Thursday, April 15, 2004

ETPSS (electronic tax performance support system)

Today is the day. Not the day of your root canal. Not the day you have to clean the gutters. But another day you might look forward to about as much. You know what it is. It's tax day.

What does this have to do with training or learning? A lot. This year, I decided to do my taxes online for the first time. There's a site that's free to anyone if you go through the IRS Website. I like free and I don't like paperwork. Seemed like a no-brainer to me.

As I signed into the program and began the process, I realized that this free online tax program was actually a sophisticated EPSS (electronic performance support system). Rather than just providing the forms to you online and letting you complete them electronically, the system actually offered a complex, branching structure and questions in plain English to guide you through that structure.

Before I'd realized the software was free and decided to use it, I had done some of my calculations on paper. That let me use the EPSS to check my work (and for me to trust that the software was accurate). The EPSS ensured that I couldn't mess up. Not just because it did the mathematical calculations for me but because it walked me through the process step-by-step. It supported me with its strong but flexible scaffolding.

For example, I didn't have to figure out what forms I needed and worry that I was missing a crucial one. As I answered the simple questions in plain English ("Did you have a major life change this year, like a marriage, house sale, or birth/adoption? If so, which one?"), the system figured out which forms I would need to fill out and then provided me with the questions to complete those (also in plain English). It also told me how to arrive at the numbers it was asking for (for example, for a business expense, saying, "this figure is the purchase price including tax and freight charges"). Like with other effective EPSSs, I didn't have to skim through the manual, trying to find out how to come up with the number, and puzzle out technical writing once I found the right section.

When I was doing my calculations by hand, I hadn't realized I would need to fill out a certain form and pay for a certain set of taxes (and I'm not sure I remembered that form or those taxes when I did my federal return by hand last year). So, the system caught a significant error I would've made. The IRS might not have caught it, but they might've, and resolving that error after the fact would have been a real pain.

What else did I like about the ETPSS? It asked me for information just once, and then used that information automatically when it was needed again. That saved me work re-entering it, as I would've had to do on paper, and valuable time. I felt like the software and I were a team, working together, each doing our part. It prompted me for the information, making sure I entered everything it needed. I provided the raw data and the knowledge of my life circumstances. Then, the program did the heavy work of figuring out the right forms to enter the info into and calculating, taking the burden of those steps off of me.

Maybe someday soon the information will feed directly from a digital W-2 provided by my company into the tax software. Maybe soon the U.S. government will already know all my life circumstances and figure my taxes for me (I'm not sure if that would be a good thing or not). Until then, I'm very happy with this equal partnership of woman and machine, this great example of how an EPSS can take the burden of remembering how to complete a process off of a person and let her or him focus on ensuring the accuracy of information and, in many cases, implementing the process's steps.

For more on EPSS in the workplace, go to the ASTD Reading List.

NOTE: The program I chose, which is free to anyone for the federal return, contains a good number of ads. But you can click through them quickly, so it was worth it for me.

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