Job aid

Nov 132012
 

MomAs a girl from a small town in Nova Scotia, my mother had to go a long way for her professional development. It’s 1,200 miles (and they were miles back then, not kilometers) from Inverness to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where she did her nurse’s training, just before the outbreak of World War II.

Apart from a belated recognition of Remembrance Day, the Canadian term for what the U.S. calls Veterans Day, it’s as good a way as any to mention Toronto (known in the Victoria era as “Toronto the Good,” for its alleged  propriety). I spent a week there recently at the CSTD Conference there and led a session called Building Job Aids: How, When, Why.

I have some biases regarding job aids.

One is that an awful lot of people who call themselves instructional designers like to design instruction. So they write objectives and plan activities and encourage discovery and structure experiences. Some of them go on to embalm these things in SCOs. All in pursuit of that elusive transfer of learning.

A corollary to that bias: it never seems to occur to some of these people to not design instruction. For example, they don’t create job aids. They don’t see job aids as a way of reducing or eliminating the need for formal training, nor as a tool that people use on the job and thus should practice using during formal training.

Instead, job aids get crammed to the back of the cognitive closet, next to the icebreakers and under the smile sheets. Besides, you can’t track job aid use in an LMS, so how good can they really be?

Job aid for when the chips are down

Guys: if people don’t use it on the job, it’s not a job aid.

I kid because I love. Actually, I kid because I’m puzzled by the non-use of so practical a tool. So, in part because I’d like to make myself better known in Canada, I created a session that I thought would appeal to people who’d thought about job aids, or wondered about them, and who were interested in finding out if job aids made sense for the workplace problems they grapple with.

I included lots of examples of job aids, which I’ve been adding to my show-and-tell blog, Dave’s Ensampler. I included an exercise in which people would describe to a partner some task they knew about, with the listener assessing that task’s suitability to job-aiding using questions that I’ve discussed here before (When to Build a Job Aid).

What I did not do was to first walk them through–which, let’s face it, often means talk them through–that process. Given their likely backgrounds, people in my session were likely capable of putting a decent job aid to use on their own.

So: this allowed more time for the exercise, since I wasn’t going on about the exercise. Second, it provided a clear albeit small demonstration of a job aid taking the place of instruction. If people could get through the task-assessing exercise without my telling them how, even though they hadn’t made this sort of analysis before, then it’s pretty clear you don’t have to train people just because you’ve uncovered a skill-and-knowledge gap.

We discussed the decision questions afterward, and if you can imagine such a thing, there was very little puzzlement or confusion about what goes into the decision and why.

So then I did talk a bit, showing how a good task analysis is whispering very loudly that certain tasks would be great to job-aid. My experience is that this would be a new concept to many, so I demonstrated with a short example, and using that example showed some features common to all job aids.

At that point, we went into a second hands-on exercise. The day before my presentation, I created this as a replacement for what I’d originally planned to do. As I had been rehearsing, I felt that people weren’t getting enough opportunity to do things for themselves.

Why not have them try to create a decision table?  From the web site of the Superior Court for King County, Washington, I copied instructions on how to file for a protection order (an anti-harassment protection order, a domestic violence protection order, and so on). I chose this topic to emphasize that  job aids can apply to important real life tasks and not just to refunding a store purchase.

Participants started with a set of descriptions (created by me based on the court’s actual guidelines), along with a job aid for creating decision tables. For an exercise at 4:15 in the afternoon, less than an hour before conference-sponsored drinks and snacks, people seemed very engaged–lots of talk within the table groups, not too many obvious signs of boredom or frustration.

Thanks to comments from participants both in the session and afterward, there are changes I’ll make. My original thought was that I needed to add a detailed demonstration before the exercise. A week later, though, I think that’s just my internal instructor dying to explain something again.

Instead what I’m going to create  is a better  job aid for how to build a decision table once you’ve analyzed a task like choosing which protection order a person needs. I think an example–a model of building such a table–makes a lot of sense, and it too will probably be a handout.

In other words:

  • Provide details for the task that’s going to be job-aided
  • Provide guidance in drafting a decision-based job aid
  • Provide the least amount of description / explanation / instruction possible

Then, get out of the way. Let people work with the tools. Let those synapses fire. Stand ready to respond to questions or comments, with the aim of helping people come to their own answer.

I’m grateful to CSTD for accepting my proposal, and I’m indebted to the people who participated in the job aids session. Thanks to them, I’m putting together what I think of as a workbench (rather than a workshop): an engagement of three days or so in which I work with clients to build up job aid skills and immediately apply them to real work challenges. I’ll act as a guide in the skill area and as a coach for the client’s own efforts to build job aids.

CC-licensed photo by Carlos Almendarez.

Oct 312012
 

I’m in Toronto this week, at the Canadian Society for Training and Development’s conference. (On Thursday I’m giving a session: Using Job Aids: How, When, Why.)

I’ve been wanting for some time to rethink how I present examples of job aids, and after some experimentation at Whiteboard Labs, I’m launching Dave’s Ensampler.

“Ensample” is an archaic word with the same root as “example.” A long time ago, I saw a collection of organizing diagrams that Sivasailam Thiagarajam made, giving them the title An Ensampler of Hierarchical Information.

The job aids at the Ensampler have more consistent tagging, and I have a page that automatically displays the titles by category.  This is new, and it’s a work in progress–for example, I’m trying out a way to have a tab in the menu here at the Whiteboard link directly to the Ensampler.  If that works (or works well enough) I’ll put a similar tab up at the Ensampler to teleport back here.

