In Donn Pearce’s book Cool Hand Luke, each time the captain of Road Prison 36 recaptures Luke he says to him, “What we got here is ... a failure to communicate.” And this just may well be the case now with our conversations around performance support (PS) and its range of incarnations.

To begin, here are three critical clarifications:

  • There are different types of vehicles for delivering performance support
  • These vehicles differ in capability and quality of production
  • As a result, they vary in their capacity to deliver business benefit

What’s the difference?

Take, for example, job aids and traditional software help systems. These two types of PS vehicles certainly differ in what they can and can’t do. And, depending upon the methodology employed in developing them, their full capabilities may or may not be realized. According to PS pioneer Gloria Gery, the performance support vehicle with the greatest potential business benefit is an EPSS (electronic performance support system). Take a look at her comparisons in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Electronic performance support systems compared to job aids (Gery)

Electronic Performance Support Systems

Job Aids

Can support simple or complex task performance, can address multi-pathed, conditionally branched, integrated processes via expert systems.

Typically support simple, linear sequential procedural tasks.

Can accept user input or data as a basis for situationally specific branching, advice, information presentation, etc.

Do not accept user input or data. Structuring occurs in advance of need and addresses limited situations.

Provide task structuring, advice, and related information.

Provide task structuring but not related information.

Can present customized views of the system to individual users.

Are structured in advanced and do not accommodate individual user requirements.

Can incorporate multiple modes of information presentation (e.g., text, audio, images, animated sequences).

Are typically paper-based with possibility of passive multiple modes (i.e., text and still images). When electronic, could incorporate multiple modes, but is mostly text and still images.

Can provide alternate access to the information (e.g., menus, alphabetical listings, context-sensitive to software or condition, hierarchical access through outlines, or relational access through hypermedia).

Typically provide pre-determined and structured access. Because the InfoBase is not integrated, the path is usually linear.


Table 2: Electronic performance support systems compared to traditional help systems (Gery)

Electronic Performance Support Systems

Traditional Help Systems

Support a broad range of tasks, whether or not software is involved.

Typically support only software-related tasks and are usually confined to software rather than job-task support.

Provide information, task structuring, interactive, conditionally branched advice, examples, and interactive training.

Provide passive information only.

Provide internally cross-referenced information or knowledge that also links to other structures.

May or may not be internally cross referenced. They are typically context sensitive to software applications and not linked to other resources.

Can support complex, interrelated tasks with conditional branching.

Usually provide limited descriptions of procedures and, sometimes, examples. They rarely deal in combined procedures of complex tasks.

Provide multiple means of access and alternative views of the content.

Are typically accessed via structured menus (listing topics, alphabetical listings, commands, and so forth).

May accept user input or data.

Do not accept user input or data except as menu choices.

Can contain customized views of the information or support.

Could contain customized views of the information, but rarely do.

Defining the EPSS

In all her groundbreaking work, Gery settled in on an EPSS as the embodiment of what she proposes performance support can, and needs to be, for organizations. She set aside other PS renditions, such as job aids and traditional help, because, although they provide performance support (at some level), they don’t provide all the technology-enabled services she determined a fully loaded performance support solution needs to provide.

Gery describes an EPSS as:

“An orchestrated set of technology-enabled services that provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”

If we are to honor the magnificent work that Gery has done, we need to make sure there’s no failure to communicate here. We need to unpack this definition and make sure we understand each part clearly; we also need to determine how an EPSS differs from all other kinds of performance support vehicles.

Here’s a start:

  • Technology-enabled services: The kind of performance support that will systematically enable high-level performance requires software to author, enable, and maintain it. In the above comparison tables, Gery describes EPSS functionality that cannot be achieved without technology.

    On-demand access: Today people work while on the move. Regardless of where they are physically, they need on-demand access to performance support. It needs to be instantly accessible no matter where a performer is within software, in the workflow, or on the road.

    Performers are impatient when they stand at the threshold of the moment of apply; if they have to go searching, they won’t take the time to do it. This continues to hold true after physically accessing an EPSS. There neither the time nor disposition to scour through endless hits offered up by search engines, wander through websites, or dive down into a learning management system to find, and then plow through, an eLearning module to get to just the information needed.

    Integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools: Today’s technology must provide two-click and/or 10-second access to just enough information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools that will immediately get the job done. These resources need to be contextually offered up through cascading levels of support that address all five moments of need.

    Consider the performance-support pyramid in Figure 1. It reveals an integration strategy that anticipates the evolving information requirements of a performer. This layered approach is the path for intuitive fingertip access to the specific resources needed.

    Figure 1:
    Cascading levels of support

    It takes technology to enable this pyramid. When properly enabled, it facilitates rapid access to just enough of what’s needed. It reins-in the chaos of resources scattered across SharePoint sites, locked within an LMS, buried deep in a knowledge repository, stored on someone’s desktop, or hidden in someone’s mind.

  • Enable high-level job performance. The core mission of the work we do is to enable high-level job performance, and to ensure people perform effectively and efficiently at every changing moment of their work. Training, alone, can’t and won’t accomplish this. Figure 2 illustrates an important concept in this regard: learning to competency.


    Figure 2: Learning to competency

    The red portion of Figure 2 represents the formal side of learning. This shows the reality that whatever a learner begins to master during a learning event (whether instructor-led or eLearning) enters a rapid death spiral once the event ends. This creates a serious challenge to learners as they move from a formal learning environment into the phase called learning transfer. As the influence of their learning experience rapidly diminishes, somehow learners must find their way to what Gery describes as “performing effectively and efficiently” on the job. Navigating these waters successfully requires an EPSS. Without it, random failure happens. Time to effective performance is costly and long. And change rapidly dismantles whatever’s left from the learning experience. It takes an effectively designed EPSS to facilitate the immediate transfer of what’s learned in the classroom into a sustained pattern of effective performance on the job.

  • Minimum support from other people. Although there may be times when pulling people away from the work they are doing to provide support is justifiable, it is an expensive proposition—especially when it is the default option. An effective EPSS allows for justifiable support from other people, but will first and foremost enable self-reliant, high-level performance. Self-support first is the best option with the possible exception for highly critical, complex skills. You can judge the effectiveness of an EPPS by this standard: its ability to “enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”

The next steps in developing performance support

We’re making great progress convincing organizations that performance support, properly integrated with training, is what we ought to be doing. The potential benefits are compelling. But when we get down to actually creating a performance support solution, it’s been messy. Ask 10 people to build a performance support solution that addresses the same business need and you’ll get 10 different renditions. There is little chance that each will support performance with equal capacity.

This is why we need crystal clear communication regarding the different types of vehicles we are creating in our efforts to provide performance support. Most importantly, we need to understand Gery’s vision of what an EPSS is. We need to understand all that an EPSS can do. We need to define a robust methodology for developing an EPSS that meets all five moments of need. And just as we expect there to be software for authoring eLearning courses, we must embrace the need for software to author, deploy, and maintain an EPSS that will do all that Gery envisioned an EPSS can do. Only then will we be able to implement an effective learning and performance support strategy. And, lest there be any failure to communicate—an EPSS is our best option for delivering ongoing strategic and financial value to the organizations we serve.

To continue this discussion, learn more, and keep up-to-date on the topic of performance support, begin by attending the Performance Support Symposium in Boston, September 9 & 10, 2013. Then become a part of our community. Click here to join.


Gery, Gloria J. Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and Why to Remake the Workplace Through the Strategic Application of technology. Tolland, MA: Gery Associates, 1991.