Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSSs) (Terri Lynn Cardona)


Gloria Gery, in 1991, defined EPPS as “the use of technology to provide on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people” (Snodgrass, 1998, p. 298). In the 1980s, the development of EPSS was primarily about machines and software and human performance was secondary. Ten years later, Gery, who championed the EPSS movement in 1989, (Dickelman, 2003) began her “quest to decrease the complexity (and thus the learning required) to work with technology to perform tasks” (Gery, 2003, p. 1). She realized the definition of a successful EPSS was focused on technology and not the performance of people.

In a performance support system, we must recognize the performer’s expertise in his or her environment and the fact that the performer may have additional information not contained within or considered by the support system. The system, therefore, must take the role of an assistant rather than a director. (Snodgrass, 1998, p. 313)

EPSS functions to improve employee performance by creating a knowledge-centered relationship between performers and their computer. EPSS can help to reduce the number of steps required to complete a task, guide an employee to perform a task by providing needed information and can act as a support system to help employees make the best choice under a defined set of circumstances. For example, EPSS can guide a loan agent to process a loan based on a client meeting specific criteria. Additionally, EPSS helps to reduce training costs while increasing productivity and performance, due to its “just-in-time” and “on user demand” capabilities.

There are three defined models of performance support systems within the computer mediated environment:  intrinsic support, extrinsic support and external support.  Intrinsic support is integrated into the software, where the user performs work tasks and duties without conscious attention to the system. (See Case Study: NPS)  Extrinsic support is familiar to us in the form of tips, wizards and explanations and demonstrations.  A user can request extrinsic support via the computer-mediated system, such as "asking" the paper clip avatar a question when using Microsoft word or if given the option, can choose to accept or reject the help, as when the paper clip avatar makes suggestions about formatting or writing a letter.  Lastly, external support is not integrated with the computer mediated system.  Common examples of external support are Help Desks, job aids and training programs (See Case Study: Leadership Transitions).

EPSS aims to improve performance in the workplace. Based on performance-centered design, “EPSS is the electronic infrastructure for capturing, disseminating, and integrating the knowledge, information, and tools a job performer needs to achieve individual and organizational performance goals” (Raybould, 2001, p. 1). EPSS can be the online policies and procedures, reference materials used in a call center, or the MS Office help file that Excel users can access to master a task. These tools touch our daily lives in surprising ways, such as Weight Watchers online, a complete weight management system that guides the user to lose weight and find a healthy life style.

As a learning system, EPSS is integrated into the employee’s environment. It “generates performance and learning at the moment of need” (Snodgrass, 1998, pg. 278). Additionally, with EPSS, the learners are primarily responsible for teaching and learning independently. Learning is defined by the user, when troubleshooting a problem. Performance is evaluated through successful completion of tasks that were aided by the EPSS.  Learner centered EPSS will display some or all of the following characteristics outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Computer based

Quick and immediate access to information is available to the user at the time the task is being performed and "just in time."

Available during task performance

To be considered performance support, two characteristics need to exist simultaneously: 1) there must be access to the specific information needed to perform a task (think the little annoying office helper) and 2) there must be access to that information when the task is being performed.

On the job usage

EPSSs are designed to provide information to the worker at their place of work.

User controlled

As there is no need for training, the worker decideds if, when and what information is needed. The worker supplies the motivation to accomplish the task and thus, find the necessary tutoring.

Reduces need for prior training

Having available information ready when the worker needs it to perform a task reduces the need for any prior training.

Easily updated

The benefit of using an EPSS and its technological nature is that it is a media that can be current at all times.

Quick access to information

EPSSs must allow for quick access when the user needs to access the information to perform a job task.

No wasted information

The information provided will be sought by the user. Therefore, although there may be a substantial amount of information, the user will access only specific information he/she is seeking to perform the job task.

Allows for users who may have different levels of knowledge

As EPSSs are user centerd, users with a substantial amount of knowledge about a particular topic can search for what they need. Novice users may choose to view tutorials, help files and other supporting information.

Adapts to different learning styles

Using a combination of visual, textual and audio formats, users can select the delivery method that best suits their preferred style of learning.

Integration of information, advice and learning experiences

Using a combination of an online tutrial and practice simulation, a user can gain the knowledge and experience needed prior to performing the task.

According to Kim Ruyle, EPSS “leverages cognitive capabilities” (Sanders & Thiagarajan, 2001, p. 31). Learning and competency building, created through the learner’s use of EPSS draws upon situated cognition in which the learner can try things such as interviewing “do’s and don’ts” that will challenge the learner’s knowledge and skills. With the system’s support, the learner can practice and succeed in a safe environment. It is recommended by Ruyle that all of the following conditions be true before using an EPSS application:

