Tag Archives: Performance Support

Whatever Happened to Performance Support?

Where did the dinosaurs go? The most respected scientific speculation today suggests that most dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago when a massive asteroid collided with earth. One group of dinosaurs did survive the asteroid crash: today we call them birds.

And what happened to performance support? In the 1990s, many people expected performance, to shove technical training into the shadows. Yet eLearning, blended learning, and virtual worlds seemed to have elbowed performance support into oblivion. Recent research finds that this is not the case. Performance support is stronger than ever; it simply hiding in plain sight, having taken on a new form.

The Birth of Electronic Performance Support Systems

Performance Support (PS) was founded on the premise that providing information to a worker when it’s needed is generally preferable to having the worker memorize it in advance. A respected professor of instructional design has written that “Information is not instruction.” A performance support enthusiast might reply that if information gets the job done, it doesn’t matter whether it’s instruction.

Thirty years ago, expedient mainframe programmers upgraded applications by slapping overlays atop original code rather than rewriting the user interface. Users had to jump back and forth between three or four screens to complete a transaction. No matter that applications were clunky and inefficient; that could be covered up with a training program.

Gloria Gery, a training manager at Aetna manager, saw the folly in this approach. Why should people have to learn something that could be designed into the system in the first place? Why not provide them with information when they needed it?

In her ground breaking 1991 book, Electronic Performance Support Systems, How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology, Gloria described an EPSS as:

…an integrated electronic environment that is available to and easily accessible by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualised on-line access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit job performance with minimal support and intervention by others.

Performance Support empowered novice employees to get up to speed rapidly, to perform with a minimum of outside coaching or training, and to do the job as well or even better than experienced workers. Gloria’s goal for EPSS was to enable people who didn’t know what they were doing to function as if they did.

Some organizations heartily embraced EPSS, incorporating it into airline reservation systems, platform automation at financial institutions, and a variety of applications at AT&T. Many people were creating performance support systems without calling it that. The advent of packaged software for consumers required a PS approach since it would hardly be cost-effective to send tutors home with people using TurboTax and Will Maker.

Improved productivity at lower cost is a compelling proposition. Practitioners attended annual EPSS conferences. Large companies and government agencies implemented EPSS. Some traditional training firms feared that EPSS might put them out of business.

Then the cheering stopped. EPSS were not a cure-all. Unless it was tightly baked into an application from the get-go, EPSS required continual maintenance. Few people considered themselves EPSS designers. Modifying EPSS took scarce programming skills. EPSS did not have a home in the typical organization structure.

EPSS runs counter to the traditional goals of IT. IT is more concerned with technical performance: response time, hardware utilization, and throughput; EPSS focuses on the user. IT develops an application and is done with it; EPSS requires perpetual updating to stay abreast of changes in the job environment.

Marc Rosenberg, author of E-learning, former ISPI president, and an early proponent of performance support, describes EPSS as “an enormous opportunity overlooked by the training community.” EPSS is not training, isn’t developed with the ADDIE model, and has been eclipsed by the new kid on the block: eLearning.

EPSS became homeless and slipped off the corporate radar.

Enterprise Performance Support

Bob Mager was the guru of instructional design in the late seventies. His Designing Instructional Objectives and Analyzing Performance Problems were the gold standard of clear thinking, behaviorism, and the discipline required to get government contracts.

“Could he do it if you held a gun to his head?” If the answer is yes, you don’t have a training problem, you have a motivation problem.

Bob saw training as a last resort, chosen only after exhausting all the other possibilities. His thinking meshed with Gloria’s, but he didn’t confine his applications to technical training.

Gloria had started by training staff to use computers; designing performance support into the job was necessarily “e.” Bob built his models to cover any performance problem; his performance support often resided on a piece of paper.

In October 2004, Gloria and I jointly delivered the keynote at Training Fall in San Francisco. It was her last pubic presentation before going into retirement. Our topic was enterprise performance support. We noted that “Business issues around getting to performance are enormous. It takes too long, costs too much, is inconsistent and becoming increasingly difficult due to churn, complexity, and learner differences. We made the learner responsible for integrating and organizing information, and that focused effort on learning, not doing.” And since then, performance support has again fallen off the CLO’s watch list.

Judgment Support

Loretta Donovan, an expert in Appreciative Inquiry and similar group processes who coincidentally went to high school with Gloria, points to the shift of PS from rote tasks to decision-making. Maybe we should call it “Judgment Support”

Earlier generation performance support was most easily applied to non-creative, routine tasks. That meant the architect of the support system or tools could assess the challenges typically met and engineer the support aids, collect more data on where performance stumbled, add support aids, and so on. The user (an individual) was a passive participant in the process, albeit eventually benefiting from the help. That may still make a lot of sense if we are supporting the call center at LL Bean during the Holiday rush.

