Insights: Improving performance still matters the most

Over the next few weeks I’m going to provide my own commentary to the excellent Learning Insights 2012 Report produced by Kineo for e.learning age magazine. The report is largely the work of Steve Rayson. In his own inimitable whirlwind fashion, he interviewed 30 or so major UK employers this summer to get a handle on the key trends in workplace learning. He did a good job and the report adds an interesting alternative perspective to the research carried out by others in the UK such as Towards Maturity.

The first ‘insight’ from the report is that ‘improving performance still matters the most’. In particular, Steve makes the point that, if you can prove that a learning intervention will positively impact on performance, the necessary funds will be made available.

For me, the interesting word in this first insight is ‘still’. I’m not at all convinced that performance has driven decisions on learning interventions in the past. I’d say quite a few other issues could come into play:

  1. Complying with policies and regulations
  2. Providing training and development as an employee benefit
  3. Delivering learning as an end in itself

Let’s take these in turn.

1. Compliance may drive learning interventions but it doesn’t have to

Now every organisation does, to some extent, have to comply with regulations of one sort or another, whether that relates to employment policies, health and safety, the prevention of money laundering, the marketing of pharmaceutical products, and so on. The implications of breaking these regulations – and being found out – can be devastating for an organisation, not only financially, but in terms of public reputation. In extreme cases, executives and others lower down in an organisation could face criminal charges. Not surprising, then, that organisations – sometimes on the insistence of their insurers – take great pains to ensure that infringements are kept to a minimum. An obvious step in achieving this is to ensure that everyone involved obtains adequate training.

There are two ways of looking at this sort of training: (1) you can regard it as a simple box-ticking exercise in which employers and employees go through the motions of delivering and receiving training, in order to satisfy regulators and insurers that the job is being done; or (2), you aim to bring about a shift in behaviour such that infringements are very unlikely to occur, because employees believe in the policy and have the necessary knowledge and skill to put it into practice.

Option (1) is based on the assumptions that infringements are unlikely, the regulations are a nuisance and that compliance is a necessary evil. Option (2) is founded on the principles that infringements can and do happen, that the regulations are rightly in place to prevent harm to third parties, and that policies are not enough – delivering on those policies requires competence. Quite a difference. It is possible to comply with regulations but to do this with a performance focus. Let’s hope that this is increasingly the case. For a fuller discussion, see my post: From compliance to competence

2. Training and development can be provided as an employee benefit but it can go further than this

There is nothing irrational about providing training and development as a benefit. First of all, it helps in attracting new employees, which can be critical when skilled labour is in short supply. It also helps an employer to retain the employees they already have. No longer can you demand or expect loyalty from your employees: the events of the last five years have made it quite clear that employers do not themselves show much loyalty to their staff when the going gets tough, so it’s not surprising that people now look first and foremost to their own interests. As a result, an employer has to work to retain their best employees and an on-going programme of learning and development will undoubtedly help.

But there’s no reason whatsoever why this should preclude a performance focus. As Daniel Pink describes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, three factors stand out: the desire to direct our own lives; the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. In other words, it really helps if the development you receive is meaningful and relevant. It should help you to do a better job, to improve your performance and deliver a better service to your stakeholders.

3. Learning can be seen as an end in itself, but it can also be the means to an end

I think that some workplace learning professionals get confused into thinking that they are running a school or college, where learning is the outcome. With this way of thinking, learning objectives become the over-riding focus of attention and rather superficial tools such as knowledge tests become important measures of success. But workplaces are not primarily places of learning. True, they function more effectively and are more enjoyable places in which to work if they value and encourage learning, but that’s because learning is an important contributor to changes in behaviour. And changes in behaviour are a necessary (though rarely sufficient) contributor to performance.

So, the most effective learning interventions are going to be aligned to the goals of the organisation. They are devised only after answers have been obtained to some important questions:

  • What behaviours are critical to the future success of this organisation?
  • To what degree are employees already exhibiting the behaviours that are critical for success?
  • What influence can learning interventions have on these behaviours?

So, as will now be perfectly clear, I’m all for an increased focus on performance, not just so learning professionals get to stay in a job, but because their own work becomes more meaningful and relevant. And you can’t say that has always been the case.

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