Welcome to ISPI’s Organizational Spotlight! This column focuses on our members–some you may know, some you may not. Each month, we will explore what brought them to ISPI, how they use the principles of human performance technology (HPT), and their insights into the value of membership. This month our interview is with Deborah Stone, of DLS Group.

Headquartered in Denver with a D.C. branch, DLS specializes in improving performance for knowledge workers by leveraging cutting-edge technologies based on proven research and best practices to real-world performance solutions. They have extensive expertise in conducting feasibility studies, job analyses, and evaluation studies, as well as in developing mental models and performance improvement solutions, including immersive, real-world learning simulations–all aligned with our clients’ bottom line. DLS has won over 20 professional awards, including ISPI’s Outstanding Human Performance Intervention Award and Microsoft’s Award of Excellence for the Outstanding Performance Support System.

Does DLS Group work locally? Nationally? Internationally? Globally? How does your organization approach human performance technology (HPT) in each of these landscapes? Is it different? How so?

DLS works locally, nationally, and internationally. We work closely with our clients to ensure that we address cultural differences, especially as they relate to language, graphics, and interactions. To address any unique dialects, we employ translators who are from the same country and region as that of our target audience. Our work has been employed in Canada, Germany, Mexico, and Japan.

We have also developed interventions for U.S. audiences who speak different languages. For example, for a manufacturing client, three factors determined the compensation of their globally diverse staff: safety, speed, and quality. To convey these factors, DLS created job aids that combined photographs, short sentences, and icons, the last of which translated to bottom-line compensation. The project was so successful that the client implemented our approach across multiple assembly lines. This project received ISPI’s Outstanding Instructional Product Award.

How does DLS Group adapt to performance improvement needs for today’s variety of generational workforces?

HPT practitioners today are being asked to simultaneously meet the needs of four generations: silents, boomers, gen Xers, and millennials. On the surface, that appears to be a formidable challenge. But every workplace has had to deal with multiple generations and their styles of approaching work. Further, age is just one variable that, alone, doesn’t predict learning, memory, or performance.

Ruth Clark and Allison Rossett are correct: Our cognitive processes haven’t changed much since people evolved. What have changed are the media and tools we use, as well as the pace of change. As McLuhan noted, we make our tools and then our tools make us. So the real question is the same as it’s always been: How do we use effective soft and hard technologies to support performance in the right ways, to the right people at their time of need–regardless of their generation.

Looking ahead for HPT, I think we will need to stop seeing ourselves as single-source gatekeepers of expertise, and begin acting as performance facilitators. If our job is to cultivate improved performance, then it’s a short stretch to providing tools for people to shape their own performance and validate their understanding.

HPT models, be they Gilbert’s, Chevalier’s, or ISPI’s, break down sources of performance, a critical source being information. The decision we face is, do we keep that information in the environment, or do we ask individuals to keep (or construct) it in their heads? At DLS, we prefer the former approach, via users creating DIY materials as part of a community of practice. This frees formal training to do what it does best: having learners solve hard, ill-structured problems, while we provide coaching and feedback in a safe environment. This approach works for learners of every generation.

How do you use social media in your work? As a resource? As a solution?

Social media–as used for networking, research, project management, content development, user testing, and feedback–is an integral part of how DLS manages, develops, and implements HPT solutions, and it is often a critical component of the solutions themselves.

Ultimately, all learning is social learning, and social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn can be seen as a much larger, far-flung version of the water cooler, where learners can gather and validate information: “Who does this?” “Who’s good at it?” “Here’s what I’m doing, can someone help?” The need is the same, but the solution has become more efficient, more accessible, and sometimes more accurate.

But as Lance Dublin points out, social media is just another shiny penny. Or as Steve Villachica says, social media is the panacea du jour on the highway of forgotten technologies. This brings us back to Richard Clark, who notes that media doesn’t influence learning and performance—design does.

That said, most of our solutions in the last few years have employed various combinations of blogs, wikis, and case-study databases to capture best practices and foster collaborative problem solving. One immersive learning simulation (ILS) DLS developed encouraged learners to submit cases from their own experience. The response was very positive, and now the client has an impressive cache of material to create future simulations. While we were creating an ILS for another client, one of our SMEs learned of a situation via a professional blog that was eerily similar to one of the cases we were developing, which gave us the means to make the case richer, more detailed, and more up to date.

What is your favorite CPT or HPT story?

A client wanted us to develop training to decrease the frequency of incorrect help-desk call transfers. Initial analysis revealed that while we could have written volumes of training, doing so would not have closed the true performance gap. The structure and interface of the customer’s database made finding the correct person to solve a customer problem extraordinarily difficult.

To close this gap, we partnered with the client’s internal IT staff to redesign the interface and database to map customer problems with experts who could solve them. (We could have developed exclusively in-house, but by partnering with the client, we produced the intervention in half the time and half the cost.) Besides user-centered data structures, the interface featured context-sensitive tips for effective customer service that appeared on the user’s screen at appropriate times, as well as training that could be completed during downtime.

