In the last decade or so, technical teams in manufacturing, repair, maintenance, and related fields have faced dramatic and sometimes revolutionary changes, driven by new technologies, systems, and standards. Unfortunately, learning and performance support systems haven’t kept up. At many companies, the upshot is that these teams are asked to run increasingly sophisticated processes, with more frequent updates, using learning tools that often seem like relics by comparison.
In this context, their team members, especially new hires, increasingly bump into important knowledge gaps. And what happens when they do? We recently ran focus groups and interviews—the results confirmed our suspicions. Most technical team members, facing an issue with insufficient knowledge, default to the following behaviors, listed here in order of frequency:
- Interrupt a coworker for help
- Ignore (hoping the problem “goes away” or someone else fixes it)
- Contact a manager
- Refer to training, standard operating procedures (SOPs), or other official resources
Let’s start with the first, by far the most common behavior. This action may lead to a resolution, but it comes at the cost of at least two people losing time instead of one. And ad-hoc peer review typically isn’t a company-sanctioned path, since it’s difficult to control, and its value depends on which team member happens to be closest.
But there’s a more important point here. When peers unofficially take on performance support duties, they often actively undermine official learning channels. The conversations typically go something like this: “According to training, we do it this way, but they’re out of touch. Here’s how we actually do it.”
There are several noteworthy points here:
- For most companies, this type of ad-hoc trouble-shooting is fairly constant.
- Peers typically don’t understand the full context for certain procedures. Often, certain actions may be effective and fast, but may also create liabilities they don’t see.
- Most importantly, even if our ad-hoc mentor is right about everything, the tone of the conversation often undermines the official learning channel and culture.
These types of failures of learning and performance support contribute to costs in the billions of dollars, stemming from downtime, maintenance lapses, and compliance violations. A case in point, from a life sciences manufacturer: One day in the plant, a machine reported a rare but minor error. A new employee felt pressure to keep the line going and wanted to act quickly, despite being unsure of the correct resolution. After an informal chat with a peer, he stopped production, made a simple configuration change, and brought the machine back up. Later, a supervisor discovered the action, and the configuration violated production standards. The implications were severe—all product created during the time in question was a loss.
While this outcome of this case was extreme, the situation is not unusual. To address this problem, we need to acknowledge the root cause. Asking a peer, guessing, and avoiding are preferred behaviors because they are quick. By comparison, traditional learning and performance support channels too often seem slow and unwieldy. For these reasons, any successful performance strategy must be immediate and mobile: as simple as asking a coworker, but more reliable.
New technologies, smartly applied, are helping, and they can become go-to reference tools during peer-driven support, so your teams actually strengthen official learning channels the more these conversations happen. Here are a few starting examples, to illustrate the possibilities:
- Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE or Bluetooth Smart) allows for proximity detection, using “beacons.” For teams working with discrete machines or production areas. BLE allows us to automatically show support content for the machine in front of the user, real-time.
- WebSockets enables real-time, browser-to-server communications so we can leave communication channels open. This can help us deliver real-time notifications and alerts across teams when issues arise. For example, if a user initiates a troubleshooting for machine A, team members at machines B can be automatically alerted.
- With visual computing, we can use the device’s mobile camera to recognize support cues—for example, specific error screens or documents—and automatically serve the right content (think “scan” rather than “search”).
While these and related technologies have important applications, they’re ultimately not much use without a flexible platform making the connections. A variety of advanced, companion systems are moving in to fill this need and allow for real time performance support. As I mentioned in a previous blog, intelligent performance support is one of the ways portals are improving your learning ecosystem. For example, AllenComm’s own learning platform integrates with LMSes to function as the “brain” of the mobile, performance support operation.
Ultimately, for too long, the technologies that have driven production for our technical teams have out-paced our performance support and learning strategies, and our official learning channels have been undermined as a result. However, the balance can change. With careful use of new technologies, we can deliver performance support tools our team members choose to use, while at the same time reduce risk, accelerate performance, and create buy-in for our official learning strategy.
In coming months, we’ll be checking back in on this subject to discuss in greater detail some of these emergent technologies and how they can be used. In the meantime, let us know how you’ve encountered this support gap and how you’re working to address it.