Workplace Performance Services: more than just Training

In his recent post, Informal Learning , 95% solution, Harold Jarche provides the reason why many workplace learning professionals can only think about “informal learning” and “social learning” in terms of how they can manage them within a blended training solution – rather than simply support them,  as they happen, naturally and continuously, in the workflow.

“Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have gone through a period where training departments have been directed to control organizational learning. It was part of the Taylorist, industrial model that also compartmentalized work and ensured that only managers were allowed to make decisions. In this context, only training professionals were allowed to talk about learning.”

But to be fair, it is not just Training Departments that think like this, there are still many people in other parts of the business that believe that “learning” has to be “organised” or  “packaged up” (in the form of “training”) to be seen as a valid solution to a problem.

So the issue seems to be twofold:

(1)  that LEARNING (in whatever form) is seen as something that has to be designed and managed, to order to be valid, and

(2)  that the Learning & Development department’s purpose is only seen as the provider of these “organised learning solutions” (ie training), where success is measured in terms of test scores and course completions.

Undoubtedly some L&D departments are very happy with just organising learning solutions (aka providing Training Services), whilst others prefer to be seen as the part of the business that helps workers do their job – or do them better.  And there’s quite a difference between these two activities. The first focuses on designing, managing and measuring LEARNING. The second focuses on supporting and improving PERFORMANCE, where “learning” is seen as the means to the end – not the end goal. But more than this, it also recognises that “organised learning solutions” are just ONE way of solving a business or job performance problem, and there are many other approaches.

The persistent adherence to training solutions (courses and workshops, etc) to address performance problem has been shown to be ineffective in many studies. For example Robert Terry, writing in the Financial Times, Accountability needed for workplace training, in December 2011 says:

“Companies’ spending on training and development accounts for hundreds of billion pounds globally each year. But every year, according to successive empirical studies, only 5 to 20 per cent of what is learnt finds its way back into the workplace. While this failure to transfer and apply new learning in the workplace has long attracted academic interest, practitioners have been slow to change their ways. Despite the imperative that things cannot be managed without being measured, training has been getting off lightly. Surely a training industry that delivers less than 20 per cent cannot be fit for purpose?”

In all likelihood, there was probably nothing instructionally wrong with the courses/training in question; it was more likely to be the case that they were the WRONG solutions for the problems they were intended to solve.

What is more, as training solutions are frequently being seen as costly and time-consuming, and mean taking valuable time away from the job,  we are seeing the increasing use of personal devices (iPhones, iPads, etc) as well as public social media tools by individuals and teams to (bypass L&D ) and solve their own performance problems – much more quickly and easily – in the workflow. In the summer of 2011 I wrote a series of Smart Worker postings showing how workers are doing this, and I also commented that by analysing how teams are now addressing their own learning and performance needs, this gives us a good idea how we can better support and improve performance in the workplace for others.

Often people take “performance support” to refer to the production of job aids, BUT (again) that is just one way that this can be done, there are plenty more possibilities. For example, it might involve supporting and encouraging individuals and teams to :

  • use the Social Web effectively, safely and responsibly to locate useful external informational and instructional resources, as well as to keep up to date with what is happening in their industry or profession
  • build a trusted Personal Knowledge Network (PKN) of (internal and external) colleagues who they can call upon for advice and support
  • set up and sustain an internal community of practice – to improve knowledge sharing within their team
  • co-create and share content within their team – to support one another’s learning and performance

So in terms of my own clients who come to me for help, rather than automatically assuming some form of training is the solution to their problem, I work with the relevant individuals and teams concerned to understand the root cause of their (learning/performance) problem, to identify the most appropriate way it can be solved that suits their working pattern and practices. It might well be that they need some form of organised training solution, but it is usually much more likely that their problem can be solved in a way that enhances their existing work practices –  in the workflow.  In which case, I then work with the same individuals and teams involved to put the solution in place. Part of this process also considers how they will measure the success of this new activity, and this is usually framed in terms of productivity or performance improvements.

As for identifying what the most appropriate solution to a performance problem is, there is no single methodology for doing this – as Harold says (see quote)  about supporting informal learning at work:

It requires tools, processes and methodologies from a variety of disciplines. There are methods from knowledge management, organizational development and human performance technology, for example, that are quite useful in supporting informal learning. The modern workplace is a complex adaptive system. There is no single approach that can be used all the time.”

But one thing has become clear to me, to be successful, it is not about using traditional “command and control” approaches (that are  employed in most training solutions to try and force people to learn), but it is much more about encouraging people to engage in these new activities to support one another as they (learn) to do their jobs – in many cases helping them to “connect and collaborate”. And this, of course is a key feature of building and supporting the collaborative culture of a social business.

Obviously, some L&D departments (and workplace learning professionals) will want to remain focused on providing Training Services for their organisations and be quite happy for other business functions to provide performance support services to help their people work smarter.  Other L&D departments have already expanded their services to fulfil all these activities, and more are beginning to do so too.

Although one step might well be rebadging the department as a Workplace Performance Services Department in order to send out the right message to the rest of the organisation, it will take more than just a name change to be successful. Since the new department will be offering a range of new services (I’ve only mentioned a couple of them here), this will require new roles, new practices and new skills.


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Jane Hart

Founder at C4LPT
Jane Hart is an independent Workplace Learning Advisor, Writer and International Speaker. Every year she compiles the Top 100 Tools for Learning activity. She also offer a number of online workshops on modernising workplace learning. Find out more about Jane and her work.

4 thoughts on “Workplace Performance Services: more than just Training

  1. Timothy Kleczka

    What are corporations going to do about the millions of dollars, pounds or euros they invested in “command and control” Learning Management Systems when the way forward is “connect and collaborate”? I believe the help desk and instructor lead training is an expensive model and will soon be the “old” way of providing training and support for information workers!

    1. Anonymous

      Good question! Like other older systems, they have probably had their day, and even the newer versions with social functionality to support collaborative training still perpetuate the Command and Control model. They will probably become “plugins” into workflow / intranet systems to track and monitor compliance courses where required by regulators.

  2. Karen C. in Canada

    Jane I always love reading your blog. There are a number of practitioners in western Canada who still need to learn best practices in instructional design somewhere (perhaps my seminar at month’s end). However, more and more people are embracing varied informal learning opportunities – some by choice, others necessarily when few other options exist. The only challenge, as with formal training, how do we measure/manage the informal? should we?

    1. Anonymous

      Karen, thanks for your comment. As I mention in my post, training is usually measured in terms of learning metrics, test scores, course completions etc, but workflow solutions are measured in terms of performance metrics, improvements in productivity and performance, etc. But as for “management”, we can’t manage informal learning (in fact we can’t manage any type of learning) the only place it can be managed, is in the individual’s brain. All we can do is support it happening, e.g. provide the right environment and framework for it to take place – not design it or delivery it. So workflow solutions need to be considered very differently from traditional training solutions, as I show in my little graphic. You can read more at http://c4lpt.co.uk/wps/.

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