Front-end analysis: not baby-sitting, not psychotherapy

In an online conversation, I found myself again quoting Joe Harless. In this case, the quote was from a March 1975 interview with Training magazine.  I haven’t found this online anywhere, so thought I’d summarize a bit here.

A little background: Harless coined the term front-end analysis.  As he wrote in a workshop guide, to help our client achieve its business or organizational goals:

We begin at the end and work backwards in the basic progression:

  1. We first find out what goals are not being achieved satisfactorily, or what the new goals are when they are set by the client.
  2. We then find out what accomplishment is not being produced satisfactorily that is causing the goal not to be met.
  3. We then find out what behaviors are not being obtained that cause the deficient accomplishment.
  4. Then, and only then, can we determine which of the influences need to be manipulated.

The process just described is called Front-End Analysis.

The Training interview asked if FEA were “just the Joe Harless shtick.”  Harless replied that it was real “if you define real as having a definite set of procedures…and data and case histories” along with people who are applying these things.

Front-end analysis began with the realization that we could produce excellent training packages, ones that pleased not only the developer but the client.  And yet follow-up evaluation ( “which…we jokingly called rear-end analysis” ) revealed that, as often as not, skills didn’t transfer to the job.

So Harless wondered why.  “Being devotees of the scientific method, we advanced certain hypotheses… [And] we began testing these hypotheses.”

To Harless and his collaborators, rear-end analysis asks, “Why didn’t the training produce the intended result?”  Front-end analysis asks three other questions:

  • What are the symptoms that a problem exists?
  • What is the performance problem producing those symptoms?
  • What is the value of solving that problem?

And that’s where the quote comes from:

Training: Value in terms of what?

Harless: In terms of money. Front-end analysis is about money first and foremost.  So is training.  If not, you’re baby-sitting or doing psychotherapy.

Harless said this as an aside to the main theme of his interview.  Even so, this is a lodestone for anyone working in organizational learning.  I agree that the individual needs to have some personal investment in order to learn effectively on the job.  She wants to raise her skills, or master a new task, or prepare for a new position, or gain satisfaction from resolving new challenges.

Those are her variables.  The organization has variables as well; the relationship between the two sets is an effort to balance the work-equation.  How can those skills, those tasks, those challenges make sense for her in the organization’s context?  “Is it worth  spending X to achieve Y?” Solve for the organization.  Solve for your personal goals.

I’m not trying to reduce this purely to dollars, and I don’t think Harless was, either.  (The same people who get nit-picky about “ROI for training” are strangely silent when a merger like Daimler-Chrysler–financially analyzed, you’d think, to a fare-thee-well–ends up vaporizing billions of dollars.)

When Harless says, “Value in terms of money,” I see it as shorthand.  Money is the most common and most convertible indicator of value in group activity.  You can choose other indicators; you just have to work harder.

1975 was fairly early in the history of performance improvement, though I don’t think we’ve yet reached the Golden Age.  Here’s the Reverend Harless preaching on a related theme:

You know, trainers are forever going around looking for respectability.  They’re always asking, “How can we sell management on the idea of training?”

Well, the answer is, you don’t.  You sell management on the benefits of solving human performance problems. You make it clear to management that you are there to avoid training when it’s not cost-effective.

That’s how you get to be a hero.  That’s how you get to be respectable…That’s how you avoid being stuck off in some personnel department somewhere.

By the way, Guy Wallace’s Pursuing Performance blog has a 2008 video interview with Joe Harless:

“Almost always, the client came to us requesting the development of some kind of training intervention… [in a typical situation, the workers] already knew how to detect and correct…defects….They were not doing so because…they were being paid for the quantity of production rather than the quality of the production.”

9 thoughts on “Front-end analysis: not baby-sitting, not psychotherapy

  1. Nice to revisit Joe Harless. He influenced me early in my career… still does, now that I think about it.

    What’s hard is to deal with the client who knows what she wants: a class, a podcast series, virtual classes on this or that. Fixed on the solution, he wants you to deliver that vision.

    No simple answers, for sure. I attempt, emphasis on attempt, to deal with game changing conversations in the new edition of my book, First Things Fast (2009), and also in an article in March 2010 T&D.

    You can’t say NO. You can say WHOA.


  2. Allison,

    That’s a great phrase, and I’m going to be hauling it out often.

    I recall Joe talking about poorly-phrased requests for training. This was part of dealing with requests for “soft skills training.” He said at the time his definition of “soft skill” was one you hadn’t described sufficiently to provide training for. But as you suggest, that’s not a fruitful way to have a conversation with your client.

    “I’d very much like to help with the ‘communications problem’ you say your front-line supervisors are having. Can you give me an example of what happens when they don’t communicate well?”

    That’s not foolproof. They can always say, “We get bad communications. And after we train them, we’ll get good communications.”

  3. Enjoyed the Joe Harless reflections! Reading about Harless’ work early in grad school really changed my view of training and how to approach performance problems/opportunities. Although I may not use his 13 smart questions verbatim, they certainly influence my early conversations about a new project.

    And a quick shout out to Allison Rossett too – First Things Fast is an excellent book, which has also shaped how I get new projects started.

    Thanks for the insights!

  4. I look forward to articles/books/blogs on front-end analysis especially with a reference to Joe Harless and comments from Allison Rossett (well published on front-end analysis herself).

