The quick-and-easy definition of a job aid is something you use on the job to tell you what to do and when to do it, so you don’t have to memorize the information.
Job aids often struggle against what Tom Gilbert called the great cult of knowledge. How many times have you heard performance dismissed with, “He had to look it up?” A senior executive at Amtrak resisted the use of job aids for the reservation system because people “are supposed to know this stuff.”
Fortunately for the ticket and reservation agents, that view didn’t prevail. For what was the new reservation, we produced 137 separate job aids. One of those, for the “availability” command (used to check schedules), hads seven optional parts and 288 possible ways to combine them.
So the question’s not “how does a person learn this entry?” It’s “how does a person do the job?” Job aids offload some of the alleged learning (memorization) so people can accomplished useful results.
Learning by doing
Yes, some on-the-job performance should be virtually automatic. If you’re an Amtrak reservation agent, you used the availability entry a lot–but not all 288 forms. As you worked, you came to memorize five or ten combinations that suited the requests you handled most often.
You relied on the job aid for the oddball requests. Or you used the standard entry because you’d learned there are only two trains on the route in question, and they’d appear in response to any of the 288 combinations. (This knowledge, by the way, is a heuristic.)
So one of the functions of a job aid is to serve as training wheels. Job aids guide the novice so that he produces results similar to those of an expert without having to internalize all the knowledge the expert has.
Repeated successful use of the job aid is reinforcing on two levels. First, you come to trust the job aid; later, you tend to incorporate the job aid’s guidance into your own repetory of skill. You don’t need the job aid any more, because you’ve learned the task through on-the-job performance.
What not to learn
In some cases, though, the organization doesn’t want you to learn the task. Usually, that means there are high consequences to incorrect performance. We really don’t want you making a mistake because you relied on your memory. Another reason to avoid memorization: the task frequently changes. Instead of trying to teach you the new way once a month, the organization wants you to rely on the job aid.
Job aids used like this–think of an airline’s preflight checklist–are a kind of guard rail. The job aid protects you from incorrect or unsafe performance. (In addition, the organization needs to foster reliance on the job aid, in part to overcome the I-know-this-stuff attitude.)
In the photo above, the bicylist has training wheels to help her learn the basics of riding. The bridge she’s crossing is wide enough for people to cross without having to have railings–but the risk of someone falling is far greater than the cost of having those railings.
The railings are like performance support built into the overall system. Long ago at Amtrak, if someone wanted to travel from Detroit to San Diego, you had to know that the trip required a change of trains in Chicago and in Los Angeles. The computer system couldn’t figure that for you. So lots of training time went into “route structure.”
Today, while it’s helpful for an Amtrak agent to have a mental model of the routes, she can enter a request with just the origin and destination cities. Route structure and sensible connections are now built into the reservation system. If the passenger wants to go by way of San Francisco, the agent can modify the entry (possibly with the help of a job aid) to get the system to figure this alternate route.
Guard rails, training wheels: they both help you get where you want to go.