Managers at most companies are required to give performance
evaluations to their workers on a regular basis, usually at least
once a year.
While some executives say they enjoy the opportunity to provide
thoughtful, constructive feedback that will help the worker meet
clearly defined performance objectives, others - the majority,
perhaps - would rather go to the dentist.
Many managers are uncomfortable giving feedback, especially if
the review is not a positive one.
The idea of turning to a machine for advice on how to deal with
other humans may be unsettling to some executives.
Yet a program called Performance Mentor ($295, for IBM PCs and
compatibles, from Performance Mentor Inc. of Palo Alto), uses expert
system technology, a subset of artificial intelligence, to help
executives prepare for job evaluations and to advise them on how to
conduct the reviews in the most effective way.
A methodical checklist for managers, Performance Mentor can help
clarify the positive and negative points the executive wants to
The goal is better communication between managers and workers
and a more consistent and effective evaluation process.
A related benefit is that better-prepared managers and
supervisors will experience less anxiety as they anticipate the
``It does in fact work,'' concluded David D. Van Fleet, a
professor of business management at Arizona State University's
College of Business in West Phoenix.
Working with Lt. Col. Tim Peterson of the Air Force, the
professor conducted a study to determine if computers could help
managers improve their communication during job evaluations.
``Performance Mentor did decrease the managers' anxiety a bit
because it gave them guidance on how to prepare for the review,'' he
said, ``but more significant, it helped inexperienced managers do as
well as experienced managers in a short time.''
Expert systems are computer tools that apply knowledge to a
The knowledge is gleaned from interviews with human experts and
coded into a set of rules that can be applied to a given problem.
Expert systems are widely used in many different business
situations, like evaluating insurance claims, determining factory
schedules or making medical diagnoses.
Performance Mentor applies an expert system to the less tangible
area of human relations.
According to its developers, Performance Mentor represents the
distillation of advice from more than 100 experienced personnel and
human resources professionals.
The synthesis forms a confidential PC-based expert adviser,
available to act as a manager's personal consultant or mentor in the
planning for an employee job review.
Peterson, director of logistics training and knowledge systems
at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama, evaluated Performance Mentor as
part of a doctoral dissertation on the use of expert systems in
``I used real managers, some of whom had given reviews many
times and others who had just been promoted and had not yet given
performance feedback,'' he said.
Half the experienced managers and half the rookies were given
the software and then asked to prepare for a review with a difficult
A scoring scale was devised to check the effectiveness of their
``What came out loud and clear was that if you have an expert
system like Performance Mentor, you score four times better than if
you don't have an expert system,'' he said, ``and it doesn't matter
if you are an experienced manager or not. …