Jim Greer, Gordon McCalla, Vive Kumar, Jason Collins, Paul Meagher
ARIES Laboratory, Department of Computer Science, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Increasingly, organizations are geographically distributed with activities coordinated and integrated through the use of information technology. Such organizations face constant change and the corresponding need for continual learning and renewal of their workers. In this paper we describe a system called PHelpS (Peer Help System) that facilitates workers in carrying out such "life long learning". When a worker runs into difficulty in carrying out a task, PHelpS provides a list of other workers who are ready, willing and able to help him or her. The worker then selects a particular helper with PHelpS supporting the subsequent help interaction. The PHelpS system acts as a facilitator to stimulate learning and collaboration, rather than as a directive agent imposing its perspectives on the workers.
Keywords--peer help, collaborative learning, user modelling, workplace training
A successful modern organization is characterized by workers who feel empowered and take ownership and pride in the things they do. It has a climate where employees at all levels help one another to meet the organization's mission. It fosters and rewards continual learning, encourages cross-training and collegial ties, and distributes the organizational knowledge across the entire workforce. But a successful modern organization doesn't just happen spontaneously. It develops as a result of organizational change where a management-created climate encourages the growth of grass-roots communities of learners and actively supports collaborative learning efforts.
One common component of collaborative learning is the "informal peer-help network". This is a social network of a worker's colleagues and acquaintances who are consulted for help and advice about work matters. Informal peer-help networks exist in every organization. They constitute a crucial component of training and acclimatization for new employees and represent an essential element of shared organizational memory. The goal of our project is to use technology to support collaborative learning and the expansion of informal peer-help networks in large distributed organizations, in particular those where information technology plays a central role.
In order to effectively use modern information technology a worker must possess both lower- level procedural and higher-level problem-solving and judgement skills. On the job performance support (through a good on-line help system or task checklists) can assist workers to overcome many simple impasses. Nevertheless, no matter the degree of training or skill, workers using information technology often need to request just-in-time help from someone in their informal peer-help network. More experienced users will make less frequent but more complex help requests, while novice users tend to make more frequent and normally less complex help requests.
The specific objective of our project is to provide assistance to workers who are learning to make effective use of a management information system in their workplace. This involves activities that range from training to performance support to just-in-time help. The approach we have taken is to develop a task-oriented performance support system that is tightly coupled with a peer help system (dubbed PHelpS). There are two novel aspects of the PHelpS approach. The first involves the use of a task-oriented performance support system to index help requests and user knowledge. The second involves knowledge-based support for locating a peer somewhere in the distributed organization who is ready, willing, and able to provide help when needed. Combining these aspects produces an effective environment for delivering just-in-time help. It also creates a fertile environment in which to study collaborative learning and organizational change. Finally, the necessity to maintain knowledge profiles of potential helpers has produced many interesting research challenges in the domain of user and learner modelling.