Training and performance in Elsinore

Last month I took part in a professional mixer for members of various organizations like ISPI, ASTD, ICF, and SHRM. To help the minglers learn about organizations besides their own, a representative from each participating group stood ready to talk about a pre-selected question.

My question? “What’s the difference between training and performance improvement?”

At first I thought “ho, hum.” Then I realized that many participants might not know much about performance improvement. To invite people to explore, I posted this teaser:


You may recall that in Hamlet, a troupe of traveling actors arrives in Elsinore. Hamlet arranges for them to perform a play — “The Mousetrap,” as it happens. He has a little customization for the actors, who agree to change the script.

The actors, and the characters they play, don’t know and don’t really care about the larger world of the castle at Elsinore. Hamlet does — he sees a broader landscape than the players do, and he’s working to accomplish things they’re unaware of.

If you’re producing a play, you can have sound reasons or dubious ones for the script. You can have a talented or an ungifted cast. You can make decisions about rehearsal, staging, lighting, costuming. Eventually, you reach the limits of what you can and can’t do within a dramatic context.

So too with training. Methods exist to help create effective, engaging learning — or to bore people to death. Organizations provide training to instill or strengthen essential skills, but also to meet outside mandates, or to justify infrastructure, or simply to do what’s always been done.

Training makes perfect sense when you’ve got gaps between people’s current repetoire and the skills and knowledge they need to produce results that matter. But other factors may account for some (or all) of the reason that, as Allison Rossett put it, actuals fall short of optimals.

To take just one example, the work environment may hamper performance. People lack the tools, the materials, the time, the procedures, the feedback to deliver the expected results. Carlos can use his company’s route-management software, but since the system response is always slow, he can’t use it efficiently. The printers at Sheila’s bank branch are always failing, so she can’t process loan applications productively. Giving either of them extra training won’t help — and might frustrate them further.

It makes sense to train only when there’s a clear gap in skills and knowledge — and to use other approaches when they’d be more effective. As Hamlet said, though, “it is a custom
more honoured in the breach than the observance.”

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