What is a Digital Coach?

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “What is a Digital Coach…and Why You Really Want to Know!” in which Bob Mosher, Dr. Conrad Gottfredson, and Senior Designer & Analyst Sue Reber define a true Digital Coach and explain its purpose and functionality. 

Bob Mosher (BM): Today, I am joined by two of my heroes in life—my wonderful colleagues that I'm blessed to work with on a daily basis—Dr. Con Gottfredson and Sue Reber. They're both brilliant learning designers, particularly in the field of 5 Moments of Need (5 MoN). Obviously, we know Con's pedigree as the pioneer of 5 MoN, and Sue is just a remarkable Senior Designer and Analyst in this area.

Today’s conversation is an interesting one, and it is sparked by something I posted on LinkedIn. Many of you know that I have a pet peeve around vocabulary, and I had brought up this idea of a Digital Coach relative to 5 MoN and relative to workflow learning. I got a little pushback on the brand, but more importantly, I got some pushback along the lines of, “What is this thing? Why is it so important? Don't we do it already with SharePoint?” A whole bunch of things came up. So, we decided to take a deeper dive with these two experts, Con and Sue, into exactly why we have found in our work—relative to 5 MoN and workflow learning—that a Digital Coach is really a differentiator and a critical pivot in both the implementation and design of effective workflow learning.

Let’s talk about branding for a second. We often talk about Gloria Geary, who in 1991 published Electronic Performance Support Systems, which is a remarkable, landmark book in our opinion. By all means, look it up and read it. In it, she references performance support and, obviously, the book is called Electronic Performance Support Systems (or EPSS), which has been a brand in our industry forever. We are sensitive to that. But this whole idea about calling it a Digital Coach: if you two wouldn’t mind, why and where did it come from? Why in this case might a rebrand be warranted? And how has it helped in what we've seen in our work with our clients?

Con Gottfredson (CG): As you know, Bob and Sue, we've been talking about an EPSS and how it is a vital tool in the performance support arsenal and the discipline of performance support. The challenge has been that the lines of business have really struggled to grasp something called an EPSS. And so, we've worked to try to find a way where people who are not grounded in Gloria's work and don’t have a history in learning could really relate to what an EPSS does. The term Digital Coach has surfaced and worked for us. We see other labels that organizations use, but that notion of a Digital Coach seems to have worked a lot better for us in describing what we want to do with this very powerful tool. 

Sue Reber (SR): I think one of the difficulties is that in business there are all kinds of acronyms all over the place. EPSS might have started out okay, but then there was “embedded (vs. electronic) performance support systems” and it just all became very confusing. So, I feel like changing it up and calling it a Digital Coach helps really focus on its purpose and almost brings up a picture of what it is. It’s not just another acronym that I have to try to keep track of.

BM: I think it speaks to a principle of embeddedness and the power of this thing, to your point, Con. People want a Digital Coach. They don't necessarily want an EPSS. From a branding perspective, a lot of our clients don't even say they use a Digital Coach. They adopt the language of the business and come up with a different term, but principally, they choose that term because it’s native to the work. It's embedded in the work; therefore, being branded in the context of the work is key. Frankly, we're not married to Digital Coach. We do use it quite a bit because, to Con’s point, it breaks the seal for us with a lot of clients. But I think the message here is that, unlike L&D inflicting our terminology on others as we have for years from a training perspective, this term really comes from the user back. They'll use what sounds/looks/feels appropriate and native. Digital Coach has resonated.

Sue, you've been a 5 MoN designer forever. Why is this so pivotal to the 5 MoN methodology, and how has it been a pivot for you?

SR: A Digital Coach really supports the entire spectrum of learning needs, whereas training really supports you when you need to learn something new or when you need to learn something more. But once you get back to work and you need to do something, or something goes wrong, or you need to troubleshoot, or something changes, then what do you do? You don't want to go back into a classroom and take another class that just pulls you away for longer. Frankly, you don't really need that most of the time. So, I think a Digital Coach fits just beautifully into the methodology. It allows us to really be targeted during training on things that require training and allows us to support people throughout the entire learning lifecycle, whatever their learning needs might be.