While the look and feel wasn’t graphically pretty, the performance support intervention decreased call transfers by 38%, saved the client $600K in the first six months, improved customer satisfaction ratings by 9%, and paid for itself within six months. Developed and implemented on a slim budget in a matter of months, the system won ISPI’s award for Outstanding Human Performance System.

The lessons? First, look beyond skill and knowledge gaps when selecting interventions; these represent less than 11% of performance gaps, according to Peter Dean. Second, consider leveraging your clients’ in-house knowledge and resources to maximize ROI.

What excites you about ISPI’s work?

As a member for over 20 years, I can say that ISPI, ISPI Front Range Chapter, and, most recently, the Armed Forces Chapter connect me to a community of practice that has no comparison and can be found nowhere else. Countless times, I have turned to my fellow ISPI members, research, and publications for guidance in HPT, consulting, and project management. The opportunity to share best practices and war stories with mentors, colleagues, and friends is invaluable.

I am also proud that ISPI was the first organization to introduce human performance technology and the CPT certification.

What types of learning and performance improvement opportunities does DLS Group offer its employees? Its clients?

At DLS, we have always taken an active role in cultivating our staff’s professional development. We provide our clients with cutting-edge information in our field. For example, we fully fund college degrees, including textbooks and other course materials.

  • Send staff to workshops, seminars, and professional conferences, including International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), eLearning Guild, and American Society for Training and Development’s (ASTD) International Conference and Expo (ICE) and TechKnowledge.
  • Sponsor staff for professional certifications such as Certified Performance Technologist (CPT).
  • Provide tools, information, training, advice, coaching, books, articles, and cutting-edge research to keep staff members and clients up to date with best practices in the field.
  • Make professional development a key factor in annual performance reviews.
  • Provide staff and client access to a deep pool of expertise of thought leaders in the performance improvement field, both in-house and external.
  • Support staff roles as officers and committee chairs of local, national, and international organizations, including ISPI, ASTD, and Society for Technical Communications (STC).
  • Sponsor staff and clients in the co-authoring of articles, book chapters, and white papers, as well as delivering presentations to professional organizations.

How has DLS’s approach(es) to performance improvement changed over time?

Virtual has replaced local, and delivery technologies have evolved at a dizzying rate, from videocassettes to the Internet, from mainframes to mobile devices, from client-server to cloud computing, from HyperCard to immersive, learning environments. But our core approach to HPT has remained the same: systematically identifying performance gaps and recommending solutions that align with an organization’s mission and business goals. We still analyze problems and opportunities through an analysis of the environment, audience, and job; determine the root causes; recommend solutions; prototype; user test; implement; and evaluate them–all in collaboration with our client.

So, if anything has changed it is the tools we employ that compress time and allow us to do more with less.

What has your organization learned from the recent economic slowdown?

Having been in business for 29 years, DLS has survived several economic slowdowns. Each has been an opportunity to return to the basics: adding value through interventions that are aligned with business goals, and closing performance gaps in ways that transfer to the job in support of the organization’s strategic mission and business goals.

We stay in touch with our clients–past and current–and network with colleagues. We use down time to keep our skills and knowledge current, review research, write articles, attend conferences, and stay true to our core HPT competencies. We have always treated our clients as partners, which means understanding their business goals, so that our performance improvement efforts can support them–today and tomorrow.

What interesting things does DLS Group do to manage and develop its human capital?

At DLS, we focus on adding value for our clients in all that we do, and developing human capital is no exception to this rule.

We begin by hiring the best of the best. But as the late, great Geary Rummler observed, if you put a good performer up against a bad system, the system wins every time. So we focus on maintaining a culture that supports exemplar performance. To do that, we give our consultants the training, tools, processes, coaching, feedback, and other job support they need to deliver value to our clients. We ensure they have clear performance benchmarks, which are tied to the strategic mission and financial well-being of our business. Progress of each team member is measured via formal and informal feedback systems that incorporate recognition, rewards, and other incentives–all in an atmosphere of continuous learning and collaboration.

Come to think of it, the human capital philosophy we follow at DLS is not that different from the performance improvement interventions we recommend to our clients.

How does human performance technology add value to DLS Group? How do you measure its worth and value?

Quite simply, HPT adds value to DLS Group by providing a systemic and systematic view of performance improvement. By providing a tool box of interventions, instead of just a hammer, we can solve a client’s performance problems as well as seize opportunities.

We are firm believers in the HPT evaluation models developed by Donald Kirkpatrick and Jack and Patti Philips. The ultimate measure of HPT is its transfer to the job and the resulting impact on the organization’s bottom line, as translated to ROI and/or return on expectations (ROE).

Specifically, this means measuring performance before and after the performance intervention, determining how much of any change can be attributed to the intervention, translating that portion into dollars and cents, and comparing the resulting benefit to the cost of developing and delivering the intervention.

We are pleased to see more people listening to Phillips’ and Kirkpatrick’s recommendation to start with the highest levels first and then build downward. It must have been grating for them to see people trying to move from level 1 to levels 4-5 for years, and it’s good that more people are starting with the end in mind.

We also strongly believe in Roger Addison’s practical view of determining what’s of value to an organization: look at the reports on the boss’s desk. Knowing how your boss is evaluated, and how his or her boss is evaluated, provides insight into what the organization considers to be important.