Improving performance

Doing more than “training”

Jul 112012

Thanks to David Glow, whose mention of it I happened to notice on Twitter last night, I found a blog post by Steve Flowers that I hadn’t seen: Just a Nudge–Getting into Skill Range. He’s talking about skill, mastery, and the (ultimately futile) “pursuit of instructional perfection.”

Steve starts with a principle from law enforcement: only apply the minimum force necessary to produce compliance.  (This is why those “speed limit enforced by aircraft” signs rarely mean “cops in helicopter gunships”). Then he works on a similar principle for, as he puts it, instruction performance solutions.”

Trying to design training / instruction for skill mastery can hinder–or defeat–the learning process, he says. That’s because mastery, in whatever form reasonable people would define it, is likely the outcome of a long period of practice, reflection, and refinement.

“Mastery” sounds good, which is why the corporate world is hip-deep in centers of excellence and world-class organizations.  A lot of the time, though, “world-class” is a synonym for “fine,” the way you hear it at the end of a TV commercial: “available at fine stores everywhere.”  Meaning, stores that sell our stuff.

He’s not saying there’s no place for formal learning, nor for a planned approach to helping people gain skill.  What he is saying is that we need “to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment.

Most of the time, we don’t need mastery on the job, he says, and I agree.  We do need competence, which is what I believe he means by helping the performer move into a “skill range” — meaning the performer has the tools to figure out a particular problem or task.

From a blog post by Steve Flowers
(Click image to view his post.)

I’ve been mulling some related ideas for some time but hadn’t figured out how to even start articulating them. One theme has to to with the role of job aids and other performance support–things that Steve believes strongly in. I despair at the server farms full of “online learning” that shows (and show), and tells (and tells and tells) while failing to offer a single on-the-job tool.

Listen: the only people who’ll “come back to the course” for the embedded reference material are (a) the course reviewers, (b) the utterly bored, and (c) the utterly desperate.

A second theme has to do with the two different kinds of performance support that van Merriënboer and Kirshner talk about in Ten Steps to Complex Learning. In their terminology, you have:

  • Procedural information: this is guidance for applying those skills that you use in pretty much the same way from problem to problem.  That’s the heart of many job aids: follow this procedure to query the database, to write a flood-insurance policy for a business, or to update tasks in the project management system. You can help people learn this kind of information through demonstration, through other presentation strategies, and through just-in-time guidance.
  • Supportive information: as vM&K say, this is intended to bridge the gap between what learners already know, and what they need to know, to productively apply skills you use differently with different problems.  “Updating the project management system” is procedural; “deal with the nonperforming vendor” is almost certainly a different problem each time it arises.  (That’s why Complex Learning uses the somewhat ungainly term “non-recurrent aspects of learning tasks.”) Types of supportive information include mental models for the particular field or area, as well as cognitive strategies for addressing its problems.

As the complexity of a job increases, it’s more and more difficult to help people achieve mastery. That’s not simply because of the number of skills, but because of how they related, and because of the support required.

Rich learning problems

Part of the connection I see, thanks to Steve’s post, is that the quest for perfect instruction ignores both how people move toward mastery (gradually, over time, with a variety of opportunities and guided by relevant feedback). In many corporations and organizations, formal learning for most people gets squeezed for time and defaults to the seen-and-signed mode: get their names on the roster (or in the LMS) so as to prove that learning was had by all.

We focus on coverage, on forms, on a quixotic or Sisyphean effort to cram all learning objectives into stuff that boils down to a course. I’m beginning to wonder, frankly, whether any skill you can master is a course is much of a skill to begin with. At most, such a skill is pretty near the outer border on Steve Flowers’ diagram. So the least  variation from the examples in the course–different circumstances, changed priorities, new coworkers–may knock the performer outside the range of competence.

(Images adapted from photos of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway from Wikimedia Commons.)

Jun 112012

At the Innovations in e-Learning Symposium this week, Dan Bliton and Charles Gluck from Booz Allen Hamilton presented a session on “failure-triggered training.” I was really impressed by their description of a study that explored different approaches to reducing the risk of phishing attacks in a corporate setting. For one thing, as I told Charles immediately after the session, they invented the flip side of a job aid.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this post:

  • Their session description (from the symposium brochure)
  • My summary of the session, with a few excerpts from their presentation
    (I’ll repeat this link a few times in this post; all those links are for the same set of materials. You don’t need to click more than once.)
  • (At least) three implications for improving performance

The session description

Study Results: Failure-Triggered Training Trumps Traditional Training

We didn’t expect our highly interactive eLearning (that generated great post-test scores) to be completely ineffective in changing behaviors in the work environment! Could the same eLearning be made effective if delivered as failure-triggered training? Come learn the outcomes of a blind study of nearly 500 employees over nine months which analyzed multiple training approaches. The study shows that the same eLearning was significantly more effective when delivered as spaced events that employed learning at the point of realization. This combination of unannounced exercises and failure-triggered training (a See-Feel-Change approach) significantly reduced improper responses to phishing attacks by 36%.

