It’s the performance, or, what every manager should know about Bob Mager

Last week, I found myself in a couple of discussions about the difference between training and learning.  I only took one philosophy course in college, and later on I hollowed out the textbook to hide a gag gift, so it’s clear I’m not that contemplative on this issue.

To oversimplify, many people in more traditional training jobs felt strongly that there is such a thing as “training” and that it has the potential for great value.  Other people, by and large on the you-manage-your-own-learning side, seemed to place little value on structured training as such.

Although I doubt most participants intended it, you could interpret the divergent views as “this is important work I’m doing that helps people become more productive” versus “get out of your rut.”

Maybe not a rut, but at least a well-worn path.  I’ve spent a lot of time in that corporate-training path: 7 years at Amtrak, 18 at GE, and much of my consultant career since.  Usually I’m far from the executive suite, so I have some sympathy for challenges that first-line and middle managers face together with their work groups.

Which is why, over and over, I recommend Robert F. Mager‘s What Every Manager Should Know about Training.  Not just to clients (though I’ve even sent the book as a gift when I thought it would be well received) but to the corporate trainers supporting them.

It’s not a scholarly book, nor a thick one; you could probably read the 140 pages in two hours. But in that space, Bob Mager works hard to get managers out of the training-as-dosage mythology.

  • Or, I've got a training problem (and other odd ideas)Rule 1: Training is appropriate only when two conditions are present:
    • There is something people don’t know how to do, and
    • They need to be able to do it.
  • Rule 2: If they already know how, more training won’t help.
  • Rule 3: Skill alone is not enough to guarantee performance.
  • Rule 4: You can’t store training.
    • Use it or lose it.
  • Rule 5: Trainers can guarantee skill, but they can’t guarantee on-the-job performance.
  • Rule 6: Only managers, not trainers, can be held accountable for on-the-job performance.

Mager: “If training is only a means to an end, what is the end toward which it strives?  It’s performance.”  Someone familiar with concepts like ISPI’s human performance technology model (links to a PDF document) recognizes exactly what Mager’s doing: smuggling performance improvement into the organization.  He’s just hidden it in a plain brown wrapper that’s labeled TRAINING.

He was clever in choosing the title, because I’d argue the majority of people who supervise or manage in organizations use “training,” at least in casual conversation, to mean a whole complex of things related to getting people to produce valuable results on the job.  Instead of trying to convert them to performance-improvement or informal-learning jargon, Mager starts where these managers are likely to start.  Then he builds on their likely experience in other dimensions of work to help them see how training (as a structured approach toward helping people acquite skills they don’t have) is one part of overall performance.

In the chapter, Where the Magic Goes In, Mager addresses another concern managers have:

Instead of asking, “How long will it take to develop my course?” you might consider asking:

What can you do for me with the lead time I’ve got?…

For example, if [the training department has] only two days for training development, the most useful thing they can do is to verify whether training is a valid solution, and to verify which solutions will have the greatest impact on the problem.

If the trainers have time to do one more thing, a task analysis would be the most useful action.  These analyses can be turned into checklists in a matter of minutes, and the checklists can be given immediately to the instructors…and to the trainees, to show…what competent performers can do….

If there is time to do one more thing, trainers can derive the objectives of the instruction and then draft skill checks by which instructional success can be measured…

…Which, by the way, isn’t a bad way to think about any sort of guidance you’d like to provide other people.

15 thoughts on “It’s the performance, or, what every manager should know about Bob Mager

  1. I love this so much I’m christening the model “D-A-V-E-Y” and will no longer even use ADDIE as a way to develop training.

    Still working on what the letters mean. It’s the acronym that counts, anyway.

  2. Dick, my copy is the 1992 edition–I’ve always been puzzled and a little depressed that so few people in the corporate world have heard of Mager.

    As you well know, a person can go much more deeply (and effectively) into performance improvement. At the same time, I think the single most intelligent thing someone in a corporate-training setting can do, for personal development and for the good of the organization, is to get this message.

  3. Allison, I discovered Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives in grad school, when I was a Teacher Corps intern. A few years later, I ran into Analyzing Performance Problems (written with Peter Pipe). And by 1980, I’d heard and read ISPI gurus like Geary Rummler, Dale Brethower, Joe Harless, Jim and Dana Robinson… and Allison Rossett.