CG: We're working with a client right now who said to us, “We have a Digital Coach.” We asked, “What is it?” They described an online help system for software. It’s a very flat system, far from what Gloria Geary described as an EPSS. As a matter of fact, she made a clear distinction between online help and what she called an EPSS, which we're now calling a Digital Coach. So, it's one thing to call something a Digital Coach, but what we must define is the functionality that makes it a Digital Coach. That's where methodology comes in. A Digital Coach needs to deliver just what you need at the moment of need and orchestrate all of the resources available to accommodate all 5 Moments of Need in the flow of work. At the moment of Apply, you've got to be able to get to the steps of things and follow those steps. At the moment of Solve, you've got to get to FAQs. We have so many different kinds of performance support tools, templates, and resources that a Digital Coach orchestrates in a systematic way. The 5 MoN methodology is a clear prescription for how we orchestrate those resources to enable effective performance on the job. Without that vital functionality, you may think you have a Digital Coach, but it won't do what a Digital Coach needs to do.

BM: Sue, I want to run at your point about design and methodology. Con has always said, “Design for the moment of Apply first.” Well, what does that mean? What's the deliverable? I always knew how to make a class. I was trained how to design eLearning—for New and More as you said—but when you pivot on Apply, you have to have something that you that you end up with, and it is a Digital Coach. You build from the Digital Coach back, but that's a huge pivot for L&D. We talk in terms of courses, chapters, lessons, curriculum, ILT, VILT, eLearning. Those are, I think, predetermined and predisposed when we walk into analysis, whether we say them or not. This is a very different pivot, Sue, isn't it—in the methodology that we designed? For many of us, it’s a very different deliverable that we may never have even designed for before.

SR: Absolutely. And it does require changing your thinking, because you really do have to be focused on what people need to do at the moment of Apply and what support they need in order to do it. 

CG: And then you back into the training and only add to it those elements that are critical for the training side of things because the content is fundamentally embedded into that Digital Coach that you bring into the classroom. Then you wrap around it the practice activities and the other things that you do in training. 

BM: Let me run at something you always say that kind of segues into our next question. We often think of an EPSS as being like a job aid or stand-alone resource. But we can put training in there! Part of our Performance Support Pyramid design is to link out to an eLearning, or link out to a video, or link out to an instructional layout or a coach. So, can a Digital Coach replace the classroom? Can a Digital Coach stand alone? 

CG: The answer to that is yes. If the skills that you're supporting don't require people to stop working to learn, we know that, on average, about half of what is in a formal training can be pushed into the flow of work where a Digital Coach can actually facilitate learning while working. But there are those skills, those tasks where the critical impact of failure demands that we have people stop work to learn. We take time to focus in on those higher critical impact of failure skill sets that need to be addressed with training. 

SR: The awesome thing about it is that you have more time in the classroom to actually focus on those things that people need to be able to practice in a safe environment to make sure they know what they're doing. 

BM: It's interesting because it can stand alone, but does it often stand alone in our work? 

CG: Oh, we always find a blend. That blend is where you've got the portion that can be learned in the flow of work with the help of a Digital Coach, but then you have those areas that you need to target—those skills that you need to target [with training]— where the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic. You still need to support that learning as workers transition into the flow of work. So, a Digital Coach is needed for all training, but it can lift the burden of the classroom and of formal learning (whatever form that takes) by pushing into the workflow those skills that people can learn safely on their own exclusively using a Digital Coach. That gives you more time and room on the training side of things to truly focus on methodology that matters and that ensures people can actually master those skills with a higher critical impact of failure. 

BM: Sue, you mentioned targeted training earlier as a deliverable of the methodology. Can you take us a little bit deeper into that? How might you intentionally use the tool in support of that when it comes to instruction? 

