We Need A Workplace Performance Focus - Now

We Need A Workplace Performance Focus – Now
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Summary: If you’ve been listening to organizational Learning and Development (L&D) chatter in the last few years, you’ve begun to hear more and more talk about “performance”. Vocal authorities in the Learning and Development field are recommending we avoid building traditional training courses just because someone asks for one in favor of looking for more holistic “workplace performance solutions”. What does looking for workplace performance solutions mean, exactly? Does it even make sense for people whose traditional mission has been to develop instruction to go outside of that mission? In this and follow-up articles, I’ll explain the types of analysis work that Learning and Development people can use to determine what is causing the types of problems that cause people to come to us saying “We need a course!”.

Why We Need A Workplace Performance Focus Immediately

Building courses is time consuming and expensive and in the many cases where courses do not solve the problem, they become wasted resources. My assertion is that the critical analysis skills needed by people in our field are critical to our organizations’ survival. If we cannot help our organizations determine what type of workplace performance intervention is needed and then implement it, they will have to find that help elsewhere in order to survive.

The need for training courses is limited to where people need new, updated, maintained, or changed skills. Training doesn’t solve the myriad problems in organizations that stem from poor processes and inadequate resources. And there are many other workplace performance problems that training doesn’t solve. In these cases, building training is simply a waste of time and money. And there are so many times where some training could be valuable (because people need new, updated, maintained, or changed skills) but there are other organizational problems that, if not solved, will keep the training from being used or sticking.

To begin, I’d like to explain why the problem with providing the right workplace performance solutions is especially acute right now and is expected to become even more serious.

Preventing Organizational Failure

Reasons that companies fail are well documented. Most are human failures, including failure to read the market and customer needs, failure to be competitive, failure to adapt, failure to deal adequately with disruptive technologies and innovation, and failure to manage human failures.

The world is going through increasingly chaotic changes that the World Economic Forum (WEF) is labeling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of the drivers of this chaos are shown in Figure 1. It wasn’t too long ago that we were in the Third Industrial Revolution, which included widespread use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Disruptive changes are now coming very quickly and the impact on organizations and jobs is anything but smooth.

Technological Drivers of Change
Mobile computing
Increasing computing power
Internet of Things (IoT)
3D Printing
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Demographic and Socio-economic Drivers of Change
Women's economic power
Changing nature of work
Geopolitical volatility

Figure 1. Drivers of change (Source: WEF, The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills, and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.)

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international forum that builds and analyzes international economic data, has been measuring adult skills to live and work in today’s technology-rich environments. Their Survey of Adult Skills shows that organizations that don’t have workers who are adequately skilled in these areas are unable to compete in the world marketplace. Workers in the United States, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain (and others) showed below average scores in needed key workplace skills (see Figure 0.2 in the report). This is especially troubling as the needs for these skills in most jobs worldwide are increasing.

A recent study by Innosight shows that organizational failure is increasing. Average organizational longevity is declining. Some of the large companies that have failed: General Foods, Pets.com, Arden B., Blockbuster Video, and OfficeMax. 24/7 Wall St. expects American Apparel and Sears to go belly-up in 2016. (If you are not in the US, what companies have gone out of business in your country?)

The Performance (Eco)System

Training, as I indicated earlier, is meant to impact skills (and the knowledge that is embedded in those skills). But why individuals and organizations don’t perform as needed isn’t limited to skills. If you look at the drivers of change that are impacting people, organizations, and the world, there’s a great deal to contend with. Quite a few people and organizations, according to the WEF study, aren’t handling the changes caused by the Third Industrial Revolution well. According to many reports, including WEF and The Institute for the Future (IFF), the ability to collaborate virtually, make sense of data, and manage the load of ever increasing amounts of information are needed skills for a computational, globally connected world.

Many organizations are slow to adapt to all of these changes, and those that don’t may fail. What happens while they are trying to adapt? Lots. Of. Problems.

Let’s consider a real-life scenario from a few weeks ago. A retailer with a small group of stores in the Midwest USA has a web presence. I tried to buy some items from them. They didn’t arrive and after 2 weeks I file a dispute on PayPal. The store responds that they are still in the process of collecting my items from among their small stores and will send them “soon”. I canceled the order. (I should have checked. They have a number of bad reviews for extremely slow delivery on review sites. No one expects extremely slow delivery of web store items.) This web store may fail because their processes don’t work well for customers.

Think of all of the reasons why a web store might fail. People might not know how to pull the orders correctly, and in this case training could help. But there are many other reasons. They might not have adequate tools to properly process orders, such as: Who ordered, what was ordered, orders versus inventory, where to ship, packing materials, etc. They might be understaffed and be unable to handle the web orders in addition to working with in-store customers. Management may not have hired people that can handle both jobs. These problems cannot be fixed with training or training alone.

Table 1 shows the work environment and individual factors that have typically been shown to impact workplace performance. As you read each factor, think of an instance where that factor impacted your performance. For example, have you ever been unable to perform as expected because you didn’t know what was expected of you? Have you ever had deficient tools or tools that weren’t reliable or fast enough? And so on…

  Factors Description
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.
2. Tools and resources Access to tools and information needed to perform, including hardware and software, reference materials, and help.
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.
4. Process and work environment Process factors, including time, complexity, obstacles, and barriers. Setting and ergonomic factors, including lighting, noise, work stressors, and impediments.
Individual performance 5. Skills The skills that individuals use on the job that contributes to desired organizational results.
6. Abilities The personal and professional characteristics that an individual brings to the work, including personality, aptitude, preferences, and limitations.
7. Motivation The value individuals place on doing a good job. Includes mood, attitudes, and so on.
8. Life Conditions and situations outside of work such as sleep, diet, family, personal problems, and personal stressors.

Table 1. Elements that impact performance, Adapted from Carl Binder’s (1998) Six Boxes™ model, Performance Improvement, 43(8).

Which group of factors (work environment or individual performance) do you think tends to get in the way of workplace performance most often? Which one of the factors can be solved by training? I’ll provide the answer momentarily.

Try This

Consider a training project you are currently working on. How do you think each of the work environment and individual performance factors might be impacting performance for that project? For example, if you are building training for customer service at the front desk at a medical clinic, how much does the back office process (factor 4) impact the ability for the front desk staff to tell patients how long it will be before they can be seen? How much does the whether the computer is working well (factor 2) affect a speedy check-in? And if a patient has a question about how much their visit will cost, how much will up-to-date and available information resources (factor 2) affect their ability to answer?

Many aspects of the patient experience impact how people feel at the front desk. And no matter how nicely they are treated, people are likely to be annoyed if the processes and information do not work to their satisfaction.

The evidence shows that workplace performance problems are more often caused by work environment issues (factors 1-4). We can train people and train people, but unless we solve these problems, the problems persist. Training only solves factor 6. It’s only one piece of the performance (eco)system solution.

Next month, I’ll discuss solutions to the rest of the performance factors and how they work with training or alone.