I didn’t ask Bliton or Gluck about this, but “see-feel-change” seems related to what John Kotter talks about here: making a seemingly dry or abstract concept more immediate and concrete.

What I heard: BAH’s study

(Note: this is my own summary. I’m not trying to put words in their mouths, and may have misunderstood part of the session. If so, that’s my fault and not theirs.  In no way am I trying to take credit either for the work or for the presentation by Dan Bliton or Charles Gluck.)

The Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) study, involving 500 employees over 9 months, analyzed different training approaches to “phishing awareness.”  The training aimed at making employees aware of the risks of phishing attacks at work, with the goal of reducing the number of such attacks that succeed.

The study wanted to see whether interactive awareness training produced better results than static, page-turner training. In addition, the study used fault-triggered training, which Bliton and Gluck explain this way:

Unannounced, blind exercises [simulated phishing attacks] delivered in spaced intervals, combined with immediate, tailored remedial training provided only to the users that “fail” the exercises.

In other words, if you click on one of the fake phishing attempts, you immediately see something like this:

BAH phishing failure

BAH divided the study participants into three groups:

  • The control group received generic “training” about phishing that did not tell them how to respond to attacks.
  • The wiki group’s training consisted of a non-interactive pageturner, copied from a wiki.
  • The interactive group’s training included practice activities (how to identify likely phishing, how to respond).

In post-training comments, the Interactive group gave their training an overall score of 3.8 out of 5.  As the presenters noted somewhat ruefully, the Wiki group gave theirs 3.7  — and the control group gave theirs 3.4.  (See slide 11 in the presentation materials.)  The page-turning Wiki group actually felt better prepared to recognize phishing than the Interactive group.

Posttest questions indicated that 87.8% of the Wiki group and 95.6% of the Interactive group knew whom to notify if they spotted suspicious email.

From the response to the first simulated attack, however, Dan and Charles learned there was no significant difference between the three groups (Control, Wiki, Interactive) — nearly half the participants in each group clicked the link or replied to the email.

What happened next at BAH

Over six months, participants received three “exercises” (mock phishing attempts). “Failure” on these exercises consisted of either clicking an inappropriate link (producing an alert like the example above) or replying to the email — hence, “failure-triggered training.”

The study provide good data about actual performance, since it captured information like who clicked a link or replied to the simulated phishing.

Incorrect responses fell dramatically between the first and second exercises, and further still between second and third:

Booz Allen results from failure-triggered training

 Bliton and Gluck attribute this decrease to two main factors: the spaced-learning effect produced by the periodic exercises, and “learning at the point of realization,” since what you could think of as failure-feedback occurred just after someone responded inappropriately to what could have been an actual phishing attack.

If you’re familiar with ideas like Gottfredson and Mosher’s Five Moments of Need, which Connie Malamed summarizes nicely, this is #5 (“when something goes wrong”).

I’ve left out plenty; if you’ve found this description intriguing, take a look at their presentation materials. I can tell you that although Bliton and Gluck’s presentation at IEL12 had a relatively small audience, that audience really got involved: question, opinions, side conversations–especially striking at 4 o’clock on the last afternoon of the symposium.

What I thought, what I think

This approach is much more than training, in the sense of a structured event addressing some skill or knowledge need. I told Charles Gluck that it’s almost the flip side of a job aid.  A job aid tells you what to do and when to do it (and, of course, reduces the need to memorize that what-to-do, since the knowledge is embedded in the job aid).

At first I thought this approach was telling you what not to do, but that’s not quite right, because you just did what you shouldn’t have.  You can think of it  as being like a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), a special type of safety device for an electrical circuit.

GFCIs can respond to a problem too small for a circuit breaker to detect. So you’re blow-drying your hair, when click! the wall outlet’s GFCI trips, safely breaking the circuit and interrupting your routine.  Not only do you avoid a shock; you also have feedback (if you know about how GFCIs work) that you’d been at risk from electrical hazard.

In the same way, BAH’s mock-phishing exercise interrupts the flow of work. By following the interruption with immediate, relevant, concrete feedback, as well as an offer for further details via a brief training program, this short circuit is turned into a smart circuit.

