Transition from a Training Approach to a Performance Approach

To survive and deliver on their strategic objectives, all organizations will need to reskill and upskill significant portions of their workforce over the coming years.

       – Madan Lal Pradhan –

How businesses can best organize for the future? The experimentation underway suggests that future-ready companies share three characteristics. They know what they are and what they stand for, they operate with a fixation on speed and simplicity, and they grow by scaling up their ability to learn and innovate.

A more flexible and responsive model is needed to help organizations meet coming demographic shifts and other workforce changes. Millennials are becoming the dominant group in the workforce (with Gen Z close behind), creating novel challenges for organizations to meet their needs. The prominence of the gig economy and alternate models of working will only grow. And the rapid spread of digital technology and automation is dramatically reshaping the global economy, with half the tasks people perform already automatable today. The employee skill sets are radically changing.

Because many roles are becoming disaggregated and fluid, work will increasingly be defined in terms of skills. The accelerating pace of technological change is widening skill gaps, making them more common and quicker to develop. To survive and deliver on their strategic objectives, all organizations will need to reskill and upskill significant portions of their workforce over the coming years. HR should help prioritize these talent shifts. Effective reskilling and upskilling will require employees to embark on a blended-learning journey that includes traditional learning (training, digital courses, job aids) with nontraditional methods (enhanced peer coaching, learning networks, the mass personalization of change, “nudging” techniques).

Given the magnitude of the task and the broad portfolio of value-creating HR initiatives, prioritization is critical. The HR can help leadership by transforming their own HR organizations: reinforcing clear priorities in developing capabilities and preparing a premium cadre of talent base by embracing agility and critical skills that drive future value creation.

As a way to address the skill gaps, sometimes a training solution is selected because management requires it; at other times, it is chosen because we naively believe that training alone will solve the problem. Whatsoever the reasons, the results are the same. Most investment in organization, training and development is wasted because most of the knowledge and skills gained in training are not fully applied by those employees on the job. Not more than 10 percent of this expenditure actually results in a transfer to the job. These clearly show that traditional training approaches do not work.

Part of the problem is that the traditional training problem confuses training activities with performance improvement. Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson in their book Training for Impact: How to Link to Business Needs and Measure the Results have described the activity approach to training in which the focus is what people must learn versus what they must do on the job. While the activity approach to training focuses on developing excellent learning experiences, it does not address the transfer of newly learned skills and knowledge on the job. Learning happens when people reflect on and choose a new behavior. But if the work environment doesn’t support that behavior, a well-trained employee won’t make a difference-a prime consideration that is usually missed out in our organizations.
The concept of making the transition from a training approach to a performance approach is not a new one. In fact, in 1970, Joe Harless (Dixon, 1988) coined the term “front-end analysis.” In his work then and now, Harless clearly believes that lack of skill and knowledge is not the most frequent cause of existing performance problems. He advocates using front-end analysis to focus on what people are expected to learn. Bob Mager and Peter Pipe also advocated a structured approach to analyzing performance problems. They indicated that the solutions to the performance problems should be based upon a thorough analysis of the causes of the problem and said, “Solutions to problems are like keys and locks, they do not work if they do not.” They also advocated that trainers differentiated between skill and knowledge deficiencies and other work environment factors that affect performance.

Advocating performance analysis based upon rigorous examination of exemplary performance argue that it is not enough to ask exemplary performers what they do, instead, the analyst must observe their performance. Training alone is almost never an appropriate cure. The trainers use a rigorous approach of a system engineer to analyze organizational behavior and design program that change or improve human performance. The work environment by which the employees operate has a tremendous impact on the job output. This is usually not considered and most of the time neglected.

In today’s right-sized, de-layered and re-engineered organizations, people are being asked to do more and more, and the work they are asked to do is also changing. Changing work means fewer repetitive tasks and more problem-solving. The competitive advantages and the survival of an organization demands that employees perform at a high level. Traditional training approaches in support or performance change are not working primarily because they are not system-oriented, in their approach to resolving performance problems.

Therefore, those who work effectively in the future must be able to: develop a collaborative working relationship with key managers and other partners; clearly understand the vision and the strategies that management is striving to achieve; identify the performance required from employees if the organization is to thrive; determine the condition in the work environment that must be modified if needed performance is to take root; work with people in and out of the management to determine all the interventions required if high performance is to be achieved.

Keeping in view the above-stated changes, it is desirable that the role of the trainer should be transformed into the role of the performance consultant. For a long, the training profession has been focusing on the activities of training, people in the profession thought of themselves as specialists, associated with the courses, delivering the programs, or identifying the needs. These forces will no longer suffice in today’s business environment. In the changing business scenario, looking at the high competition, it is, high time that we shift from focusing on what people need to learn (training) to what they must do (performance). Four key areas of knowledge and skills are needed to be a successful performance consultant-business knowledge, Knowledge of human technology, partnering skills and consulting skills.

There are myths so far as training evaluation is concerned. Training is an old and traditional function in the corporate sector. Unfortunately, organizations hardly realize the effectiveness of the training function towards performance improvement of the organization. Moreover, in most organizations, mission, vision plan and training functions operate in parallel. Any expenditure (investment) on training is treated as a non-productive expenditure. Though colossal improvement and awareness have been developed in the corporate world after the HRD movement, still organizations accept this function as a step-child. They do everything, and they incur a sizeable amount. However, they hardly rely on the system with full confidence.

Such a casual attitude can be changed only when the training functions are genuinely linked with the goals and objectives of the organization, leading to performance improvement of the organization. It is desirable, we think, to go for a change from training to performance improvement.

The proposed Performance Improvement concept will differ from the traditional training concept in breadth and scope. In general, the traditional trainer’s role focus is to identify and address the ‘learning needs’ of the people. Its output includes providing structured learning experiences such as training programs, self-paced packages and computer-based training programs. It views training as an end; if people have learned, then the desired outputs from the traditional trainer role have been achieved. They are held accountable for training activity; its measures include the number of participant days, instructor days and courses, and usually operate on the principle of the ‘more is better.’ Training evaluations are completed by participants’ perceptions and reactions. Training functions are viewed as a cost, not an investment; training programs and services have a limited acknowledged linkage to business goals. These have severe limitations.

On the contrary, the performance consultant role’s focus is to identify and addresses the ‘performance needs’ of people. Its output includes providing services that help in changing or improving performances. These can include training services but should also include the formation of performance models (i.e., performance needs to achieve business goals); the performance approach views training as a means to an end; when performance changes in the desired direction, the role of the performance consultant gets completed. They are held accountable for improving performance; form partnerships with people and managers in the organizations. In this role, the results of trained and untrained actions are measured in terms of change in performance. The training function is viewed as producing measurable results such as cost savings and completed work; it has high linkage to organizational goals.

This shift is pivotal. There is a need to channelize the training functions towards business goals and performance. The salient features of the performance consultant’s role should be added to the traditional training function to bring the training function to the main business stream of the organization. Unless this is achieved in spite of all efforts and investment in training, it is difficult to realize business goals and enhance productivity.

Pradhan is a Human Resource Specialist, Management Consultant and an Educator.

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