By Conrad Gottfredson
Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. Research suggests that 70 percent of our work skills have elements that are automated.*
Competent performance requires the automation of “low-level details.” For example, it is unsafe to consciously occupy our minds with the rudimentary skills of driving. Anyone who has been in a car with their son or daughter after receiving a driver’s permit understands this reality. I’ll never forget my high-school drivers-Ed experience when one of my classmates drove off the road because of her limited experience navigating the space between two cars moving towards each other in separate lanes at 55 miles per hour.
I was recently driving to join my wife and oldest daughter for her birthday celebration dinner at a restaurant in another town. I was consciously aware of the road and traffic but because of my many years of experience, my rudimentary driving skills are automated. This made it possible for me to drive safely, be fully aware of the limited traffic around me, and still engage my mind in higher order thinking. At the time, I was considering ways my wife and I could help our daughter through some difficult challenges in her life.
Automaticity does have a downside. While driving and engaging in this higher order thinking, I automatically drove in the direction I most often drive on that road and passed the turn that would take me to the other side of the town where the restaurant was. I hate backtracking. I knew where the restaurant was and I knew where I was. So, I decided I would turn onto a new road I had never taken through an area that a few years ago had been farm land but now is a series of developments.
As I drove through this unfamiliar area, navigating my way out of several dead-end streets, I was forced to stop my higher order thinking processes. My mind was compelled to figure out how to get to where I needed to get. I then had a brilliant idea. I stopped the car, entered the address of the restaurant into my GPS. Immediately I had the guidance I needed and I was able turn my mind from trying to find my way and instead to another line of higher order thinking—that led to this blog article. This experience triggered an innovative thought. I hadn’t considered, until then, how performance support frees up cognitive load making it possible to think about more critical thought patterns – like traffic, safety, problem solving (our daughter’s needs), and innovation (the role of performance support in making it possible for people to engage in higher order thinking.)
There is compelling evidence that performers spend a high percentage of their work time searching for information to perform their jobs. Some estimates are as high as 30 percent of a typical workday.** This is clearly wasted work time, where people stop their work to find what they need to do their work. Certainly, this challenge alone justifies the need for performance support. But my experience suggests another dimension of waste in the workflow – unnecessary time spent in tactical thinking such as “remembering and transacting the steps of a specific task, navigating through software, or completing a form.
In the same way that I was forced to devote my thinking processes to finding my way through a maze of unknown streets, tactical thinking on-the-job ties up working memory and in so doing limits a performers ability to transition to higher order thinking. This is wasted thinking time and it can impact the success of an organization.
An EPSS provides performers 2-click/10 second access to tactical guidance performers need to successfully perform their job tasks, at their moment of need, in the way they need. When we provide performers this level of “GPS” support, we free up the ability for performers to focus their minds and efforts on fulfilling the actual vision, values, and mission of the organization. They are free to formulate constructive ideas and adapt or develop practices that can lead to greater profitability, innovation, and contribution. Unleashing higher order thinking to bring about these benefits obviously takes more than performance support. But whenever the minds of employees are bogged down in the thinking required to perform the tactical work they are doing, they obviously can’t enter this higher realm of thinking.
Here’s an actual example from our work. We recently paused a Learning and Performance Transformation project with a client who hasn’t yet grasped the significance of their need to free-up the higher order thinking capacity of their employees. The client is a retail sales company with more than 2,000 stores and over 300,000 employees in North American. They asked us to help them develop and implement a 5 Moments of Need Learning and Performance strategy. As we began the project, it became clear to us that they were oblivious to this fundamental need to “free-up higher order thinking.” The future survival of the company depends upon its customer facing associates developing their own capacity to engage with customers, determine specific needs/requirements, and then provide those customers the service/care they need. What this client couldn’t grasp is their associates are cognitively unable to focus on these higher order consultative skill development requirements. Why? Because they are cognitively overwhelmed by their tactical work requirements (e.g., stocking shelves, checking signage, cleaning up their area of responsibility, transacting a product sell, etc.)
We jumped into the project and helped map the tactical work requirements for every department of a typical store. We developed a Proof of Concept for an Embedded Performance Support Solution (EPSS.) We did our best to help them recognize how the EPSS could be a “Digital Coach” that would provide “GPS” like guidance to help associates effectively perform every tactical job task they have in their respective work assignments. The potential of this “Digital Coach” to free-up associates from the tactical skill quagmire they were in and allow them to, in turn, focus on the higher order thinking required to actually help their customers would have been transformational. Unfortunately, a reorganization at the highest levels of the company interrupted our efforts. Hopefully, as the reorganization dust settles, their learning team will have the opportunity to actually put this plan into action. They won’t get to where they desperately need to be without doing so. That’s because, the higher order skills they need their associates to perform are currently blocked by the lack of performance support for the tactical work of the organization.
There are many reasons why organizations need to develop their capacity to develop and implement solutions that accommodate all 5 Moments of Need. This is one of them. When it comes to higher order thinking, It’s clear to me that investing in performance support is a “No-Brainer.”
More resources on The 5 Moments of Need.