Thursday, July 31, 2014

Re-thinking Workplace Learning and Performance

Yesterday, I wrote a post on Learning vs. Performance – the Dichotomy. It was more of a theoretical exposition on why learning doesn’t necessarily translate into performance, and delved into some of the psychological and behavioral aspects of the same. A friend rightly pointed out that while theories and hypothesis are all good, how does one actually deal with the challenge in practice? Why is it that learning and training don’t translate into performance? Where are all the training rupees, euros, dinars and dollars going? Why are employees still not performing as expected? Why are businesses failing? What should L&D do about it?

In today’s post, I have tried to analyze the learning – performance dichotomy from a more practical standpoint. For a business leader / CEO or anyone else responsible for the bottom line and for sanctioning the training money, learning doesn’t really matter. It’s the business continuity and profit that are the yardsticks of successful performance. Yet L&D squirms at the question of ROI. ROI remains as elusive and mysterious as ever, a veritable unicorn of the L&D world. I won’t say I have debunked the myth of the ROI here. I have just tried to explore various reasons as to why even well-designed programs fail to achieve the desired business results.

We tend to forget that training is just one of the means to achieve business outcome (at least that is the hidden hope in the hearts of a business person). HR might take the “number of hours of training provided to employees” attitude in the interest of employee engagement and Gallup polls. These number of hours typically show up as statistics in the annual HR report and is of very little interest to either the CXOs or the employees. If anything, ironically these statistics further confirm the inefficacy of training. What does matter – critically – is performance and the impact on business. The outcome of the training programs. Today’s employees cringe at the thought of having to attend training programs when they know that they can figure out how to get the work done more quickly and effectively – either by asking their network or by going to Google.

From this standpoint, there are multiple reasons why learning and training – no matter how well designed – don’t necessarily lead to performance. The premise of training is very different from that of performance. Training looks at the knowledge and skill gaps that exist in the employees. Performance looks for the gaps in business. The approach to both are dramatically different.

It’s common knowledge that L&D typically begins by taking a TNA a.k.a. Training Needs Analysis approach; the assumption that training is required having already been made. Instead, imagine a situation where one begins by analyzing gaps in business goals and objectives, i.e., which goals and objectives have not been met and why. A thorough Root-Cause Analysis may reveal various reasons behind the failures to achieve business goals. Some of these could be: 
  1. A lack of skilled individuals or wrong people in the wrong role 
  2. Ineffective recruitment process leading to gaps in core skills (I have often encountered this situation
  3. A churn in teams such that employees don’t get the time to acquire the skills required 
  4. Lack of experienced individuals to lead effectively 
  5. Past experiences holding people back with the “this is how we've always done it” attitude 
  6. A fear of failure leading to lack of experimentation and innovative thinking 
  7. Inability to keep up with the rapid churn in technology and use it optimally 
  8. Hierarchical organizational structure causing silos in orgs blocking knowledge sharing 
  9. Managers or supervisors are unable to coach and mentor their team 
  10. Organizational culture causing dissatisfaction or loss of motivation

Now, no amount of training will lead to improved performance except in the case of point #1 because none of the other problems are related to training or skills gaps. Hence, treating training as a panacea for all ills is highly unlikely to work. And business is left asking the question, “What happened to the money we spent on that training program?”
Training only works where there is a skill gap to fill. And that too, only when the gap is well-defined and known. Even then, to see a behavioral change large enough to have an impact on business goals, it is essential to provide other means of support through coaching, mentoring, on-the-job feedback, opportunity to observe and shadow experienced peers, providing stretch assignments, access to performance support tools, and so on. I wrote about this in my post here. Ensuring performance and business focused outcome calls for a different approach.

An understanding of the crucial business goals and vision become the first step in a performance-focused approach. L&D – as a partner to business – not only has to understand the challenges of business but also needs to be able to analyze and define the root cause of the gaps. While some of the solutions may be beyond the purview of traditional L&D role, it is important to don the mantle of OD (organizational development) specialists also with businesses and the environment becoming increasingly complex and interconnected. 

This approach should help both L&D and business recognize where training can play an important role and show visible business benefits, and where other interventions (beyond training) are required. Most often, the perfect solution lies in a combination of interventions. Organizational challenges today are multi-pronged and taking a single approach doesn’t work. It is entirely possible that while training may be a requirement, other concerns also need to be simultaneously addressed, like the removing of organizational silos, enabling managers to become coaches, ensuring that the right person is in the right role, and so on. 

L&D cringes at the mention of ROI because we know that training is not the only solution and employed in isolation is not likely to show visible benefits. However, most L&D folks are not confident enough to venture into realms beyond that of training and learning design, and thus don’t bring up other organizational factors. But the pitfall of not doing so are many. L&D gets a bad name and business doesn’t really consider us as partners. OD, HR and L&D must come together to enable organizations to realize their potential. 


In summary, not all problems can be solved with training. There are challenges beyond skill gaps. Putting the onus of professional development in the hands of employees by providing them with the appropriate infrastructure in the form of enterprise collaboration platform might work to some extent but not always. Challenges mentioned above require different interventions and approaches. Only through a holistic mingling of methods and by taking a systems thinking approach is it possible to see a visible impact on performance and business outcomes.   

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