Which to me opens the door to — let’s use a different term instead of “failure-triggered” — task-triggered performance support. Like a virtual coach, the BAH exercises detect whether I responded inappropriately and then help me not only to recognize and even practice what to do instead.

What I’m leaving out

This was a study and had limits.  For one thing, because of the failure-trigger, we don’t know much about the people who didn’t click on the phishing attempts: have they really mastered this skill, or did they just not happen to click on these trials?

There’s also some data about the best response (don’t click the link, do report the attempt), though the numbers seem very small to me.  (I don’t recall anyone asking about the details on this topic, so I could well be misunderstanding what the numbers represent).

BAH study: attempt reported

On the corporate-culture side, what happens within the organization?  Does this seem Orwellian?  Can the organization apply it as formative feedback intended to help me improve, or do I just end up feeling that Somebody’s Watching? I’d like to look for some data about the effects of retail mystery-shopper or secret-shopper programs, a similar activity that can seem either like trickery or like process improvement.

What about habituation? Will the effectiveness of this approach fade over time?

Most intriguing: can you harness this as a form of ongoing training?  For example, along with informing people about some new security threat, create and send out further exercises exemplifying such a threat. Their purpose would be to provide a kind of on-the-job batting practice, with “failure” producing two-part feedback (“You missed this security threat, which is…” “To find out more, do this…”).

Dan Bliton, Charles Gluck, and their colleagues have done more than make BAH more secure from phishing.  They’ve also shared a creative, practical experiment.


Feb 282012

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

The first two parts of this series, in one line each:

  • Is a job aid mandatory? If not, does speed or rate on the job prohibit the use of a job aid?
  • Do the characteristics of the task tell you that a job aid makes sense?

If they do, you might feel ready to leap right into design.  But in the real world, people don’t just perform a task; they work within a complex environment.  So the third part of your decision is to ask if any obstacles in that environment will hamper the use of a job aid.

Part 3: what obstacles does your job aid need to overcome?

You could ask these question in either order, but physical barriers are sometimes easier to address than social ones.

Often people have to work in settings where a job aid might be a hindrance or even a danger.  Someone repairing high-tension electrical lines, for example.  Or someone assembling or disassembling freight trains at a classification yard:

You don’t need to watch this video about humping railroad cars, but as the narrator points out around the 4:00 mark, in the distant past a worker would have to ride each car as gravity moved it down a manmade hill (the hump), applying the brake by hand if the car was moving faster than about 4 mph. It would have been impossible to give the brakeman a job aid for slowing the car, so his training (formal or otherwise) would have required lots of practice and feedback about judging speed.  And possible trial and error.

Amarillo by morning?

Texas highway map, 1936

Rather than develop impractical job aids for aspects of this set of tasks, modern railroads rely on computers to perform many of them.  For example, radar monitors the speed of cars more accurately than a person could, and trackside retarders act to moderate that speed.

Remember, the goal is not to use job aids; the goal is to produce better on-the-job results.  Sometimes you can do that by assigning difficult or repetitive tasks to machinery and automation.

In many cases, though, you can overcome physical obstacles to the use of a job aid  by changing its form.  No law requires a job aid to be on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch laminated piece of paper. Nor on the formerly ubiquitous, multifolded paper of a highway map.

A road map can support different kinds of tasks.  You can use it at a table to plan where you’re going to go, to learn about the routes.  No barriers to such use.  But for a person who’s driving alone, a paper road map is at best a sub-optimal support.  It’s hard to use the map while trying to drive through an unfamiliar area.

In a quarter mile, turn left

Deep in the heart of Oslo

Real-time support for the driver now includes geosynchronous satellites, wireless technology, a constantly updated computer display–and a voice.

That voice is transformative: it’s a job aid you don’t have to read. Because the GPS gives timely, audible directions, there’s no need to take your eyes off the road and decipher the screen.

Other examples of overcoming physical barriers: attach the job aid to equipment. Use visual cues, like a change of color as movement or adjustment gets closer to specification.  Combine audio with voice-response technology (“If the relay is intact, say ‘okay.’ If the relay is damaged, say ‘damaged.'”)

But he had to look it up!

Overcoming physical barriers is one thing.  Overcoming social barriers is…a whole bunch of things. Your job aid will fail if the intended performer won’t use it.

Popular culture places a great value on appearing to know things.  When someone turns to an external reference, we sometimes have an irrational feeling that she doesn’t know what she’s doing–and that she should.  In part, I think we’re mistaking retention of isolated facts with deep knowledge, and we think (reasonably enough) that deep knowledge is good.