Case Studies

The National Park Service:  Business Plan Developer
In 1999, The National Park Service (NPS) requested business plans be written by the individual parks to demonstrate their contributions, growth, and needs. These plans were used to help solicit funds for running of the parks and to encourage contributions to support park activities. Prior to 1999, creating a business plan was a manual process involving standard forms, tools such as Excel and Word, and was often contracted to professional consultants. From 1999 through 2002, plans were created during the summer by interns with M.B.A.s, who focused on public policy.  Using the intern-based system, NPS would generate approximately 12-13 business plans for 380 national parks.  These plans were often created during the busiest seasons for the parks, rather than during the off season and were often left incomplete, when the interns returned to school and park personnel was experiencing their busiest work periods.  As a result the NPA determined that a better solution would be to have park personnel write and create their own business plans.  The question was how to prepare the NPS personnel with the skills and knowledge to be able to do this. The answer was the Business Plan Developer, created by SI International, Inc., for the NPS to allow park personnel to build business plans.  This performance centered design used tools to guide inexperienced personnel through the process of gathering information for the business plan on to the actual writing of the plan, through the use of fill-in screen and electronic data gathering methods. After conducting the front-end analysis, SI International determined the work process to create a business plan.  Using two software applications, one for collecting data and one to help construct the business plan, SI International created two systems that were integrated within an EPSS that would coach and prompt the user through the writing of the business plan, by asking questions, seeking user input and providing tips.  The user filled in the specifics of their park, and the EPSS generates charts and profit and loss statements that can be used for the business plan. The Business Plan Editor, the second application within the EPSS, is where the actual business plan document is written.  With the use of the Business Plan developer, the NPS found they could orient and train park personnel within one day to use the system, versus the five required for the manual process.

Through the use of the Business Plan Developer, the following results have been achieved:

Harvard Business School of Publishing: Leadership Transitions
For $195.00 and online access for a year, managers, from any organization, who are assuming new responsibilities in their company or starting new somewhere else, can find all of the performance support resources needed in Leadership Transitions. Leadership Transitions is unique, primarily because of the delivery method of using a best practice process.  Over 20 topics covered in Leadership Transitions, including Business Education, Competitive Decision Making, Human Resources Management, Management Development, Management Training, Organizational Behavior & Leadership, Organizational Development, and Supervision.  To guide managers through the acquisition of their new and needed knowledge and skills, Leadership Transitions uses tips, guidelines, assessments and tools centered on these 8 topic areas:

Leadership Transitions provides the day to day mentoring from an EPSS that a new manager needs in his/her role.  It is a completely self-contained program, where the learner is in control of “how much,” “what,” and “when.”  Additionally, the program includes assessments and measures and is designed in 10 minute sessions.

What makes Leadership Transitions unique to use is its aim to achieve the following results:

Consultants, Researchers, Writers

Gloria Gery, Gery Associates, coined the phase "Electronic Performance Support System."

Alan Cooper founded Cooper Interaction Design in 1992. It’s in San Francisco, CA.

Gary J. Dickelman, President and CEO of EPSSCENTRAL.  http://www.epsscentral.info

Current Trends, Hot Topics and Buzzwords

Hot jobs: Instructional Designers and Human Performance Technologists. 20 years since its inception, practioners now know the delivery channel is not the primary driver in increasing performance.  Applying solid instructional design principles (understand the tasks to be supported, user characteristics and the environment) is what creates enhanced user performance. 

Professional Associations, Current “Best Seller” Books, Magazines


Internet: Check out these websites!

Periodicals and Newsletters



Bowsher, J. (February 2004).  Working Partners: The CLO and the executive team.  Chief Learning Officer, 3(2), 42-45.

Cichelli, J. & Marion, C. (2004).  Performance-centered design awards 2004 submission form. Retrieved October 1, 2004 from http://files.epsscentral.info/samples/2004_pcd_awards/BPD/SI-INTL%20inprod.htm

Dickelman, G. (2000). The state of the practice. In G. J. Dickelman, (ed.), EPSS Revisited: A Lifecycle for Developing Performance-Centered Systems (pp. 87-97).  Silver Spring, MD:  International Society for Performance Improvement.

Ford, D. (2002). Knowledge interventions: Training is no always the answer.   In G. Piskurich (ed.), HPI essentials (pp. 115-131). Alexandria, VA:  ASTD.

Gery, G. (1995). Attributes and behaviors of performance-centered systems.  In G.J. Dickelman, (ed.), EPSS Revisited: A Lifecycle for Developing Performance-Centered Systems (pp.4-50).  Silver Spring, MD:  International Society for Performance Improvement.

Gery, G. (2003).  Ten years later:  A new introduction to attributes & behaviors and the state of performance-centered systems.   In G.J. Dickelman, (ed.), EPSS Revisited: A Lifecycle for Developing Performance-Centered Systems (pp. 1-3).  Silver Spring, MD:  International Society for Performance Improvement.

Karrer, T. & Gardner, E. (March, 2004).  E-performance at work: Efollowup. Learning Circuits. Retrieved November 29, 2004 from http://www.learningcircuits.org/2004/mar2004/karrer.htm

Lessard, L. & Mowat, J. (1998). Chapter 15: An epss design and development process. In P. Dean & D. Ripley (eds.), Performance improvement interventions: Performance technologies in the workplace (pp. 321-334).  Washington, D.C.: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Raybould, B. (2001). EPSS and your organization. Info-line.  Issue 9806. Alexandria, VA:  ASTD.

Ruyle, K.E. (October 2004).  EPSS: A 20-Year Retrospective.   PerformanceXpress. Retrieved October 3, 2004 from http://www.performancexpress.org/

Ruyle, K. (2001). Electronic performance support systems. In, E. Sanders & S.Thiagarajan, Performance intervention maps (pp. 31-38).  Alexandria, VA:  ASTD.

Sleight, D. A. (1993).  Types of electronic performance support systems: Their characteristics and range of designs.  Michigan State University.  Retrieved October 2, 2004 from http://www.msu.edu/~sleightd/epss_copy.html

Snodgrass. P. J. (1998).  Chapter 13: Gery on electronic performance support systems.  In P. Dean & D. Ripley (eds.), Performance improvement interventions: Performance technologies in the workplace (pp. 278-320).  Washington, D.C.: International Society for Performance Improvement.