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.