Learning, and now work, are increasingly collaborative. What’s the opportunity for collaborative performance support? Loretta Donovan again:

…collaborative performance support could be within a formal team or project, or a less structured work situation. What I am envisioning is real time communication, generated by the ‘performer’, using online tools. So a task is being performed, and in an effort to improve/enhance/problem solve, etc, a question is posed electronically: “who’s the expert on this? what should I watch out for? do you have a record of? can I borrow the template for?” This moves the issue from the individual performer being ‘watched for errors’ and suffering their consequences, to the performer as collaborator initiating the network of collective intelligence towards continuous improvement.

Learnscape Architecture

Today, the greatest leverage in corporate learning comes from building on-going, largely self-sustaining learning processes. This process orientation focuses on the organization’s architecture for learning, a platform a level above its training programs and regulated events. The learnscape is a foundation for learning that is self-service, spontaneous, serendipitous, drip-fed, and mentored as well as the formal training that will always be with us.

People who read my book on Informal Learning generally agreed that most learning at work is informal but that most corporate investment goes into formal learning. “But what can we do about it?” they asked. Learnscape Architecture is my answer to their question.

Knowledge workers are responsible for their own learning. Instead of taking whatever was pushed at them, they pull in what they need to know in the form that seems most appropriate. Knowledge workers are their own instructors. They are also their own instructional designers. And they are becoming their own PS consultants. The challenge presented to Learnscape Architects is making self-service learning simply, relevant, attractive, and cost-effective.

Performance Support Reborn

Performance support is blossoming in organizations today under the label of Web 2.0.

Remember the original premise of PS, making information available to workers instead of forcing them to memorize it? That’s how we use Google and corporate wikis and instant messenger.

Gloria sought easy, immediate, individualized on-line access to information, software, guidance, advice and assistance. Learnscape architects have implemented miniature versions of the internet behind corporate firewalls that provide all of these things, from peer-rated FAQs to wizards, on-line help desks, and best practices repositories.

We have given up the idea that competence must exist within the person. Competence exists within our collaborators and within the net. George Siemens and others have given up on the idea that knowledge resides within individuals’ heads; it’s collective intelligence.

The information, rules, and knowledge that used to be spread all over the place can often be found by the in-house Google Appliance. What used to be out of reach is now a keystroke away.

A powerful form of performance support is asking someone who knows. Expertise locators direct workers to the person most likely to have the answer they seek. Presence awareness software shows whether that person is online, mobile, in a meeting, or available by phone. Instant messaging facilitates swapping brief questions or asking if the person has time to deal with a more complex question.

Overall, what are corporate blogs, feeds, aggregators, wikis, mash-ups, locator systems, collaboration environments, and widgets, if not performance support?

Ten years ago, at the Online Learning Conference in Anaheim, Gloria declared that “Training will be strategic or training will be marginalized.” Most chief learning officers chose the second option and ceded PS to others.

It is high time for CLOs to start looking at the entire learnscape. We are overdue to be mindful that in terms of effectiveness, performance support often trumps training. As Gloria said,

Learning must be re-conceived to influence the primary purpose of organization: to perform effectively and efficiently. Good design puts what workers need to do their jobs within easy reach and shows how to use them to optimize performance.


Jay Cross and Tony O’Driscoll, Workflow Learning Gets Real, Training Magazine. February 2005.

Gloria Gery, Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and Why to Remake the Workplace Through the Strategic Application of Technology. 1991.


Conversations and correspondence with Gloria Gery, Marc Rosenberg, Allison Rossett, Jeathr Rutherford, Stan Malcolm, Gary Dickelman, Burt Huber, Hal Christensen, Frank Nguyen, Clark Quinn, Harold Jarche, Loretta Donovan, Buthaina Al-Othman, Allison Anderson, Jim Schuyler, Harvey Singh, and Karyn Romeis.

An excerpt from Learnscape Architecture

Gloria Gery

Volume 44 Number 8 September 2005

In Her Own Words: Gloria Gery on Performance

by Tony O’Driscoll and Jay Cross

Fortunate are we who have been inspired by a true visionary. Gloria Gery profoundly shaped the beliefs and work practice us both. As Gloria moves on to developing schools in Nepal and tending failure-to-thrive babies in Romania, we want to acknowledge her work and share her a few of her insights.

