach basic math skills.

When to use Performance Support

There are eight conditions when the use of performance support systems are called for. They are:

  1. Performance is infrequent
  2. The situation is complex
  3. The consequences of error is intolerable
  4. Performance depends on a large body of information
  5. Performance is dependent on changing knowledge, procedures or approaches
  6. Performance can be improved by self-assessment and correction
  7. There is high turnover and the task is perceived to be simple.
  8. There is little time or few resources to devote to training.

Intranet as a Productivity Aid

In some sense I’ve been working on productivity aids my entire career. At some level the books that I write are self-study and therefore productivity aids. More directly, I’ve spent most of my career on intranets. I often see Intranets as Portal (Navigation), Content, and Applications. That is some of what an intranet does, point you to the right place. Part of what an intranet does is provide you the information you need. Finally, the remaining part of what an intranet does is provide applications you need to get your work done. Both of the first two components have aspects of productivity aids.

Providing navigation itself a form of productivity aid because it’s technically possible to teach everyone the different urls they need and places they need to go – however, this is impractical. It’s become overwhelming to have to remember so many different places to find things. So in this case the navigational aspect of the portal eliminates the need for learning – the user relies on the navigation of the portal for the information.

The second aspect, content, is often content that it’s possible for the user to learn but it too is impractical for them to learn completely. You can’t remember the details of the corporate benefits. Nor can you remember the ethical guidelines for accepting gifts from vendors. In truth, why should you? By providing easy access to information that you may need but don’t have the ability to commit to memory, the intranet is yet again serving as a productivity aid.

Committing to Memory

Sometimes we describe memorizing something as committing it to memory – that is that we’ve made a commitment to memorize it. We’ve made a decision that this is information that we need. The problem is that we’ve got a fixed amount of “commitment” that we can make to things. If we commit one thing to memory then we’re necessarily deciding that something else isn’t something we want to maintain. (See The ONE Thing for more on our fixed commitment.)

Also, as we design learning solutions – training programs if you prefer – how committed are the students to learning the information? Often times the training is required. The Learning Management System ensures that every person dutifully clicks their way through the required text and videos and guesses at the answers to the required questions until the requisite score is reached. How committed to learning are the students? Are they ready – or even able to commit this learning to memory? We learned from The Adult Learner that the information has to have a need to know, a foundation, a self-concept of the information, readiness, orientation, and motivation.

Measuring Effectiveness

One of the consistent challenges that I get when I work with folks in my daily work is the problem of assessment. Should we measure the uptime of the system? Should we measure the activity? Or should we measure the outcomes that the system is designed to address? The answer is all of them.

There are some low cost – and low value metrics – which you can and should capture. Metrics like uptime is useful in telling you whether the performance support system was available to help. Metrics like the activity of the system tells you whether people are using the system or not. Clearly these metrics are useful when we’re talking about electronic performance support – it’s harder to measure how many times that a worker reached over for a printed checklist.

However, the ultimate measure of any system is how it has impacted the business. If the performance support item is focused on reducing accidents then measuring the reduction in the number of incidents and accidents is a good way to measure the impact of the tool. If the performance support item is designed to support the sales department in their development of responses to requests for proposals then measuring the number of proposals won, the number of hours per proposal, or the amount of time before the deadline the proposal is done. Sometimes the ultimate goal, like getting more sales, involves so many factors that it’s not appropriate to measure the performance support tool with that measure – sometimes things like the increase in operational efficiency or in “readiness” is enough.

Seeing Good Performance

The hardest thing about measuring the effectiveness of productivity aids is measuring good performance. How do you know that a sales proposal is “good?” The ultimate measure is, of course, whether the customer buys but that’s a lagging indicator – it won’t show up until it’s too late. So what criteria can you use to determine whether you’re getting good performance out of the folks that are using performance support?

One approach is to measure readiness. That is, is the team operating at a point where they’re struggling against deadlines or do they have a good pressure between their backlog and their productivity? When the challenge is balanced against the skills people are more productive (See Finding Flow for more about the impact of balanced challenges and skills.)

However, this only works for a certain class of problems. Some problems, for instance writing a book, aren’t in a queue and don’t have real deadlines. In this case, how can you determine if your performance support helped someone write a book better? Certainly you can measure the time spent to complete the book – but there are no easy answers to spotting quality output – quality output enabled by a job aid or a performance support system.