Don't go off on the wrong track.At its worst, though, this becomes the workplace equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. A railroading example might be someone who can tell you not only the train numbers but the locomotive numbers that ran on a certain line decades ago–but who can’t issue you a ticket in a prompt, accurate, courteous manner.

The performer herself may be the person believing that performance guided by a job aid is somehow inferior.  Coworkers may hold it, putting pressure on the individual.  Even clients or other stakeholders may prefer not to see the performer using a job aid.

Maybe there’s a way around this bias.  The job aid could be embedded in a tool or application, such that the performer is merely applying one feature.  That’s essentially what a software wizard does.  Watch me turn this data into a chart–I just choose what I want as I go along.

(And doesn’t “choose what I want” sound much more on top of things than “look stuff up?”)

For a injection gun used for immunizations in third-world settings, healthcare workers occasionally had to make adjustments to clear jams and similar equipment glitches.  Some senior workers did not want to seem to need outside help to maintain their equipment, but couldn’t retain all the steps.  (Remember in Part 2?  Number of steps in task, complexity of steps?)  So the clearing instructions were attached to the equipment in such a way that the worker could follow the job aid while clearing the gun.

♦ ♦ ♦

The considerations here aren’t meant as either exhaustive or exclusive.  They are, however, important stops to make, a kind of reality check before you hit the on-ramp to job aid design.  The reason for building a job aid is to guide performance on the job while reducing the need for memorization, in order to achieve a worthwhile result.  If the performer can’t use it because of physical obstacles, or won’t use it because of social ones, the result will be… no result.


CC-licensed photos:
1936 Texas highway map by Justin Cozart.
Norwegian GPS by Stig Andersen.
1879 Michigan Central RR timetable from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Feb 272012

The Scrooge-O-Meter from LSS Financial Counseling Service is an example of a calculator job aid.  Calculators guide someone through a task by prompting for numerical values and performing calculations. The idea is to help a person reach some conclusion without having to master the factors or the math involved.

The Scrooge-O-Meter

(LSS Financial Counseling Service is part of the work of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.)

Who uses this job aid?

Most likely someone trying to learn the added financial burden of buying on credit.  (See additional thoughts from the group that created it, later in this post.)

What is the task supported?

I would say “awareness” or even “empowerment.”  The goal is to help someone understand the additional cost of purchasing on credit.  I filled in the numbers you see in this example.  The result says to me that “spreading out” credit payments for my holiday buying makes those purchases nearly 10% more expensive than I’d thought.

Notice that it doesn’t render judgment (“$68.72 extra?  Are you nuts?!?”).  The job aid simplifies the process so I can more readily see and understand the impact of buying on credit.  I’m free to make my own decisions about what to do next.

More about the Scrooge-O-Meter

LSS Financial Counseling Service wants consumers to know that they can turn to a national network of nonprofit financial counseling and debt management (FCS is a member of that network).  The page with the Scrooge-O-Meter offers a toll-free number, online counseling, a newsletter, and other resources.

Darryl Dahlheimer, program director of LSS Financial Counseling Service, was kind enough agree to its appearing here and also to provide these details:

There are many tools to help consumers calculate credit card repayment, but here are three reasons we like this one:

  1. It sets a playful tone, to overcome the shame/intimidation of finances for so many who feel “dumb about money” but want to learn.
  2. It helps make the true cost of using credit visible.  Plug in an example of buying that $500 iPad at a major store on their 21% interest credit card and then paying only the $15 minimum each month. You will pay a whopping $757 and take over four years to pay off.
  3. Conversely, it allows you to see the tangible benefits of paying more than minimums.


Feb 242012

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

The previous post in this series covered the initial go/no-go decisions: are you required to build a job aid?  Does a need for rate or speed make a job aid impractical?

If the answer in both cases is no, then you don’t have to build a job aid, yet there’s no reason not to (so far).  A good way forward at this point is to consider the characteristics of the real-world performance you have in mind.  This is related to though not the same as task analysis.  I have my own name for it:

What that means is: use what you know about the task to help determine whether building a job aid makes sense.  You can go about this in many ways, but the following questions quickly cover a lot of the territory.

♦ ♦ ♦

How often does someone perform the task?

“Often” is a relative term–in fact, most of the questions in Ask the Task are relative.  That doesn’t mean they’re not pertinent.  Asking “how frequent is frequent?” turns your attention to the context of the task and the people who typically carry it out.

