Joe Harless, my hero

Joe Harless
Newnan GA Times Herald

I learned late yesterday that Joe Harless, who listed himself on LinkedIn as “independent think tank professional,” died on October 4th.  (Here’s a report in the Newnan, Georgia Times Herald.)

I don’t know how widely known Joe was outside the world of ISPI, the International Society for Performance Improvement, prior to his semi-retirement from that arena. (Later in life, as the Times-Herald article explains, he was involved in improving the impact of high school education near his home in Newnan and throughout the state.) I’m pretty sure it wasn’t widely enough, which is a shame for people who worked in what used to be called the training and development field.

That’s because Joe, like many of his colleagues, realized that the real goal of that field should not be doing training. Here’s Joe in 1992, writing in the ISPI journal, then called Performance and Instruction:

My behaviorism roots conditioned me to observe what people do, rather than what they say they do.

Tom Gilbert taught me to give more value to what people produce (accomplishment) than what they do or know.

I learned from observations of other technologies (medicine, engineering, plumbing, building the Tower of Babel, etc.) the wisdom of common purpose and agreeing on definitions….

I get confused when people say they are Performance Technologists but always produce training / informational / educational type interventions for every project. This confuses me because examination of more that 300 diagnostic front-end analyses done by cour company and our clients shows the information / training / education class of intervention was the least frequently recommended.

More than 30 years ago, I attended JAWS – the Job Aid Work Shop that Joe developed. I’d been working for Amtrak, developing training for ticket clerks, reservations agents, and others. JAWS provided me with a systematic way of looking at how people accomplish things on the job and figuring out where it made a lot more sense to create a job aid then to try (usually fruitlessly) to have them memorize the information that the job aid contains.

A side benefit of JAWS was getting to know Joe, a man serious about his work, gracious in his dealings with others, and good-humored in his presentation. Like an old-time Southern preacher, he’d become Reverend Joe and say things like, “An ounce of analysis is worth a pound of objectives.”

(Meaning: it’s terrific to have sound, behavioral objectives for your training–but maybe the problem you’re dealing with is not one that training can solve.)

He also nudged ISPI toward a name change by saying that “the National Society for Performance and Instruction” was the equivalent of “the National Society for Transportation and Bicycles.”

Again from that 1992 article:

Trainers sell training. They are usually commanded to do so, and are rewarded for the volume of training developed and delivered. Educators are conditioned to teach “subject-matter,” not to impact performance.  Most vendors hawk a given product, not a process. Buyers typically want to buy things, not analysis. Our letterheads read Training Department, or Education Center, or Learning, Inc., etc. The names of our organizations do not imply: performance improvement sold here.

I took a number of Joe’s workshops, including ones on instructional design and on front-end analysis. As he began working on what became his Accomplishment-Based Curriculum Development system, he invited a number of people like me, who’d used his workshops in our own organizations, to participate in a tryout for one of the new components. He was especially eager to hear our candid opinions. He knew what he was doing, but he was pretty sure he didn’t know everything.

I attended my first professional conference around 1978, when ISPI (then NSPI) met in Washington DC, where I was working (no travel cost!). After one session, I was speaking with Stephanie Jackson, an experienced practitioner, when Joe Harless came up–Stephanie had worked for him previously. We three talked for a bit, and it was clear to me that these two were good friends. Joe said to Stephanie, “Let’s get a beer.” I said something about letting them catch up with each other, to which Joe responded, “Don’t you like beer?”

In my career, I’ve learned a lot from many people, but Joe Harless was the right person at the right time for me, opening doors and sharing ideas, hearty and enthusiastic and curious.  What he did was to make concrete for me ways to enable other people to produce better results on the job. He combined analytical skills with openness to new ideas and an interest in other fields that has inspired me always.

We once talked about the job aid workshop, which I gave any number of times at Amtrak and GE. At one point, he had a segment where he’d present examples of good job aids and bad ones.  “Not any more,” he told me. “Now I put ’em all out and let the participants figure out which ones are good and why.”

I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday with Guy Wallace of EPPIC. I said that for me, “It’s practically hero worship, but you know how Joe would have laughed at that.”