SR: I think that's one place where people struggle, especially when it comes to traditional learning design. They're thinking about the classroom and they're thinking, “Okay, so I'm going to design my Digital Coach over here, and then I'm going to design my training.” They really don't see them as integrated. But really, they are integrated, and you should be using that Digital Coach in the training. The point is, at the end of the training, not only have they had time to practice those critical things that they needed to practice, but they also know where to go for support when they are at the moment of Apply. They know where they can find the information that they need to do their job. 

BM: I love that. It is a “teach to fish” approach, right? And you're right. It takes the burden off of covering all that content that I feared as an instructor, whether the students were ready for it or not, because I was the one-hit wonder. If they didn't get it with me, they never got it again. This point about “covering things” changed dramatically for me when I saw my first Digital Coach, because all the content is covered there. Now, when I get in class, I can emphasize and go deeper in certain things and practice and fail others. But I am no longer the “end all” of content and the guide that takes people through an outline. Instead, I am giving them and teaching them how to use everything they'll ever need to know in a way that’s accessible when they're working. 

CG: Traditionally, our view of training has been so narrow. We've thought that the formal side of things is training. Well, formal learning initiates training—it starts the learning process—but expertise is developed in the flow of work and expertise requires experience. That experience happens in the flow of work. If we can't step into the flow of work and support people as they accommodate all of the different challenges at the moments of Apply, Solve, Change, and even Learn New and Learn More, then we're very shallow in how we support real learning and skill development, and the development of expertise in the flow of work. 

BM: One of our earlier articles was about how performance support (at the time we called it performance support) saves the classroom. As I grew up and watched the classroom mature, especially with regard to technology, the technology got harder and more sophisticated. As people had less time to learn it, classes became these overburdened, over-taught places that left people with their hair blown back and eyes glazed over. Often, they were anything but prepared to perform. This is such a freeing model that allows this brilliant tool we have—formal instruction—to do what it does best and let gifted instructors be the best they can be. 

SR: I think learners still leave that way, Bob. They just have support afterward! 

BM: But thank goodness for the safety net, right? All the more reason to have a Digital Coach. When we do Rapid Workflow Analysis, the content and tasks needed today to survive, and the rate at which both change, is absurd. How do we sleep at night without a Digital Coach in the background, knowing that it can save the day when people perform? 

So, we're making a huge deal of this thing. Is this something I have to go out and buy? Do I have to go to that extreme? Is there such a thing, and what do I get? And what about those who say, “We have SharePoint, so we already have performance support.” “We've got a content repository.” “We've got Teams, so Microsoft has told us we already have performance support.” I'm not knocking Microsoft, per se, but I think this contributes to misunderstanding about the nature of what the tool itself needs to be. What’s your reaction to the “buy vs. build” question and the response of “I already have that…I've got content around my company”? 

CG: Again, it's all about the methodology and the degree to which you're able to orchestrate and deliver the resources in the way that you need to. You can build a Digital Coach using all kinds of technology. There are software applications you can purchase that are built specifically for developing, maintaining, and scaling a Digital Coach. Those are important to know and understand, but that's not where you have to begin. You can begin very simply using the technologies you have, but you must understand the functions that a Digital Coach needs to perform. It needs to provide two-click/10-second access to task-level support for the steps of a task and enable workers to look at those steps in both high-level and detailed ways. And for that task, workers must be able to access all the reference resources (job aids, checklists, etc.) that are relevant to help them perform. But someone might also need some training, so they need to get to training resources, and then ultimately to people resources. But those are orchestrated in a way that helps workers intuitively access what they need to perform. As long as you're doing that, you can use SharePoint, if you're wise enough and work with it in the ways that you need to. Sue has been a genius in this regard, so I'm going to turn my time over to her and let her continue, because she has done this on many different platforms. 

SR: I would say there's an upside and a downside to everything, right? There are tradeoffs. First of all, what tools do you have? Like Con said, it's really all about the design. You can make SharePoint work as a Digital Coach. You can even make a PDF work as a Digital Coach. My advice is to start where you are with what you have: start building things. As you know what you need, then you can start looking at available tools and platforms and say, “You know what? I really need something else.” If you don't have the luxury of going right out and immediately buying performance support authoring software, oftentimes organizations just need to start with what they have. Again, I would just piggyback on what Con said: it's all about the design. 