Gloria has a knack for diving into a complicated performance issues only to point out what should have been obvious to the rest of us with concise, provocative, and often humorous language. Whenever we heard Gloria speak over the years, we’ve taken notes, and those notes are the source of the quotations that follow.

Our First Exposure

Tony: I ran across Gloria’s book, Electronic Performance Support Systems in early 1994. The first fifty-one pages obliterated all of my paradigms regarding the role of training in organizations. My synapses were rewired and my mental model of learning and performance was forever altered. Throughout my career, Gloria’s insights on performance-centered design and electronic support have continued to be invaluable. Had I not been exposed to her insights, I would not have had as much success in helping organizations perform more effectively.

Jay: The first time I heard Gloria’s name was a dozen years ago when my company’s chairman showed me a copy of Electronic Performance Support Systems and announced that EPSS spelled the death of the training industry as we knew it. Of course, that didn’t happen. The ideas were right but ahead of their time. Now, at long last, technology is catching up with Gloria’s vision. Her concept of intrinsic EPSS was the forerunner of Workflow Learning, and I was delighted when Gloria accepted our nomination to become the first fellow of the Workflow Institute. The first time I heard Gloria speak, seven years ago, she provided the mantra of my efforts, “Training will either be strategic or it will be marginalized.”

Now it’s time to hear from Gloria, in her own words. Our comments are italicized, the rest is pure Gloria.Systems Design, Training and Performance Support

In her early days at Aetna, Gloria saw workers struggling with arcane, data-centric mainframe systems. The default solution to their frustration was training and documentation. Training Band-Aids designed to camouflage poor interface design. Ironically, the training often cost a lot more than designing the application for performance in the first place.

Most of our existing systems were designed to function in a paradigm of scarcity where each organization unit developed process and applications based on its own history. This parochial approach to work system design has yielded an increasingly disjointed and unintuitive work context for the employee.

Most of our training is compensatory for bad system design and help desks are the balloon payment on poor system design. If we have to teach people how to use a system, it wasn’t designed right in the first place. Why do we have training that teaches useless jargon? Why should we have to live with error messages like ‘File sharing illegal error?’ Look at the evolution of a program like TurboTax. Simplify, simplify.

Learning must be reconceived to influence the primary purpose of organization: to perform effectively and efficiently. We must give up the idea that competence must exist within the person and expand our view that whenever possible it should be built into the situation. What workers need to do their jobs – information, rules, and knowledge – is often spread all over the place. Good design puts these things within easy reach and shows how to use them to optimize performance.

The emergence of a new discipline such as electronic performance support often starts when a few people are frustrated with the mismatch between their needs and traditional approaches to filling them. The purpose of performance support is to help people do what they need to get done, we need to provide whatever is necessary to generate performance and learning at the moment of need.

We don’t need new technology, we just need new thinking. We must fuse learning and doing to enable immediate performance with minimal external support.

On Getting to the Performance Zone

One of Gloria’s key concepts is the performance zone.

The performance zone is the metaphorical area in which things come together. It is the place where people get it, where the right things happen, where the employee’s response exactly matches the requirements of the situation.

In any learning experience, there is always that moment where you ‘get it.’ How do we accelerate people’s arrival at that moment? There are two contexts for doing this: in courses, or while working. Courses lack authenticity as they are separated from the work context. In too many organizations, users are bouncing between multiple systems to get one task done. How can we configure the interface layer to structure the processes and provide in-context learning because THAT is the teachable moment we are always looking for?

The goal of performance-centered design is to institutionalize best practice on an ongoing basis, all of the time, by the least capable of performers: to enable people who don’t know what they are doing to function it as if they did.

First Know the Work

About 80 percent of what people learn to perform effectively happens on the job and yet we continue to dismiss it as informal learning.

People don’t deal in subjects, they deal in work. The unifying schema or context for performance-centered design is work.

We must learn to look at the reality of people trying to get through the day. We must reflect deeply on the way work presents itself to the user and build our systems on the metaphors that are connected to the work context itself. The context is the workflow, and the content is what the user needs to perform work within that context.

Today our analytical approaches yield a sterilized view of work, not a real one. We have to understand the work that people do. Most of all, we have to be able to sit in the learner’s chair, to find out how the work comes at them. We need to understand what really goes on.

We need to put the real truth into our training. Courses are necessary but not sufficient. We must have a strategy. Architecture is a part of it. Courses are a part of it. But we must understand people, how they learn, how they collaborate, how inquiry teaches, how we learn from observing models.