Let me know what you think.

Jun 282012
 

There’s this:

Blended learning

“Stir the mixture well / Lest it prove inferior…”

And there’s this:

Blended learning and job aids

“…then put half a drop / Into Lake Superior.”

Even conceding that many of the “blended learning” hits are from formal education (schools, academia), it’s a little depressing that only 3% of them mention job aids. I personally doubt it’s because everyone uses job aids. It’s almost as if developers, yearning to produce ever-more-engrossing courses, are blind to this kind of performance support.

This is closely related to what Cathy Moore says in the opening minute of the following clip:

And here, at 4%… is what is possibly the least expensive and most effective approach [for blended learning]: on-the-job training tasks. Apparently we are still stuck in the mindset that training is a course.

The clip actually covers a lot of territory in six minutes, including realistic tasks, application, relevant examples, and so on, but I want to focus here on the aspect of figuring out how not to train — or, more accurately, how to not train. Cathy demonstrates the use of “a mega job aid” to enable on-the-job learning. This is her term for combining a job aid (which stores information or guidance so you don’t have to remember it) with instruction (which tells you how to apply what’s in the job aid to a specific task).

How do you know it’s a job aid?

  • It’s external to the individual.
  • It reduces the need to memorize.
  • People use it on the job.
  • It enables accomplishment.

I asked Cathy for some comments about job aids.

“Before designing formal training, consider whether a job aid is all you need.”

Here, she’s asking what makes you think you need formal training for X?  Is there another way to help people accomplish the desired result?

“If you decide training is necessary, make sure the job aids are top-notch, and consider having the ‘course’ teach people how to use the job aids.”

It’s not a job aid if you don’t use it while you’re performing the task. So if you build a job aid but find that people need to practice using it, that practice should be like on-the-job use.  They’re not going to be doing the real-world task from within the LMS (unless, poor devils, their real-work job is managing the LMS). Embalming a job aid inside a course is like disabling an elevator in hopes that people will learn how to get from the 3rd to the 9th floor without “cheating.”

“Don’t duplicate the job aid info in the course.”

  Part of the decision about whether to build a job aid involves the nature of the task. Among the considerations:

How likely is it that the task will change?

The likelier it is that the task will change (and thus that the steps for accomplishing it will change), the more sense it makes to build a job aid — and the less sense it makes to duplicate the job aid inside a formal course.

Instead, as part of your formal training, use the same job aid people will use on the job. And figure out how to make updates easily available.

No matter what learning management ideology claims, there are only three kinds of people who return to an online course for reference information:

  • People who work for the vendor.
  • Actors appearing in the vendor’s materials.
  • People on the job who are really bored or really desperate.

Because she involves herself with what people actually do on the job, Cathy has some inexpensive yet highly effective ideas about where to get started:

To evaluate and improve job aids, physically visit learners’ work stations and look around. What support materials have people created for themselves? Often someone on the job has already created a good job aid and you just need to “borrow” it.

Even if it’s a less-than-ideal job aid, the fact that someone’s created it and is using it suggests both that the task is important and that people feel the need for support as they’re carrying out the task. That’s one heck of a head start, and you haven’t had to create a single “at the end of this training program” statement.

Jun 132012
 

Dave Child, a web developer in the UK, is a a creator and an advocate of cheat sheets — his term for quick reference guides.  He’s also the founder of Cheatography, a site which helps people create and share cheat sheets.

I’ll write more about Cheatography in a future post.  For now, I want to show one of his creations, the PHP Cheat Sheet (link is to a PDF version).

Image links to http://www.cheatography.com/davechild/cheat-sheets/php/pdf/

Who uses this job aid?

PHP is “a general-purpose server-side scripting language” used to produce dynamic web pages. The person using this cheat sheet is most likely competent in working with PHP.  Not that a neophyte can’t benefit at all, but such a person probably lacks a good deal of helpful context.

What’s the task it supports?

This is an example of what I call a reference job aid.  It doesn’t guide a specific task, the way the fire-shelter inspection guide does. Instead, it organizes certain information in a way that’s helpful in a number of different but related situations: often a quick look at the job aid is sufficient. You aren’t sure of the code if you want a long month name (“September”) versus a short one (Sep).  Or you want to check the syntax of a regular expression function.  So you go to the cheat sheet.

(Tangent: In my experience, organizations that frown on terms like “cheat sheet” aren’t usually strongholds of effective on-the-job support.  All the more so if the people doing actual work refer to their quick reference materials as cheat sheets–and wouldn’t dream of letting someone take them away.)

One challenge in creating a reference job aid is deciding what information to include (and what to deliberately leave out) and how to organize it. The PHP cheat sheet uses boxes and subtitles as an organizing principle. Here’s Dave Child’s own description of how he came up with the first version:

I wrote the first one waaaaay back in 2005 because I was visiting the PHP manual so often for the same information. I’d started printing pages from the manual and jotting notes down all over my desk, and eventually decided this was just silly and organised all the notes into one page. The layout wasn’t really planned at that point.

This is the way a lot of job aids begin, especially ones for reference: people note the things that are helpful to them, but that they don’t seem to remember.  If you’re looking to support the performance of others, spend some time trying to find out what’s on homebrew job aids.  They may not have the best design; they may even include errors or misconceptions. But they invariably highlight information that the person (a) sees as important and (b) has trouble keeping in memory.

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.