Challenging the Infinite Monkey Theorem: Mobile Performance Support

Written By
July 07, 2014

Today I want to challenge the Infinite Monkey Theorem (It’s long; the short version is in Figure 1) a bit by considering the performance support improvements made in the last couple of decades.


Figure 1:
The Infinite Monkey Theorem (short version)

Auto-correct and other spelling and grammar tools are common software features designed to enhance performance. As such, productivity should have increased to an extent that it no longer requires an infinite number of monkeys or time to reproduce a great piece of literature.

As to training, challenging this theorem is useful as it illustrates a problem that we’ve been facing with mobile. In this regard, we’ve been concentrating on training delivery rather than performance support— so we’ve been busy trying to train monkeys rather than using their tools to improve or support their banging. I want to stop this cycle by introducing strategies that focus on using performance tools with mobile devices rather than delivering training through mobile devices.

Embed your materials into your environments

In truth, we already focus on performance with our training initiatives as we give our users takeaways that they can use on the job. Our manuals, reference materials, and job-aids are all examples of materials meant by design for use onsite and at the time of need. Mostly though, these materials fail at this as they are rarely on hand or easy to use.

All too often our students have to dig up the manual, print out a job-aid, or manually calculate or analyze their worksheet inputs. As such, making these tools more available and powerful makes sense if you are interested in performance; and a good way to do this is to take advantage of our student’s mobile devices. Publishing your materials as ePubs, apps, or other mobile-friendly formats is useful in this regard as our mobile devices are usually on hand and usable at the time of need. An additional benefit of this type of solution is that, if our students don’t already have our materials, designers can use several technologies to embed them into their environments:

Location technologies

Several technologies allow you to interact with student mobile devices based on their physical location or proximity to an object. Examples of these technologies include GPS, Beacon, and NFC.

Scanning technologies

Other technologies allow you to interact with student mobile devices based on their interaction with an object. Software apps like Layar, Aurasma, Clickable Paper, and QR Code readers allow you to embed materials into objects that students can interact with.   

In addition, using mobile-friendly materials will allow your students to realize productivity gains as these materials have advantages over traditional hardcopy files. Some of these features include the ability to initiate emails and phone communications, perform calculations and data analysis, trigger alerts and notifications, and export data into other forms and devices. These activities make your students more productive and may cut down error rates associated with some tasks. Table 1 shows some opportunities with these approaches.

Table 1: Traditional hardcopy materials and references vs. mobile options

Materials/Tools We Give Students

Advantages of a Mobile Option

Training Manuals

These materials contain the content covered in your class or course. They may also provide extra scaffolding or supplementary information that wasn’t part of the class or course.

Mobile devices connect to the internet and can have dynamic content. Use of movies, audio and interactive elements can add extra support and expand on your classroom content

Phone Lists and Contact Information

These materials contain factual content related to contact information.

Built-in mobile features can trigger phone calls, SMS and email functions. This information could be dynamic so that it adjusts to changes within the organization.

Skype and Facetime options are available now to enable video conferencing. Other options include GPS and location information that could map directions.

Other reference materials

These materials contain blocks of data organized in a way to support searching and scanning activities. Here users need to access specific information quickly and easily.

GPS, scanning, and recognition features within these devices can push or pull information to your students based on their immediate environment. Networks, databases, and mobile computing power can greatly amplify your student’s search capabilities.

Procedural or process guides

These job-aids provide step-by-step directions on how to perform a procedure or task.

Video, AR, and interactive content could be included with your procedural guides to provide greater detail and guidance on these procedures.

Checklists

These job-aids support the need to document a list of items or tasks that they must complete for a complex process. These checklists ensure accuracy and completeness within a given task.

When checklists are completed, mobile devices could trigger emails, alerts or other notifications.

Calculators

These job-aids allow you to input data and then perform calculations.

You could automate calculations and cluster analysis. This then could create custom material handouts or send data to other sources.

Decision tables and flowcharts

These job-aids walk you through several conditions and or decisions points. Your inputs here will guide you to a set of recommendations to follow

Completing these job-aids will generate automatic recommendations. This activity may trigger prepopulated process flows or initiate other actions based on your inputs.

Build mobile apps, not courses

Simply converting and embedding your manuals, job-aids, and other materials to mobile friendly formats is a powerful strategy that you can employ today; however the biggest opportunities for performance will happen when you build the actual tools that your students use.   

This might be a daunting proposition; however, it shouldn’t be a totally foreign concept. In this regard we’ve been developing and implementing technology solutions for years with our regular eLearning courses and in our electronic performance support systems (EPSS). So you should have the teams and processes in place to transition into this world. If building applications is a concern though, you may want to try other approaches.

Here are three possible strategies for building mobile-performance applications.

Strategy: Build your own.

Your team defines, builds, and implements the mobile application.

Advantages: You have the ability to plan the tool to meet your needs. In addition, you have the source files to control versioning and maintenance concerns.

Cons: Extensive resources (time, personnel, etc.) needed to develop and test these solutions.

Strategy: Use existing apps.

You identify existing mobile applications that meet your need and integrate them as materials and solutions.

Advantages: Mobile-app stores offer all kinds of free and cheap apps usable as performance tools. In addition, you can broker a deal with app developers for discounted prices or customization of their applications.

Cons: Existing apps may not meet all your needs or integrate well with your infrastructure. Maintenance and versioning control may be an issue as well.

Strategy: Use your providers.

You work with your vendors and enterprise-solution providers to build and integrate your materials into their solutions.

Advantages: You have the ability to plan the tool to meet your needs. In addition, you can work with your providers to control versioning and maintenance concerns.

Cons: Working through your providers can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Apps don’t have to be all performance

Regardless of how you build your app, don’t forget to address any initial training needs. With these apps you can embed video, augmented reality, and other techniques to easily deliver content. In addition, these technologies offer unique opportunities for practice and feedback.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a possible mobile performance app on difficult conversations. This subject matter is typically heavy on guides and job-aids that prepare you for up-coming difficult conversations. A performance application on it could use a wizard-like interface to walk you through defining and identifying key information to help you frame the conversation. While this application walks you through these guides, you could embed training on nonverbal communications, listening strategies, positions versus interests, and other keys to handling these situations.

A benefit of this walk-through approach is that it could generate a script of inputs to use for your conversation and for practice. In this regard, an avatar could be part of an application that acts on the created script. Better yet, you could create a crowdsourcing opportunity by sending out the scripting information to a community and allowing those users to role-play and practice the script by teleconferencing. Finally this app could provide suggestions and recommendations based off your inputs—so if, for instance, you indicated an upcoming conversation relates to time-management gaps, you might get a list of resources to help fill that gap.

Quantifying performance

The benefits of using performance tools rather than delivering training are significant and will lead to metrics that are more meaningful than butts-in-seats and completions. For example, the difficult conversation application above could provide real-time data on the types of issues people are encountering. Such data could be powerful in determining common issues within a company and new initiatives for them to pursue.  

As to quantifying the performance improvements of the now non-infinite monkey theorem—I’ll leave that to someone else. Maybe Caesar or Dr. Cornelius can tackle the subject.

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