is learning about performance?

Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial) over at Thinking About Learning (he writes good stuff – check him out) raised an important question the other day: Is learning about performance? As one who continually states that increasing performance is the only purpose of training, learning and development, etc. I liked his question. I say it so often and am so convinced of it that his question made me stop and think a bit about my own beliefs.

I do believe the immediate purpose of training is to either create additional skills or knowledge OR to help a person better use the skills and knowledge they already have. Why? Why take time away from the job to learn? Why spend the money, time, and energy? Why pour resources into learning? Because we expect the additional skills and knowledge will help people do a better job and get better results. Technical skills improve performance with tasks and soft skills improve performance with other humans (highly relevant for everyone who’s not a hermit). Even compliance training – safety, anti-harassment, regulations, etc. – aims to improve performance or at least prevent performance from dropping (death, dismemberment, lawsuits, or imprisonment all tend to have a negative effect on individual and company performance).

Put another way: if learning and development doesn’t increase performance through increased or better use of knowledge and skills, then what is the purpose?

When we develop learning events or provide learning resources we work hard to make the information as understandable, relevant, and real-world as possible. We design in the best ways for participants retain and integrate the ideas into their lives and jobs. Why? The more they retain and use, the more they can use on the job, and the better their performance. If knowledge retention and use didn’t lead to better on the job performance why would we spend time worrying about it? Deeper knowledge for the sake of deeper knowledge is nice but doesn’t help the individual excel in their job and doesn’t drive the company forward. I, like many, simply love to learn new things. Learning is a huge value for me and I could happily drain many a day on google, Wikipedia, and in the library. As an employee, my company cares most about the learning that might help me in my job (versus, say, mountain biking), BUT it has a huge interest in me being knowledgeable, competent, and continually improving in my role.

The good news is that I can help others improve their performance across a wide variety of jobs and even industries. I don’t know much about most jobs or industries, but unless I’m training technical skills, I don’t have to. I just have to know enough to be able to apply real world context. For example, with only slight changes, a class on conflict resolution could apply to a manager, customer services representative, sales person, negotiator, line worker, etc. It’s really hard to imagine a job where conflict resolution (or any important soft skill) wouldn’t improve performance – even if that person isn’t directly evaluated on conflict resolution.

It is the manager’s (and employee’s) job to evaluate performance – I can’t do that for them. But when they identify areas that need to be improved either because of low performance or to increase performance as a part of their career path I can help provide the resources and learning experiences that help them develop and use the necessary skills and knowledge. Just as I’m not involved in evaluating their on the job performance, I also can learn and implement it for them. The sole purpose of training and development is to increase performance but the employee and manager play a massive role in it.

I’ll take the discussion a step further. Not only do I deeply believe that the purpose of development is to improve performance (however that’s defined), but I believe development is a source of ongoing competitive advantage.

  • A company must have talent. It can choose to buy talent or develop talent or both. But it does need talent.
  • High performing people are required to create a high performing company. It’s hard to imagine any situation where we could create exceptional results far and above the competition using indifferent, unskilled people who lack the necessary knowledge.
  • We cannot improve a company’s performance without first improving individual performance. Sure, we can slash costs, buy new technology, acquire other companies, but those tend to be short term gains (measured very narrowly) or impossible to do without dealing with the messy human side of it (bringing us back to development).
  • We often struggle to measure the dollar benefit of development and spend much time discussing the ROI of training. Training is an easy cost to cut and is often the first to go when times get tough. Which is funny because I doubt any professional sports teams spend much time discussing the ROI of practice, training, and developing their players. Would a low performing team ever decide that the best way to improve their performance is to STOP coaching and improving their players? Put another way, we can easily measure the cost of training and tend to focus on that because it is difficult to measure the total benefits of development. The problem is we can’t measure the costs of NOT training. (Hat tip to Zig Ziglar for that thought.) And as the old saying goes: The only thing worse than training someone and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.

Is learning about performance? In my mind, absolutely. There are many, many side benefits to learning and development, but if we’re not helping people create the knowledge and skills they need to do better at their jobs and if we’re not helping the company perform better by helping individuals and teams perform better, what are we doing?

What thinks you?

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2 comments

  1. I agree, Broc. The point of learning (in a corporate setting) IS primarily about performance. If the company is investing in your development, they want to see a return. It is a business after all.

    Sukh’s post also prompted me to reflect on my beliefs in this space. Having done so, I have realised that a “good” (?) organisation also invests in its employees’ personal growth. One example is a company I am aware of that helps develop its people’s career development skills; with the implicit understanding that if the opportunity for career progression do not emerge at *that* company, their skills may help them progress their career at another. This approach, I feel, is wonderfully employee oriented and contributes to corporate citizenship.

    Having said that, an employee who is experiencing personal growth is likely to be engaged and motivated, boosting their performance!

    Like

    1. Ryan, thanks so much for the thoughts. I like the expansion you’ve done on the original ideas by including the individual and organizational benefits of investing in personal growth. Some of the very best training and behavior change comes on the personal side first, professional side second.

      Like

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