Performance support is a timeless concept, but a relatively new term. It is a long-standing convention for trainers to provide participants with handouts and other job aids, to help them to recall the key lessons from a course. These provide a friendlier alternative to the procedures manuals which most organisations provide to their employees. In 1991, Gloria Gery published Electronic Performance Support Systems – a “bold new vision for the modern workplace.” She claimed that “We now have the means to provide employee support electronically – and to make it universally and consistently available on demand at any time, in any place, without unnecessary intermediaries.”
Gloria was perhaps a little ahead of her time, but there is now no realistic obstacle to the provision of high-quaity performance support materials electronically. The reach of these materials has been dramatically increased with developments in mobile devices, which are now capable of providing something approaching desktop computing power in the palm of your hand.
Allison Rossett and Lisa Schafer make a number of useful distinctions between different types of performance support materials:
- Sidekicks or planners
- Stand-alone or embedded support
- Generic or tailored support
Sidekicks are with us in our work, as we act; they are called upon during a challenge. Sidekicks provide information, reminders, directions and warnings, right when they are needed. Sidekicks can be contrasted with planners, which are called upon just before or after a challenge. When referred to before performance, they provide information that helps clarify what is to be done or what will happen. When used after performance, they provide information to help you reflect on success and plan for future adjustments or improvements.
Stand-alone performance support materials exist independently of the software or other environments in which tasks are carried out, but provide employees with information they need to carry out specific tasks. Examples could include:
- A trouble shooting guide that helps service technicians to identify and repair equipment.
- A human resources guide that provides information and advice needed to ensure HR practices comply with applicable laws.
- A guide that helps machine operators set up equipment on the factory floor for optimum working conditions.
These can be contrasted with embedded performance support, primarily found in software, in which there is no distinction between an application and the support material. The software interface is designed in such a way that it provides the necessary guidance through work tasks and delivers the appropriate information and advice when, where, and how the employee needs it. With this type of performance support, the designer of the materials works closely together with the software developer. Examples could include:
- A system used by customer support representatives that helps them take and track customer orders. The software supports the process by providing a road map of the key steps, with relevant advice and guidance for each step, and provides assistance with searching for answers to questions commonly asked by customers.
- A production management system to help engineers plan and schedule production. The system structures the planning system, providing background conceptual knowledge on key planning concepts integrated with step-by-step instructions for creating a manufacturing schedule.
Generic support is the same regardless of who you are. It knows nothing about your particular situation and makes no adjustments as a result. Generic support is clearly easier to provide, but is not always going to deliver exactly what you want.
Tailored support is fashioned around your needs. At a relatively simple level this may mean that the support is context-sensitive, i.e. it depends on what you’re doing at the time. At a more sophisticated level, the support may take the form of a decision aid or expert system that responds to information that you provide or data that the system has been gathering about you. Perhaps the most tailored support will be human, in the form of a help desk call or a response to a forum posting.
Performance support materials are:
- at their best when clear and concise, regularly maintained, well supported by visual media, embedded, tailored;
- best avoided when lengthy and laborious, hard to access, inaccurate, poorly laid out.
Electronic Performance Support Systems by Gloria Gery, Ziff Institute, 1991.
Job Aids & Performance Support by Alison Rossett & Lisa Schafer, Pfeiffer, 2007.