BM: Sue, let me ask you a question. An article was recently published by a dear colleague of ours about the top 100 tools that we are using in learning. There isn't an EPSS on there. Not one made the top 100, which is really troubling to me because recently there have been multiple reports from many different associations that “workflow learning embedded stuff” is top of mind in L&D and in the business right now; yet, we won't buy the hammer to drive the nail. Sue, you’ve worked extensively in the store-bought EPSS authoring tools. What takes them beyond SharePoint? What do you get for taking that extra step and making that commitment? 

SR: They're designed right out of the box to be able to support the [performance support] pyramids. You get in and you get to the content that you need without having to dig through a whole lot of stuff. There's some software out there that people like to think of as a Digital Coach, because it walks you through how to do a task, but that's just walking you through how to do a task. It's not a Digital Coach. It's not providing context. It's not providing the additional orchestrated resources and supporting knowledge. 

BM: It kind of takes us into maintenance, in my opinion. We often think about everything leading up to the build, or everything leading up to the delivery. In a training mindset, we think about versions: “I've got three more months until my next one and I'll make the corrections and such in between now and then.” Well, we all know that in the workflow, you may have days, minutes, or hours before your next version. Sue, can you speak to content maintenance and user generated content as a discipline? Maybe even speak to it from the standpoint of the tools you just mentioned. Are content maintenance and user generated content upsides to these kinds of commitments? 

SR: I think so because performance support software is generally designed to point to existing resources. You can deep link into things that are maintained by the groups that actually own them, instead of them being maintained by the L&D team (i.e., you don't have to update an eLearning course because an interface changed). So, I feel like the maintenance is easier. 

CG: Maintenance and measurement are two issues that ultimately push organizations as they invest more and more into the world of a Digital Coach, using that capability to its fullest. Keeping content current, brokering to resources that live where they are maintained, knowledge management systems, and so forth are so important. And that's generally in the journey of maturity. At some point, organizations begin to look at technologies designed specifically for a Digital Coach. And why not? In reality, we have software for developing eLearning. We have software for managing our libraries of learning. Where things are important, we have software that helps us build and design and develop and deliver. We certainly need to have that for something so important and powerful as a Digital Coach. 

BM: And content management has come back in vogue! LCMS and other kinds of things were big years ago and kind of lost favor or took a backseat to other things we were doing. But governance becomes a big deal because so much of this discipline is not about the initial build. It's about keeping things current, and who keeps them current, and where they are kept. This is a whole other level of governance and content management that I don't know we have ever gone into as deeply as this discipline will force you to go. 

CG: In addition to keeping things current, there's also the ongoing optimization of a Digital Coach and the other resources that we're using or employing to support performance in the flow of work. We have to keep those vibrant and meaningful, and that requires ongoing optimization as well as maintenance of the solutions we build. 

BM: Guys, I think part of what has bitten us back is the legacy of EPSS. Even calling it a Digital Coach has the word “digital” in it. Too often, we’re myopic about its application. The first thing that comes to mind, and I agree that it’s low hanging fruit, is IT systems. We had “Clippy” back in Word and then RoboHelp came along for a while. There are current systems like WalkMe and others that have these wonderful recording capabilities and more. So, there has been a bias in our industry that this is only IT-skill-focused, which is only a tiny sliver of the training and performance that we have to support. Con, what's your opinion on soft skills? Is a Digital Coach only for digital stuff or IT alone? What about the whole world of talent management, talent development, leadership, sales skills, and product knowledge, none of which are necessarily tied to any kind of system? Can a Digital Coach support those domains as well? 

CG: Absolutely. Eighty percent of the work we do jumps into the world of soft skills. In reality, every job has procedural skills and what we call soft skills or principle-based skills that are outside of technology. Today, work is so sophisticated that many people are going into technology, then out of technology and doing work that has nothing to do with technology. Then they go back into another kind of technology and then out of that to do other human interactive kinds of things that have nothing to do with technology. So, this mix of soft skills and procedural skills that are both in and out of technology, that's the nature of work today for so many people. You can't just paint yourself into the corner of a technology-based delivery of a Digital Coach that is tied to software and other things. It's got to be able to live in and out of that technology. 