    From my experience, the format, length, content, and evaluation of the solution to the performance issue(s) is pre-determined and written in stone. In most cases the “need” for training is based someone’s perception of the performance issue(s) and assumption of the correct solution. Maybe that says something about the view business has of training or perhaps this addresses time and cost factors. As Allison Rossett addressed it as the client being “fixed on the solution.”

    I think selling the value of a front-end analysis is part of the consulting process. Often it is a difficult “sale.”

  5. Shelley:

    I’m with you. Learning from Harless, Brethower, Rummler, Rossett and others altered my career. (It had the side effect of making me very unhappy with the sheep-dip approach to training.)

    What’s behind the many models and approaches is a systematic, data-driven approach. You don’t necessarily need to use it in every circumstance, but the higher the stakes, the more it seems worthwhile to consider the risk/reward factors before plunging in.


    Another version of being fixed on the solution is what someone called feeding the elephant. In her case, her employer had “invested” scandalous amounts of money in a couple of satellite-uplink locations for live videoconferencing.

    As a result, all training activities not only had to consider whether live videoconference made sense–they had to help amortize the “investment” and use the uplink locations (feed the elephant). Whether that had any improvement on the training, let alone on performance, was a question for another day that may not yet have arrived.

  6. You always give me something great to think about [again/some more], Dave! With all the commotion in IDland about theory vs. process, and the relevance of ADDIE, your thoughts are timely. Plus, the title, oy!

    The questions that Kelly and Allison raise are important. As practitioners, it is abundantly clear to us why we need to do our work a particular way. It’s also abundantly clear to our clients that we know what we’re doing – that’s why they have sought the services of a professional to handle the job.

    In 27 years of practice, the only clients I’ve met who were as interested as I was in the process my team was using to complete a project were from some part of the government or from a corporate education department. They suffered, in every case, from an overly enthusiastic view of the direct correlation between process oversight and positive results.

    Most buyers care as much about what we have to do to deliver results as they do about what their accountants do to get their taxes prepared. Usually, they really only care about three things:

    1) How long is it going to take (i.e., how much longer am I gonna have to put up with things as they are)?
    2) How much is it going to cost me directly (i.e., what number am I gonna have to write a check for)?
    3) How much is it going to cost me indirectly (i.e., how much of my staff’s time are you gonna eat up, how many favors am I gonna have to call to grease the skids for you, how much stuff am I gonna have to give away)?

    I am a Harless fan, but I part ways with him at the psychotherapy remark. FEA isn’t psychotherapy, but it is about people. And the really good designer needs really good people skills, both for interacting with others and for observing the interactions between others. Consultants, too – the ability to understand and (dare I say it?) manipulate client psychology is critical to successful relationships and successful projects. It can’t be understated.

    The client is, by definition, driven by the final result. If he knows what he wants, then let’s give it to him – they often have good instincts, those clients. When we point out that product design entails some “research” (First Things Fast gives us smart ways to do it), reasonable clients can appreciate how that’s true. It could happen that our research leads us to raise concerns and offer new approaches to meet his needs. He may be, as is his prerogative, unpersuaded by our alternatives and rationale. But we’ve all acted as responsible professionals.

  7. Anne,

    It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. My experience is similar to yours: most of my employers and my clients were less concerned with my process than with my product.

    What I hear in Joe’s remark is that if your training (or your front-end analysis) is not aimed at increasing value for the client, then you’re baby-sitting or doing psychotherapy. He didn’t mean that in a positive way.

    You’re right that front-end analysis, like performance improvement, is about people. So, yes, there’s a psychosocial direction. I joke that my religion is Reform Behaviorist, because I don’t know how to influence internal states directly even though I think they exist.

  8. Yep, people have a real problem with money. But you’re absolutely right – it’s the only readily-available metric that we all totally understand.

    Anything other than money at work and you end up with all the confusion of a barter economy.

    This is a particular problem with non-profits who, for some reason, resent any mention of the filthy lucre. This is odd when you consider the fact that the money they steward is not theirs.

    It reminds me of soccer fans watching their team losing. We may have lost (ie scored fewer goals) but we play a more beautiful, open, flowing, passing game…

    Show me the goals.

  9. Simon,

    I’m not sure we all totally understand money. For some, I’m convinced, it’s an end in itself. For many, it’s a way of keeping score. How else to explain the household-name CEO with millions in salary, hundreds of millions of shares of his company’s stock, deferred compensation earning three times the rate of inflation, who nonetheless allowed his tame board of directors to pay for five golf-club memberships, a pied-a-terre, flowers (to ease the burden of being away from home, no doubt), and postage?

    I’d like to have heard, “Hey, this is a great job, I love what I’m doing. I’d do it for less, so you don’t have to buy my gardenias.”

    Your soccer analogy suggests that people have different values (I nearly said “goals”) for the organization. Even in a professional sports organization, “show me the goals” is a bit shortsighted to me. If a baseball team’s only validation is to win the World Series, then each year 29 teams fail.

    I think you can define a number of other aims, not necessarily exclusive: winning the division, winning the league, retaining or increasing fan loyalty (in terms of attendance); also, maintaining or increasing profitability from broadcast income or licensing.

    Much as I tire of sports analogies, I’d point out that the Boston Red Sox went 82 years without winning the World Series, yet retained legendarily loyal fans.

    Yes, they were delighted when the team did win the Series again, but “show me the goal” doesn’t quite explain the previous fervor.

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