Brilliant ideas sometimes take a while to bloom. Here are a couple of examples: smartphones and performance support. You might not think these topics are related, but in an odd, timeline kind of way, they are.

Timing is everything

If you ask your friends and colleagues about their smartphone, chances are that the vast majority will proudly trumpet their preferred Android, BlackBerry, or iPhone device. But things weren’t always so rosy for the smartphone. It’s true the smartphone market is now booming. According to International Data Corp (IDC), manufacturers shipped 495 million smartphones in 2011. Just one year later, in 2012, they shipped 713 million smartphones. This astounding 44 percent year-over-year increase speaks volumes to the growing popularity of these luxury items now turned into life necessities.

But if you ask your friends and colleagues to name their very first smartphone, few if any will answer, “the IBM Simon.” In fact, only 50,000 customers can claim that they owned the world’s first smartphone, which was sold for six months in 1994. The Simon could send and receive cellular calls (analog, not 3-G or 4-G!), pages, and emails. It even boasted such radical conveniences as an address book, calendar, calculator, clock, and handwritten notepad.

In today’s app-saturated world, it would be hard to imagine purchasing a smartphone that was limited to such humble features. However, to put things in context, IBM introduced Simon at the same time that Intel brought the first Pentium processors to market and Microsoft was still developing Windows 95.

In short, the world’s first smartphone was a brilliant idea that was simply ahead of its time.

Performance support: Early struggles

At about the same time the Simon made its short debut and the Wintel powerhouse was in full swing, another brilliant idea was born. While working at Aetna and later AT&T, Gloria Gery introduced the notion of providing employees with the information they needed to do their work on-the-job, rather than training them beforehand. Gery argued that providing performance support (PS) instead of training could make employees proficient and productive more quickly and efficiently.

Like the Simon smartphone, performance support found some early adopters and supporters. Most pioneers struggled, however, with building homegrown performance support systems using the limited technology available in the early 1990s. Development costs were significant, time-to-market was slow, and adoption was limited at best.

Because of these limitations, the promise of performance support fizzled out for the mainstream learning community. Performance support was a brilliant idea that was simply ahead of its time.

Fast forward 20 years

In recent years, several key events have rejuvenated the once young but forgotten field of performance support:

  1. Technology: The World Wide Web became available to the general public in April 1993. The first iteration of the web made it easier for subject-matter experts to publish their expertise and share that information anywhere in the world. In 2004, Web 2.0 technologies simplified content publishing even further and quickly enabled even average users to share their expertise.
  2. Best Practice: Drawing from research studies conducted by academia and best practices shared by those in the field, in the last ten years we have become smarter about how to design and implement performance support.
  3. Great Recession of 2007 – 2009: The United States alone lost 8.4 million jobs during our most recent financial crisis. While many workers were forced to leave organizations, the work itself often remained. As a result, organizations had to find ways to make their remaining employees more efficient and productive. This led to an increased investment in performance support despite the difficult economic times.

This renewed interest in performance support leads to the questions: How many organizations have adopted or are going to adopt PS? To what extent is performance support deployed across the enterprise? How mature are performance-support best practices across the industry?

To address these questions, Sharon Jun and I recently conducted a study to measure the adoption and maturity level of performance support. Eighty-nine participants from The eLearning Guild and the performance support community responded to a short survey examining various aspects of PS adoption.

Performance support adoption

As shown in Table 1, 75 percent of those who responded have some performance support deployed in their respective organizations. Of those without any existing performance support, we learned that more than half plan to implement PS in the next 12 months.

Table 1:
Survey responses: Performance support status (2013)

Performance support maturity

In August 2012, Learning Solutions Magazine published my article, “Performance Support Maturity (PSM): A Performance Support Rebirth.” The article described a model that can be the basis for measuring an organization’s performance support maturity. As shown in Figure 1, the model identifies five key criteria: workplace integration, information technology, proliferation, content reuse, and learning experience design.

Figure 1: Performance support maturity grid

Though the data from our more recent study indicates that performance support has tremendous support, interest, and growth potential, the results also indicate that few organizations (six percent) are very mature in their PS practices. In fact, the majority of organizations are still very early in their PS journey with 19 percent indicating that they are currently at Level 1 adoption while 38 percent have matured to Level 2.

What you will hear in Boston

The implications of this research will be explored more deeply at Performance Support Symposium 2013 (September 9 – 10 in Boston). However, initial analysis of the survey results suggests that most organizations are quite adept at repurposing learning content for on-the-job-support purposes. In fact, 91 percent report reusing content some or all of the time.

Organizations, however, struggle in other key areas: 83 percent report issues with integrating PS into the workplace, 77 percent do not feel that they have sufficient support from their information technology partners, and 83 percent are attempting to reconcile performance support into their broader strategy and learning-experience design processes.

For learning leaders who want to know more how to overcome these obstacles, I invite you to join us at Performance Support Symposium 2013, where Allison Rossett and I will host a keynote panel: 25 Years Later: The Evolution and Transformation of PS.