BM: Sue, when you've done your work in soft skills, how do you get people to think task-based in that? Unfortunately, we’ve called it soft skills for a long time, so the natural inclination is to think it's too abstract. How do you get to the procedural level of that stuff? 

SR: Because there are still things that you need to do, so you need to focus on those. I think soft skills often require more supporting knowledge, but there are still things that I'm going to do. There's a reason why I want to become a better leader or something like that. There is a performance there that I can look for.

CG: It’s so funny to me when folks say, “Well, leadership. That’s soft skills. You can't build performance support for leaders.” And I'm thinking, “So what did they do? Just sit around all day and think about leadership?” For leaders in all jobs and all work, there are things that they do. If they're doing/acting in any way, that is performance, and performance can be documented and supported. It's just a set of principle-based (vs. procedural-based) tasks. In our journey, we've never been unable to build a Digital Coach for any performance area. 

BM: Let's wrap with this. All of what we discussed today is a mindset shift around the deliverable we build (i.e., the technology), the tool in which we design (like an EPSS software), and the framework you guys have continued to discuss (the pyramid and so on). For years, we've been wired around other things: ILT, eLearning lessons, etc. We think about these things first. If we're going to get to a Digital Coach as a deliverable, we have to be in the mindset of that being the bullseye. In your journeys, how did each of you personally make that flip? Sue, in our earlier careers we worked for a training company and wrote curriculum that was for stand-up training. You ran a department and were brilliant at that, too. How did you get to where you are today? And, Con, tell us about your journey as well. 

SR: For me, it was that curriculum line that we developed called LearnPro, where we flipped learning upside down and we did start to think about it as “What do people need to do?”. It was more problem-based, scenario-based learning. So, I think that set the stage for me to make this shift, but it was really a big deal because we had to ask, “What is the higher-level thing that somebody is trying to do and what are the tasks that fall underneath that?” It was not an easy shift. I was used to starting the other way. 

CG: My shift happened in 1984, as you know, which was when I left graduate school and entered the real world of work. I asked myself a question that changed my entire professional career, and that was, “Why am I doing what I'm doing? Training is a means to an end. So, what is the end? What is it that I am doing for the organization that has hired me?” I realized that it was to enable effective performance on the job and that training was a means to that end. It wasn't for workers to be able to think about what they do, but to actually perform effectively. Obviously, that requires knowledge, but it requires more than that. All that I had learned and done in my graduate work came into a different focus. As you said, Sue, it flipped it on its head, and I've never looked back. It's been about performance ever since, and that changed the whole methodology of how we go about instructional design. A performance-first approach to instructional design is very different than what you do when you're designing for an academic environment. 

BM: Con, I remember the first time I watched you do an RWA. I was mortified and mesmerized all at the same time, because it showed me something very quickly, which was that I was pivoting on the wrong thing right out of the chute. I was getting SMEs in a room and having them tell me what people should be told to ultimately do, but if you look at the order of operation in that sentence, it really should be flipped the other way. As you worked through that day, I thought, “I have no clue about the workflow to which my learners return,”—none whatsoever, even though I sat with SMEs for five days telling me what they did, or what they thought was important. But that's not the workflow. That's not designing for performance back. And when you see that, you realize you better put something in that workflow for workers to survive it. Training alone is never going to get us there. 

You know, I wrote an article some years back called “Do We Teach Swimming or Prevent Drowning?”. My pivot was, if you saw someone drowning, would you start doing PowerPoints? Would you do a “What's In It for Me”? Would you say, “No, no. Look over here. Watch me model swimming so you can get to the side”? Of course not. You’d throw them a life jacket. You would give them something in the context of that situation to survive the moment. And in time, you would teach them swimming. That's exactly the model you folks described earlier. A Digital Coach is the tip of the sword for that approach and the tool we have to begin building first. 

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