What is Electronic Performance Support and What Isn't?

Deborah Alpert Sleight, 1993


There are many computerized tools and instructional programs that people claim are performance support systems, but which sometimes are not. What makes a program an electronic performance support system (EPSS)? An electronic performance support system is, according to Barry Raybould (1991), "a computer-based system that improves worker productivity by providing on-the-job access to integrated information, advice, and learning experiences." Gloria Gery (1989) defines it as "an integrated electronic environment that is available to and easily accessible by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualized on-line access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit job performance with minimal support and intervention by others" (p. 21).

EPSSs are generally used to provide support for:


An electronic performance support system displays some or most of the following characteristics.


EPSSs are computer-based, which is what the "electronic" in their name indicates. There have been older attempts at performance support systems, such as a series of manuals, job aids, and other paper material. But it wasn't until the advent of powerful multimedia computers that true performance support could be made possible. True support includes quick and easy access to the information needed at the time the task is being performed. This information may be in the form of alphanumeric text, graphics, audio, or video.

Provide access to the discrete, specific information and tools needed to perform a task at the time the task is to be performed.

This is a two-part characteristic: 1) access to the specific information and tools needed to perform a task, and 2) access to the information and tools at the time the task is to be performed. If one part of this characteristic does not exist, then the characteristic changes and is no longer a performance support characteristic. The discrete, specific information provided may be:

Used on the job, or in simulations or other practice of the job

An EPSS provides information to people on the job, or in simulations or other practice of the job. The information is provided as the worker sees a need for it. This availability of information, instruction, advice and tools makes much prior training unnecessary. The EPSS can be used in simulations or other practice of the job, so that workers learn both the information he or she will probably need when doing the job, and how to use the EPSS itself.

Controlled by the worker

The worker decides when and what information is needed. There is no need for an instructor because the worker is guided by the needs of the task. The motivation is provided by the worker's desire to accomplish the task.

Reduce the need for prior training in order to accomplish the task

The easy availability of the information needed to perform a task reduces the need for much prior training.

Easily updated

The very nature of an EPSS--that it provide the information needed to perform a task--requires that it be easily updated in order to keep the information current. The computerized nature of an EPSS makes updating faster and easier in some ways than in other media (such as print).

Fast access to information

The user must be able to find information quickly when it is needed on the job, otherwise the EPSS is no better than a printed manual, which probably contains the information, but it may be more difficult to find quickly.

Irrelevant information excluded

The user is able to access only the specific, discrete information needed at that instant, instead of having to wade through loads of irrelevant information to find a few details. This is one of the problems with instruction that is not specific to a task; it forces the user to sift through it looking for the details needed. This sifting not only slows the user down, but can result in confusion.

Allow for different levels of knowledge in users

In order to speed up information access and understanding, an EPSS can provide minimal information for expert users and more detail for new users.

Allow for different learning styles of users

Through multimedia, an EPSS can accommodate users with varied learning styles, thus providing more optimal learning. The same information can be presented in visual, textual, and audio formats, with the user selecting the format.

Integrate information, advice, and learning experiences

An EPSS can integrate information, advice, and learning experiences. For example, a database entry might describe a procedure. Users may not know if the procedure is the proper one to use, so they might turn to the advisor to find out. The advisor would ask some questions about what needs to be accomplished, then would suggest which procedure to use. If necessary, users could then go through a tutorial on using the procedure and practice it in a simulation before actually performing the procedure.

According to Clay Carr (1992), artificial intelligence (AI) is an essential characteristic of EPSS, but not according to Gloria Gery. At this early stage of performance support system design and use, AI is not essential, but someday it will be one of EPSS's defining characteristics.

An EPSS may not contain all these characteristics; different systems will fall on a continuum of these characteristics (see Range of Classification as EPSS below). An EPSS displaying all these characteristics is an optimal system. Since performance support systems are still young, it is more likely that many will display only the key characteristics.



Of the characteristics described above, the key characteristics of EPSSs which make them different from other computerized instructions or tools are:

These key characteristics are the minimum a program must have in order to called an EPSS. By definition it must be computerized ("electronic"). It must provide the specific information needed to perform a task, otherwise it would be no different from traditional training, which provides the information needed, but includes irrelevant data. It must provide the specific information when it is needed, otherwise there is no difference between it and traditional training, which provides the information, but not when it is needed. It must allow the learner to decide when information is needed, otherwise it is no different from teacher-controlled traditional training. And finally, the program must reduce the need for prior training in order to accomplish the task, otherwise why have a performance support system at all?


Here are some types of training programs and the EPSS characteristics they commonly possess. Some instances of these programs may demonstrate additional characteristics, but usually they exhibit the characteristics noted in the table. (Key characteristics are listed in the top part of the table.)

Electronic Database
Computer-based    X  X  X
Access to information and tools when needed to perform a task      X  X
Used on the job, in simulations, or other practice    X  X  X
Controlled by the worker      X  X
Reduce the need for prior training in order to accomplish the task        X
Easily updated      X  X
Fast access to specific, task-related information        X
Irrelevant information excluded        X
Allow for different levels of user knowledge    X    X
Allow for different learning styles    X    
Integrate information, advice, and instruction  X      

Online Help is closest to an EPSS, but because it does not provide access to the tools needed to do a task, but only information, it cannot be considered an EPSS. Of course, if the online help did provide access to needed tools, then it could perhaps be considered an EPSS. Similarly, if an electronic database were designed with the key characteristics, then it could be an EPSS.

The other types of training-CBT and traditional classroom training-are not EPSS by definition. They are both designed to present a coherent whole, not to allow easy access to specific task-oriented details. They are designed and controlled by the instructor or designer. Although the CBT module could be accessed at a worker's desk or worksite, it is usually not designed for quick access of specific details. In essence, it is a component of an EPSS, the tutorial part.

Some CBT programs provide tools that support the user learning the content of the CBT. Such performance support tools might be a glossary, concept map, calculator, access to computer- mediated communication, and so on. Such CBT programs might be considered to be EPSS, if the task they are supporting is the learning of the content.

(c) Deborah Alpert Sleight, 1993
Permission is given to reprint for non-profit use providing credit is given.

Deborah Alpert Sleight
Educational Psychology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824