Training's New Guard - 8 years later

(Originally created August 20, 2007)

In 1999, I was a 30-something user experience architect (though we didn't use that term those days) toiling for a national retailer.  Gloria Gery, author and consultant, saw potential in me and recommended me to the American Society for Training and Development's article on up and coming folks in the industry.

This feature, short though it was and misspelling my name and all, led to greater exposure and a hunger to do more.  As an indirect result, I left that company, formed my own consultancy, joined another consultancy and finally landed my dream job.  Thank you Gloria!


Excerpted from T&D Magazine:


Gary Elsbernd saw the writing on the wall soon after joining Payless ShoeSource in 1989 as a training documentation specialist.

The computer system used by the company's 2,000 retail outlets was becoming more complex. The user population was diverse and dispersed. And employee turnover was as high as any retail operation -- 100% or more for part-time employees. Training employees on using the system would be an ongoing, expensive headache.

Fresh out of college, where he had earned a bachelors of public administration, Elsbernd began chipping away at the problem by working with the company's systems developers to improve the consistency of the user interface of its retail computer system. That early partnership with the programming staff led Elsbernd in pursuit of more substantial remedies for Payless's training challenges, the fruits of which are evident in the Retail Performance Support System, one of the most ambitious efforts to date in the EPSS arena. The system, which Elsbernd says provides powerful embedded tools that aid the performance and learning of store associates, is being rolled out in pilot form this spring.

Its release culminates an eight-year odyssey by Elsbernd into territories seldom charted by in-house trainers.

"I started thinking in terms of built-in software support and attended a conference in 1991 where I heard Gloria Gery describe EPSS principles," says Elsbernd. "I immediately recognized the situation she was describing--that we weren't going to be able to continue building software applications separately from training."

Elsbernd began pursuing development of online reference and learning tools in partnership with in-house programmers, but he also saw the need to lobby senior management on the value of the performance support approach. Together with his boss, Tamara Jarrow, he prepared evidence on the need to shift to a performance-centered approach to help meet the surging training demands of the fast-growing company.

Though he won some key adherents in the top ranks, Elsbernd and his staff faced ongoing competition for resources as Payless made several acquisitions and expanded into new regions, pushing the number of retail stores to more than 4,000. While his group struggled to stay on management's radar as they developed an initial prototype of an EPSS, Elsbernd says the system met stiff skepticism when managers reviewed an early prototype in 1995.

"Management wasn't convinced the system was going to solve the problem," Elsbernd says. At the same time, he realized he had drifted somewhat from his original objectives. "I personally got too caught up in gee-whiz technology. We hadn't tied what we were doing closely enough to business objectives; we were too busy showing what was technically feasible."

The team regrouped, renamed itself Retail Performance Support & Development and called in such EPSS luminaries as Gery and Paul Johnson of Ariel PCS to help make the case to management. The prototype system was reengineered to emphasize performance effects and subsequent management reviews met with growing admiration. The pilot system, currently being tested by more than 60 stores, provides an integrated package of applications that Elsbernd says a brand-new sales associate can navigate and learn from. The applications include "modular nuggets" of information in performance-support format, some CBT-style "teach me" modules and online reference tools. A conversational "agent" introduces the system to new users, whether they speak English or Spanish, as the entire system is multilingual. A French version is currently being prepared to support Payless stores in Canada.

The move to EPSS has allowed the training function to focus its instructor-led initiatives on people issues rather than "how to use the computer," Elsbernd notes.

The experience of pushing the project past many formidable obstacles has served to harden Elsbernd's resolve in the value of the EPSS approach. "I have become a firm advocate of designing systems and software so they reflect the way people work and think, instead of requiring people to change because the software was designed around another set of criteria."

He also admits that his passion has little to do with what he originally envisioned himself doing: stand-up training. "EPSS is a perfect marriage between technology and training," he says. "I guess I'm a geek at heart."

See the whole article