Critical Skills For Learning And Development Professionals (Training Isn’t Enough)

Learning And Development Professionals: Why Their Role Is Critical 

Fifty years ago, most jobs contained static tasks and there wasn’t a huge need for making sense of quickly changing, complex information using technology-rich environments. Now many jobs, including what were previously thought of as lower-level jobs, need to add new skills regularly, make sense of quickly changing information, and use shifting technologies. Automation is completely changing lower to upper-level jobs and eliminating some jobs entirely. From appearances, most organizations are treating this situation like it doesn’t exist. We train people as if job skills were still static, much like in the 1950s, but with new technologies. Instead of helping people with information overload, we add to it. Our organizations’ problems mount and most Learning and Development professionals keep churning out content.

According to some reports, automation will be able to do much of what we do in the next ten or fifteen years. One of the things that automation cannot do and we could be doing is analyzing rapidly ongoing performance needs and helping our organizations meet those needs. As I explained last month, the need for training courses is limited to where people need new, updated, maintained, or changed skills (and the knowledge embedded in those skills). But organizations typically have problems caused by poor processes, inadequate resources, and so on. The need to be responsive to market conditions in the current climate has grown.

Solving Performance Problems

Who is responsible for fixing these problems? In many organizations, people think all of these can be fixed by training. If there’s a need for new, updated, maintained, or changed skills, training is one of the answers if it’s well designed, taught at the time of need, and well supported. We know this isn’t always the case. But when people have to work with unclear expectations, with tools and resources that don’t work well, training won’t fix those problems.

Organizations have a lot to contend with. Table 1 shows the work environment and individual factors that have typically been shown to impact workplace performance. I showed this table last month but this month I have added the far right column, which adds the interventions needed to fix problems with each of the factors.

Factors Description Intervention
 Work environment
1. Expectations and feedback Clear standards that describe the performance that is needed and how it is to be accomplished. Timely, clear feedback on performance. Review expectations and feedback. Make sure that performance expectations are available and clear and timely feedback about performance is provided.
2. Tools and resources Access to tools and information needed to perform, including hardware and software, reference materials, and help. Review tools and resources. Make sure tools and resources facilitate performance at the desired level.
3. Consequences and incentives Monetary and nonmonetary consequences and incentives, intended or not, for performing in one manner over another. Intended consequences may include recognition, rewards, promotions, work assignments, and penalties. Unintended consequences and incentives may include negative consequences for doing a good job and positive consequences for doing a poor job. Review consequences and incentives. Make sure there are no disincentives or negative consequences for desired behavior.
4. Process and work environment Process factors, including time, complexity, obstacles, and barriers. Setting and ergonomic factors, including lighting, noise, work stressors, and impediments. Review processes and work factors. Make sure processes and work environment don’t hinder desired performance.
 Individual performance
5. Skills The competencies that individuals use on the job that contributes to desired organizational results. Determine tasks needed to contribute to organizational results and the skills (and embedded knowledge) needed to perform those tasks. Build training and other interventions (such as job aids, practice, mentoring) to grow expertise over time. Align other factors.
6. Abilities The personal and professional characteristics that an individual brings to the work, including personality, aptitude, preferences, and limitations. Hire people with characteristics needed as some characteristics are hard to train. Manage and move people who are not performing. Slow to hire, quick to fire. Right fit is critical.
7. Motivation The value individuals place on doing a good job. Includes mood, attitudes, and so on. Don’t demotivate.*
8. Life Conditions and situations outside of work such as sleep, diet, family, personal problems, and personal stressors. Don’t add additional stressors.*

Table 1. Elements that impact performance and interventions that repair problems, heavily adapted from Carl Binder’s (1998) Six Boxes™ model, Performance Improvement, 43(8).

* These are two areas where companies may or may not get involved by providing additional support. Most motivation should be intrinsic (internal), not extrinsic (external). I love Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s work on motivation.

Alignment Of Performance Factors

We sometimes have the tendency, when analyzing reasons that actual and desired performance do not match, to latch onto a specific factor as the “cause”. But performance is a system. And the behavior of a system comes from the interaction of the system’s components. Most performance problems arise from interactions among and alignment of numerous factors. Another way to say this is that performance is commonly the result of multiple factors and, therefore, multiple factors must be taken into consideration and aligned to close the gap between actual performance and performance needs.

This is why, for example, even well-designed training also requires the other performance issues to be aligned for the training to be successful. For example, if a company is having problems with managers implementing Human Resource policies in different ways, and they start a training program on implementing policies, the program will be far less effective if they don’t also change expectations and feedback to these managers (Factor 1), consequences to these managers for not following company policy (Factor 3), and change processes for managing their managers (Factor 4).

Consider how this alignment between training and these other performance factors plays out for other training such as compliance, sales, and customer service. If alignment between the training and expectations, feedback, tools, resources, consequences, incentives, processes, and other aspects of the work environment doesn’t happen, training can be an expensive waste of resources.

If Learning and Development professionals aren’t involved in creating this alignment, who will be?

Next month I’ll finish this series by discussing some of the ways Learning and Development professionals can figure out which of these factors are at play in a given performance problem (this is usually at the point when someone says “We need training on…”). And instead of asking which Subject Matter Expert will provide content, you’ll brilliantly reply “Do you have time now for me to ask you some questions about this issue, or should we meet later? I want to make sure we are going to solve this problem”.

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