I was holding back, I think, because of the immature connotation of “hero worship.” But Joe has had more direct influence on my career than anyone I can think of. I learned from his ideas, I was energized by his search for data as evidence, and although it was probably true for many people, I loved that he called me “Cousin Dave.”

If someone’s influence in your life makes you want to do better, if his work and his interaction inspire you to dig deeper and reach further, then that person’s a hero.

You could do a lot worse that hear Joe himself talk about performance–on-the-job accomplishment–as the heart of the matter.   Guy has a number of videos on YouTube, including a 90-minute one from a discussion in Toronto earlier this year at ISPI’s 50th anniversary.  I’ve set this link to start at the 8-minute mark, when Joe begins speaking.  You might find it worth a few minutes of your time, even with some of the callouts to old friends and inside jokes.  I’ve included a few comments here as highlights, all of which come in the first seven minutes of Joe speaking.

…Even in the heyday of programmed learning in the Sixties there were some of us who were arguing that we should be about developing instructional technology, not just programmed instruction, if we truly wanted to revolutionize training and education.

…Not willing to let good enough alone, there were some of us who were then arguing that we should be about the development of what? Performance technology, that would subsume instructional technology and have as its process, at the beginning, a process that was like medical diagnosis. I called my version of the diagnostic process Front End Analysis…

The genesis of my front-end analysis was the confounding realization that many of the training– the training that we developed for our clients didn’t seem to make any difference in the on the job situation, even after the trainees, the learners, successfully acquired the knowledge we so carefully taught them. I don’t know — a rough analogy, I suppose, is that we gave them good medicine but it didn’t cure the disease….

We conducted follow-up investigations with the aid of some of our cooperative clients…. In a shocking number of cases, we found that a lack of skill and knowledge was not the predomination cause of the non-job-performing situations…. Thus all the training in the world would do little to help the performance.

I’m going to miss Joe a lot. I do already.

8 thoughts on “Joe Harless, my hero

  1. I met Joe when he introduced his ABCD certification program at my company. Later, he did a tele-presentation for our local NSPI chapter. Joe was a true visionary and had a big influence on the way I view learning and work. Joe worked in his community to make it better and had a sense of justice and fairness. I also know he was big into cars – I say that only to illustrate his colorful personality.

    I read An Ounce of Analysis is Worth a Pound of Objectives many years ago and will search high and low to find another copy.

    Thanks Dave

  2. Joe said once that it’s easy to find vintage Jaguars with low mileage, because the typical Jaguar spends so much of its time in the shop that it has no chance to roll up the odometer.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Joe and his influence on many instructional designers/performance technologists. I enjoyed his sense of humor as much as his insights.

  4. Mike, I think both the insights and the humor were fundamental aspects of Joe’s character. He was already a big name within NSPI/ISPI when I met him — a successful consultant, a past president of the organization, and especially important to me, a person who showed how to connect theory to practice.

    At one point, he thought that a logical progression through the workshops he offered would be: first, the front-end analysis workshop, then the job aids workshop, and then instructional design workshop. Several of us veterans told him that in our opinion, JAWS was the ideal place to start, because you could not only apply its principles immediately, but you could produce virtually immediate results. That in turn would help your clients (internal or external) to achieve their goals, which meant they’d be all the more likely to ask, “Hey, got any other good stuff we can use?”

    He was extremely interested in that point of view, rather than brushing it aside because it might not have fit with his own preconceptions.

  5. Hi, Dave!

    I took JAWS from Joe in 1990 and was then certified as a trainer. I’ve conducted it several times over the years and now have another (paying!) opportunity to do so here in the Detroit area. But I’m no longer aware of where to obtain the learner packages. Last time, it was Saba but I don’t find anything on their website about it. Do you perhaps sell these, or know where to obtain them?


  6. Ken, I’ll reply more fully in an email, but as I recall when he closed his consulting practice Joe sold the rights to his workshops to another practitioner.

  7. Great article. I am beginning my research into the Accomplishment-Based Curriculum Development system and happened onto your Whiteboard. What a compliment you gave Joe.

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