Frequency isn’t the same thing as regularity.  Some tasks are frequent and predictable, like a weekly status update.  Some are more random, like handling a payment by money order.  And some are much more rare, like a bank teller in Vermont handling a money transfer from Indonesia.

Whether you end up building a job aid, designing training, or just tossing people into the deep end of the performance pool, you need some idea of how frequent “frequent” is, and where the specific task might fall along a job-relevant frequency scale.

Think about what frequency might tell you about whether to build a job aid.  Yes, now.  I’ll tell you more at the end of the post, but we both know you ought to do some thinking on your own, even if we both suspect few other people will actually do that thinking while they read this.

♦ ♦ ♦

How many steps does the task have?

It’s true, some tasks don’t really seem to have steps.  Or they have very few: look up the arguments for the HTML <br> tag.  And some tasks have so many that it might make sense to break them up into logical subgroups: setting up the thermoformer.  Testing the thermoformer.  Troubleshooting problems after the test.

Think of “step” as the lowest level of activity that produces a result that makes sense to the performer on the job.  If I’m familiar with creating websites, then “create a new domain and assign it to a new folder in the \public_html directory” might be two steps (or maybe even one).  If I’m not familiar with creating websites, I’m going to need a lot more steps.

That makes sense, because a job aid is meant to guide a particular group of performers, and the presumption is that they share some background.  If you have widely differing backgrounds, you might end up with two versions of a job aid–see the Famous 5-Minute Install for WordPress and the more detailed instructions.  Essentially, that’s two job aids: one for newcomers (typically with more support) and one for more experienced people.

As with frequency, you need to think about how many steps the task involves, and whether you think of those as relative few steps, or relatively many.

♦ ♦ ♦

How difficult are the steps?

You can probably imagine tasks that have a lot of steps but not much complexity.  For someone who’s used to writing and who has solid, basic word processing skills, writing a 25-page report has plenty of steps, but few of them are difficult (other than getting reviewers to finish their work on time).

In the same way, a task can have relatively few steps, but many of them can be quite difficult.

That’s the reason for two step-related considerations when you Ask the Task whether a job aid makes sense: how many? How hard?

Pause for a moment and think which way you’d lean: if the steps in a task are difficult, does that mean “job aid might work,” or does that mean “people need to learn this?”

♦ ♦ ♦

What happens if they do it wrong?

This question focuses on the consequences of performing the task incorrectly.  Whether a person has a job aid or not is immaterial–if you don’t perform correctly, what happens?  Personal injury? Costly waste or rework? Half an hour spent re-entering the set-up tolerances? Or simply “re-enter the password?”

As with the other questions, you need to think about the impart of error in terms of the specific job.  And, if you haven’t guessed already, about the relationship between that impact and the value of building a job aid.

♦ ♦ ♦

Is the task likely to change?

We’re not talking about whether the job aid will change, because we still haven’t figured out if we’re going to build one.  We’re talking about the task that a job aid might guide.  What are the odds the task will change?  “Change” here could include new steps, new standards, new equipment, a new product, and so on.

♦ ♦ ♦

Ask the task, and the job aid comes out?  Right!

You’ve probably detected a pattern to the questions.  So the big secret is this:

The more your answers tend to the right, the stronger the case for a job aid.

What follows is the 90-second version of why.  (As your read the lines, just add “all other things being equal” to each of them.)

  • The less frequently someone performs a task, the likelier it is that he’ll forget how to do it.  If you’re an independent insurance agent whose practice mostly involves homeowner’s and driver’s insurance, and you write maybe six flood insurance policies a year, odds are that’s not a task you can perform without support. Job aids don’t forget.
  • The more steps involved in the task, the more challenging it will be for someone to retain all those steps correctly in memory and apply them at the right time. Job aids: good at retention.
  • The more difficult the steps are, the harder the performer will find it to complete each step appropriately. A job aid can remind the performer of criteria and considerations, and even present examples.
  • The higher the impact of error, the more important it is for the performer to do the task correctly.  You certainly can train people to respond in such circumstances (air traffic control, emergency medical response, power-line maintenance) , but often that’s when the performance situation or the time requirement presses for such learning.  Otherwise, a well-designed job aid is a good way to help the performer avoid high-cost error.
  • The more changeable the task, the less sense it makes to train to memory.  Mostly that’s because when the change occurs, you’ll have to redo or otherwise work at altering how people perform.  If instead you support the likely-to-change task with job aids, you’re avoiding the additional cost of full training, and you mainly need to replace the outdated job aid with the new one.

Here are the ask-the-task questions, together once more:

Part 2: ask the task