Figuring things out (the plodding edition)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Figuring Things Out.

Here’s how Joe Harless helped me figure things out.

When I took his Job Aid Work Shop, he recommended a technique for analyzing tasks. Joe called this paradigming.   It works best on procedural stuff, though I’ve also used it to find my way around very complicated systems.

Section 1:  complex theoretical discussion

Each step in an on-the-job task has two parts.  (I like to say I’m a Reform Behaviorist, so you might see some behavioral-psych roots here.)

  • The stimulus, meaning the starting state.
  • The response, or what you do when you perceive the stimulus.

As in:

  • S: email from Queen Elizabeth (notice: it’s a noun–a thing)
  • R: open email (a verb–an action)

The response leads to a new stimulus (opened email) which calls for a new action.

  • S: opened email (mail that has been opened—Ss are always nouns)
  • R: decide next action

“Decide?”  Yes; I use that a lot.  It’s a good launch pad for chains of activity or decisions.

  • S: “Read text” (the quotes show it’s a decision—a noun)
  • S: “Open attachment”
  • S: “Forward message”

And so on.  More later; one more complex theoretical idea awaits:

In paradigming, there are only three kinds of steps:
the basic chain, the discrimination, and the generalization.

Section 2: three examples

The basic chain is simply a sequence of actions with no decision making.


At a higher level, of course, you might collapse a lot of behavior into a single step:

  • S1: Vacant land — R: purchase land.
  • S2: Purchased land — R: construct 12,000-square-foot house.
  • S3: Completed — R: furnish tastefully.

Sometimes, you need to distinguish between different stimuli that each call for a different response.  That’s a discrimination.


Remember, this is a step in a larger process.  In the example, the previous step might have been “receipt from purchase” and the response might have been “identify form of payment.”

What you’re discriminating among here are the different possibilities for form of payment.  I left some out because the image would get too large, but you’d put in as many stimuli as exist: check, debit card, form not legible, and so on.

The third kind of behavior is generalization: you have more than one stimulus and they all lead to the same response.


Section 3: So what?

For me, paradigming offers several payoffs:

  • It’s a great way to track down loose ends and uncertainties in a complicated process.
  • It ensures that I don’t forget about something that puzzled me.
  • It magically becomes the scaffold for job aids.

I’ll create an example or two of paradigming in action, and of that scaffolding, in another post.

In this series... Next post >>

5 thoughts on “Figuring things out (the plodding edition)

  1. Dave, does this approach look at those instances in which a single stimulus has numerous responses — something that might be called,say, decision behaviour? E.g., the stuff that would have preceded paid in cash, paid w/ credit card?

    P.S. What is a reformed behaviourist?

  2. Last things first:

    My self-description is slightly tongue in cheek. A lot of major contributors to the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) had / have their roots in behavioral psychology. Tom Gilbert, for example, studied under B. F. Skinner at one point.

    All I really mean by “Reform Behaviorist” is that I tend to focus on observable behavior. I actually believe there are internal states like attitude and motivation; I just have no idea how to influence them directly. Rah-rah stuff and inspirational posters just depress me.

    As for your question about many possible stimuli in a given situation: in general, yes, I’ve used paradigming even when the behavior in question had many discriminations or generalizations. I developed a paradigm for a command-line version of an email system, back before graphic interfaces. There were all kinds of places where the stimulus was a screen prompt: Command?

    The response was “decide what to do next.” That led to a giant discrimination: list my mail, read an item in the list, open my address book, change my password, even sign off.

    And what I haven’t shown yet is that you combine these as needed; many tasks involve chains leading to discriminations leading to chains leading to generalizations and discriminations, and so on.

    I used to sketch my paradigms on 8.5 x 14 sheets of greenbar printer paper (which tells you how long I’ve been doing this–the printers were everywhere in my office).

    I should point out this is an analysis tool–though it’s also handy for double-checking things with your subject-matter expert. Let’s say there were 25 possible actions that could follows that “Command?” prompt. I might develop eight or ten job aids, each covering a few related actions.

    I’m planning to put up a couple of simplified examples as my contribution to Monday’s blog carnival (it takes me a while to make these wildly-colored graphics).

  3. When I first read this post, paradigming struck me as a tool a trainer and subject matter expert might find useful to define a procedure together. I used to develop procedural training using our prevailing method of now-that-we’ve-talked-I’ll-put-something-down-on-paper-you-tell-me-if-I-got-it-right, an approach I thought was too nuanced for discussion that needed systematic. Of course, we all were unreformed behaviourists.

    Look forward to your examples on on Monday Blog Carnival. A few wildy-coloured graphics set just the right festive tone!

  4. Shanta: depending on the expert, I often show the paradigm as “something I use to help me see the process.” I don’t try to sell her on using it. For procedural / systematic tasks, though, many experts get the point right away.

    This decision has me using Fireworks a lot more than I normally do…

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