Training, performance, results, learning

UPDATE on 10-21) This post was going to be part of the October edition of the Working / Learning blog carnival, hosted at the Xyleme Learning Blog.  Leean and I have decided to move the date for that edition of the carnival to October 27th.
(What’s a blog carnival?  Details here. Don’t be shy.)

Harold Jarche’s post, Beyond Training, got me thinking about the arc (or the scattergram) of my own career.  Part of Harold’s point is that social media, with the connections and the immediacy that they enable, may herald the end, or at least the decline, of the factory approach to organizational training… and maybe even learning.

Pick your crystal ball...He might be right, though I think that large organizations will take a long time shifting.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter notwithstanding, most elephants don’t learn to dance — they get replaced by more terpsichorean others.

Or maybe we just have a lot of crystal balls, each of them providing one glimpse of a possible future.

When I started as a “writer/instructor” with Amtrak, training ruled the corporate instructional world.  Except where psychomotor skills dominated (the actual operation of an airplane, say), the primary model involved:

  • A body of knowledge, out there somewhere
  • People who had to “acquire” that knowledge
  • Various strategies and tactics for making that acquisition happen

Not all the strategies, and certainly not all the tactics, were optimal.  Still, people could and did learn — meaning, they started off unable to do a job, and ended up able to do it.

Gradually, though, the emphasis in how to develop training shifted — especially as some practitioners noticed that you don’t actually have to “train” (as in, “get people to memorize”) every part of every task.  This is where real instructional design started to matter.  If you alter your focus and work backwards from the performance you’re looking for, you can find strategies and tactics that don’t depend on repeating high school throughout a person’s working life.

In other words, it’s not do X and Y and Z in order to evaluate bank loan applications.  Instead, it’s here are the criteria for an acceptable loan, and here are ways to go about applying those criteria.  Which in turn meant “use this job aid” (or this online wizard) instead of “memorize these 37 factors.”

Joe Harless, among many others, saw that there are only two places to store knowledge (inside your head, or outside of it).  Storing inside (whether you call it learning or memorizing) is almost always costlier.

That stage still had a heavy emphasis on “body of knowledge;” it just connected the knowledge more clearly to the desired results.

Around the same time, but in a wider orbit, people like Geary Rummler, Dale Brethower, and Robert Mager (among many, many others) began taking a systems approach.  How a person (or a group) performs on the job depends on many things besides skill and knowledge.  A lot of this stuff has nothing to do with training, and a good part of it has nothing to do with learning, so far as the individual or group is concerned.

Performance improvement can be a much harder sell in an organization.  It’s not as tidy and easily understood as “11,000 student-days in the last six months” or “an average score of 85% on the ‘Basics of EDI’ online course.” The potential payoff is huge, especially when the group itself begins analyzing and problem-solving systematically.

There’s a parallel with things like Six Sigma, which in one company can re-energize while in another company becomes just the official religion (till the next one shows up).

Now we’re in the early stages of a new way of affecting performance on the job.  I’m still skeptical that most people can are willing, let alone ready, to take charge of their own learning.  I’m more skeptical that they can do that in concert with their peers in large or complex organizations.

I do agree with Harold that organizations may be moving from a performance-improvement approach to a “connecting and facilitating one.”  (Though I have to say that an awful lot of organizations I’ve seen would be doing very well to start thinking about performance improvement instead of butts-in-seats and LMS-hours-per-employee.)

Harold, Michele Martin, and Tony Karrer have put together Work Literacy’s Web 2.0 for Learning Professionals.  I think of it as usefully chaotic; it’s a site where people interested in various implications of 2.0 can find out more, discover people with experience or people with similar interests.

I don’t know whether that approach could easily transfer to areas of performance with high risk — where compliance with standards or outside regulations is mandatory, for example, or where the consequence of error is significant. Nor where stuff is just plain complex.

I’m not saying it can’t.  I’m saying I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does.  We’re in a period of learning, which means interacting with the outside world and experiencing some stress.  The feedback from that interaction causes physical change in a person’s brain, and those physical changes lead to… learning.

There isn’t an either-or answer, and it’s foolish to seek one.  Straightforward, near-transfer, procedural stuff — how to operate the home-makeover software to help the home store customer plan a remodeling, say — fits very well into what looks like “training” to the average person.

Call it “informed learning support.”  Some basic terminology here, some concepts there, a suggested series of exercises there.  Connect with others at roughly your level?  Sure.  Involve more experienced people (who’ve perhaps been coached to encourage you to experiment and even fall short before they give you more explicit help)?  You got it.

Most people don’t want to stumble around in the basics.  If they don’t know anything, they’d like to get quickly to where they do know something, so they can try to do something.  The factory learning model doesn’t fit every situation, but neither does everyone want to build his own auto engine, let alone smelt the steel to make it with.

Photo of balls in crystal by David Reese.

3 thoughts on “Training, performance, results, learning

  1. Great article. It nicely summarizes the past, present, and potential future of workplace learning. I agree, everything is moving away from teacher-centered to learner-centered experiences. Perhaps our future role in this field will be to shape and influence learning when it happens vs. dictating the objectives of the program.

    Another good point – there is simply too much information to be assimilated. I believe maximum workplace performance occurs when you understand who you are as an individual (strengths, personality traits, values, etc), you are in the right job (good fit), and then you are plugged into the people and systems around you. That’s when learning happens without realizing it.

  2. Marguerite: glad you found the post worth reading.

    One common misperception, I think, is that the traditional, content based approach works. It kind of does, but I think there are a couple of factors at work:

    • First, a great deal of traditional training is at the lower end of the explicit/tacit scale. Straightforward procedure dominates: this is how to do X, and X isn’t something like “analyze data-integration needs for a Fortune 100 company.”
    • Although planned performance support is pretty thin on the ground, there’s ad-hoc support. First, a lot of systems won’t let you do what you shouldn’t do, so you “learn” not to try that.
    • Heyjoe support abounds.

    What this means is that there’s a lot of after-the-fact, improvisational, figure-it-out stuff going on that makes traditional training look better than it is. Abstraction of results continues as you go up the organizational hierarchy, so the top brass doesn’t often ask about the gaps between training activity and on-the-job results.

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