    The unifying thread is a data-driven, result-oriented focus. Pretty much anything effective I’ve done professionally has come from that.

  4. Back last century when I worked in a large airline, the new CLO purchased copies of this book to distribute to managers and leaders. Training was the palliative cure-all for every issues. When some bone head didn’t follow a procedure or ignored an instruction – yep, training the answer inflicted very expensively in broad sweeps across the business units. Outcome – the conversation changed to performance. Dave, Thanks for reminding us about the power in this book.

  5. Don, you may recognize this excerpt–I figure Mager is much better at making his own case than I am.

    When some managers notice someone performing inadequately, there is a tendency to conclude that they’ve “got a training problem”…

    If you say that to a trainer who doesn’t know the craft, he or she probably will begin building a course, without really addressing the problem first. You might then find yourself with a fine, entertaining course that trainees rave about but that doesn’t do any good…

    If someone [asks]…trainers who do know their craft, those trainers will say to themselves… “The first thing I need to do is to find out what event is causing this person to conclude that training is needed.”

  6. Dave- It’s been 10 years since I’ve read Mager (I had the Mager 6 pack back then). His work played an important role early in my education about training/learning (or whatever you want to call it! :) ) It’s time for a little refresher. I just ordered the book above. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  7. Bryan, I’m glad you found the post helpful.

    I see a very clear progression–or maybe expansion is a better word–as interrelated concepts open the door to systematic thinking.

    Preparing Instructional Objectives dealt with the very immediate: how can I focus my teaching / training / structured-learning around observable outcomes?

    Once you strengthened your instructional stills, Analyzing Performance Problems helped you see that no matter how good your training was, it couldn’t address a problem caused by something other than a lack of skill or knowledge. What Every Manager Should Know helps non-trainers make that same connection.

    Mager’s not the only one who advocated this, of course, though he may have been the most successful popularizer. Tom Gilbert’s Human Competence is one of the books I never, ever lend; Rummler and Brache’s Improving Performance is another.

  8. Mager absolutely made enormous impact in our field. His stuff should be part of every trainer’s repetoire. One correction to your post that I suspect is a helpful Spellchecker’s contribution and not yours: ISPI’s model is HPT,not PDF. Here’s a link for those who may not know it: A diagram of the model is linked there.

  9. Jean:

    Thanks for the link. The PDF was just to let people know people know the document was in PDF format, not a web page. Now I’ve got evidence that approach wasn’t clear, so I’ll go revise the note.

  10. Awesome, Dave. I found my last copy of What Every Manager Should Know the other day. I used to keep 4 of them to lend out. Looks like the other three never found their way back. That’s ok with me:)

    I agree about Gilbert’s tome. My copy never leaves the security of my own library (lest my post-it bookmarks and notes be gone forever:))

  11. Dave,

    It is great to see someone talking about Mager’s work. I always recommend his books to people starting in our field. I appreciated Mager in grad school – he was so pithy and memorable.

  12. In which order should one read Mager’s Six Pack?

    Presumably, there’s a logical reading sequence that mirrors a real-life performance sequence.

    Looking at the titles, I’d think it goes Goals, then Analyzing Performance, the Objectives, etc.

    I could imagine though it’s Analyzing Performance, Goals, Objectives, etc.


  13. Jeff: Sorry to be slow in replying.

    I don’t think there’s a required order. If I were to choose a single Mager book for supervisors or managers, it would “What Every Manager Should Know about Training.”

    If you’re serious about performance improvement, I think the six pack is a bit skimpy to serve as a guide. When “What Every Manager” isn’t sufficient to get you started, I think you’d be better off with something along the lines of “From Training to Performance Improvement” by Farrington and Fuller, or (if you’re really serious) “Improving Performance” by Rummler and Brache (which I wrote about in this series of posts.

    That’s because those improvements that training can bring about address probably less than 20% of the causes of problems in the workplace. You can’t train your way out of inadequate tools, poorly designed jobs, lack of opportunity for practice, dysfunctional reinforcement, or sclerotic culture.

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