Performance Support focuses on work itself while training focuses on the learning required to do the work. Integrating resources in the workplace is inevitable, and the need is urgent. Filtering resources so people get the tools and resources they need while actively working is the goal. Work process and roles are the primary filters. The mechanisms vary: portals, performance-centered workflow interfaces, enterprise applications, integration projects, etc, but what’s important is that performer be able to name that tune in one note, to perform in exemplary fashion.

The common thread for the learning and performance support communities is this: How do we get people what they need at the moment of need, and what form should it be in?

Learning’s New Role in Enabling Performance

As learning and performance come together to address the pressing issues of the enterprise, we must challenge our conventional wisdom about how we ply our trade.

We conceive of learning as an event in which we fill people up in advance with enough information to survive on the job. Instead we must emphasize learning as an outcome of performance, not a precondition to it, and we must strive to limit the amount of learning as a precondition to doing.

To do so will require that we act not on what we know, but on what is known. We must avoid defining the performance problem too narrowly to tackle what we already know how to do. We should focus on how we design a job for day one performance, not how we leverage technology to automate training

In our pursuit of solutions we have assumed that our future should be an extension of our past. What’s wrong with this scenario is that we are applying radically different technological alternatives to old frameworks without reexamining their underlying assumptions and structures.

If the effort to learn is greater than the time available at the moment of need, you will lose the employee. Instead of making an effort to learn, they will make it up.

We need to leverage technology to enable new learning structures, not automate training.

We should not default to prior mental models, but instead give up on the viability of the old point of view. The goal of establishing day one performance is not hard to do it is hard to get done. It will live or die on the political issues within the organization.

Workflow Learning

Many people have equated EPSS with Workflow Learning. While they are certainly kin, they are not twins.

How the context has changed… is changing… will either r

ender us irrelevant or make us more critical. How can we proceed to have more leverage in what we do? Workflow is one way for us to better integrate what we do with people’s lives. The computer-mediated context IS the workflow context. People are willing to accept less at the moment of need if it is focused and relevant.

One of the questions I hear is, ‘How is Workflow Based learning different from performance support?’ Well, this is performance support on steroids – magnified, with a much higher impact. The workflow is the context, the magic filter through which we will be able to filter content, against which we have to compare default tactics. There will always be instructor-led training, but there will be far less of it than the workplace learning resources.

Here’s a definition: Workflow is a sequence of activities that a person has to do to achieve defined desirable goals and results specific to the condition. Deliverables, solutions, decisions… Filters are needed to screen out the irrelevant and bring to the fore the things that are relevant. The workflow is the best default filter for all data. A fusion of learning and doing is on the way

JAY: A little while ago, I blogged that humankind is awakening to the realization that everything’s connected. The point of learning is to prosper within our chosen communities, to optimize the quality of one’s connections to one’s networks. However, many people have failed to change the default settings their personal firewalls came with, even though their factory-installed settings haven’t been upgraded since 1 million B.C.

Gloria thoughtfully replied, “Almost worse than the default settings that are millions of years old are the cultural, political, ethnic and religious settings we were given in our early lives. They, of course, reflect the biases of prior generations and, in my experience, no longer fit in a globalized world. They limit us from more than learning. Rather, they limit us as people interacting as humans with other people. Our networks must go way beyond the filters that sift out important other people — or have us judge them by trivial attributes.”

TONY: As we were chatting at the Workflow Symposium, Gloria commented she really believed that new technologies such as second generation portals and business process modeling finally provided us with the ability to enable the integrated performance at the workflow layer as she had had originally envisioned it more than 15 years ago.

Thanks to technology, the promise of Gloria’s performance centered vision moves ever closer to becoming reality. But the change management issues are where performance-centered design will live or die. My own goal is work tirelessly on these issues to make Gloria Gery’s performance-centered vision the status-quo in creating workware for the On-Demand Enterprise.

We sincerely hope that Gloria inspires you as she has us.

To sponsor a child in Romania, contact Global Volunteers at http://www.globalvolunteers.org/1main/romania/children/romania_children.htm

Performance Support

I can doodle, I can diagram, but I never learned to draw. At least, I can’t draw well. Trust me on this. It’s not learned helplessness. Drawing is absent from my genetically inherited mental macro library.

Actually, I lied when I said I never learned to draw. I should have said I never learned to draw without help. I just finished this portrait. It took about 10 minutes.

My performance support tool was a cool web-based application called Mr. Picassohead. (Try it.)

Check out the whole gallery.

Imagine having a console like this for doing your work. Zounds.

Steve Jobs reputably had a graphic on his office wall at NeXT that said that the least efficient means of transportion among mammals was a human walking. The most efficient? A human riding a bicycle.