Learning and Performance in Balance

If you scratch the surface of training and development in any organisation you realize that management doesn’t really care about learning; they want measurable performance. This is understandable and paying lip service to the learning organisation, et al, is a waste of time. At the organisational level, performance should be the only measure. However, there is much that cannot be measured and new work processes and skills are emerging in our digital economy. Management is usually the last to know about these, so they won’t likely be planning learning activities to support emergent processes.

In a complex work environment, where innovation is more important than following established procedures, responsibility for learning should be delegated to the lowest level  – the individual worker. These workers should be encouraged to collaborate in their learning activities, with little or no direction from above. Bottom-up emergent processes are better in a changing environment because those at the coal-face best understand the issues, even if they may not be able to articulate them.

I would suggest that in a knowledge-intensive work environment, where workers already have some degree of autonomy, it would be best to give them complete control over their learning. Just drop the organisational learning function and concentrate on performance. Management must then keep open communications with workers and can develop tools that will support emergent processes as they develop. Management will always be one step behind in this process, but that’s better than being completely out of touch.

It is a better balance to let workers direct their learning and collaborate as they see fit (within limits of privacy, security, etc). The modern organisation should get out of the learning business and into the business of supporting its workers.

My thanks to recent posts on this subject by Tony Karrer, Michele Martin and Clark Quinn.

17 Responses to “Learning and Performance in Balance”

  1. Stephen Downes

    > It is a better balance to let workers direct their learning and collaborate as they see fit

    Except, for the learner, performance is *not* the only measure – indeed, it may not be a measure at all!

    Learners, for example, are just as likely to be preparing for their *next* job as they are to be becoming more proficient in their current one.

    I agree that learning cannot be directed by management, because management is unable to direct it effectively. As you say, management will generally be a step behind emergent practice.

    So, companies looking to obtain improvements in performance from learning will need to learn how to align their own interests with employee interests.

    This is not something that companies do well or easily, suggesting what may be an implacable barrier to the effective use of learning in the workplace.

  2. Jean-Sébastien Bouchard

    Not sure that in complex environments, management should concentrate in performance and delegate learning to the lower levels. For learning to occur, you must feel that you have a «safe space» to learn. If management is focused on performance, they will not take the time to understand the complexity levels they face and will not provide safe learning spaces. If results are not satisfying them, they could easily say «you know this learning thing? Forget it for now and concentrate on productivity.». I have observed these behaviors so many times and the result is that employees don’t want to invest anymore on learning. They finish by only doing the minimum to make the boss happy.

    This is why I believe more and more in a top-bottom-top approach. You first need to concentrate on the top level to bring them to accept complexity, ask meaningful questions and agree on the importance of co-creation. Once this is done, you can create learning and collaborative spaces to empower the lowest level and allow the new to emerge. And then, you need the top level to encourage what will emerge! If they are not ready to deal with emergence, they will kill all the energy in no time by trying to control the results!

    Not an easy task but with good process design and facilitation skills, I think it can be done!

  3. Virginia Yonkers

    In my dissertation work, the group I am studying expressed their frustration at only having performance standards as their (sometimes difficult) learning to work together has given insights into the content they are teaching, their “students” and alternative approaches that don’t fall under the performance standards. Yes, they are meeting standards, but the richness of their learning and what they can pass on to others is not being measured.

    I also wonder at letting the workers set their own learning goals as many will focus on their own personal needs (outside of the organization, as Stephen points out, to further their own carrier) perhaps being myopic in what they need. Perhaps a better model would be one of learning brokerage, in which “experts” identified what was lacking on an organizational and job title level (an accountant should need to be able to do X,Y, Z) and the individual chooses from a menu of learning options that will allow them to get to that level based on their individual needs and preferences.

  4. Harold Jarche

    Thanks, Stephen and JS. I agree with your points and since this is only a stub of a post, much is implicit. I’ll be turning this into a longer, more comprehensive article (some day). Implicit in my post is the need for learning-friendly work environments, supported by management. Learning just shouldn’t be directed by management.

    I appreciate the feedback.

  5. Harold Jarche

    Virgina, I think that a better approach in complex organisational environments, where there are few good practices, only emergent practices, we should look at the Cynefin Model. In a complex environment, “… in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice”. My view on this is that it is better if the Probing happens from the bottom-up and then management’s role is to support these individual probe’s of sense-making. The “experts” are now those who are closest to the problem or challenge – the knowledge workers.

  6. Jon Husband

    Good meaty conversation.

    The Cynefin model does a good job of top-bottom-top-bottom approach, which helps “the system” of participants and stakeholders engage fully in the issue(s) at hand.

  7. Rob Wilkins

    Hey Harold,

    Well, at the risk of complicating further…..

    whilst i know I will ruffle some feathers my perspective on this is that we too often assume a utopian state and also assume that the individual has the intrinsic “competence” to learn without formal intervention or direction.

    Recently I had a major implementation of a “new way of thinking about your business” program to roll out to managers of our distribution network. When we went to them and said “this is your choice, how would you like to learn?” . The overwhelming response was a blend of formal classroom education and the opportunity to network in a community of practice.

    The problem we face is that the place of work becomes, for a lot of people, the last educational institution they will attend. This is why the ‘Senge’ version of the learning organisation is important. People bring with them their early and secondary educational models of learning and given they are “mostly” comfortable with them they tend to continue to want this in some form or another.

    I do not necessarily disagree, but I do not think we have learned enough about why traditional models have worked in the past. Lots to learn yet me thinks….

  8. Martin Roberts


    I think it is courageous of you to attempt to describe the practices found in the field of education with the practices of the corporate world. As someone who has spent time in both, I am amazed about how polar they are in their approaches and performance indicators.

    Within the corporate world, dominated by stakeholder needs, tthe bulk of the learning is informal in delivery and takes the just-in-time approach. In the educational world is it more dominated by formal just-in-case learning. This polarity, i think has a fundamental effect on the managemtn dynamics.

  9. Karyn Romeis

    Much of what your post addresses has been my own experience, Harold, and I touched on it in this post.

    However, in response to Martin’s assertion that “the bulk of the learning is informal in delivery and takes the just-in-time approach” I would like to say “I wish!”

    There is just too much just-in-case, sheepdip stuff still around. There is ample evidence that, for many managers in the corporate world, training provision is a box-ticking exercise. When we have put all our staff members through the current hoop-of-the-month and performance/proficiency/on the job behaviour hasn’t changed one iota, we can point to the expensive, whizzy learning programme we put on and sigh about horses and water and stuff.

  10. Dave Ferguson

    As usual, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, Harold. The world of performance at work has been on a long journey for nearly fifty years, from do-as-I-do to do-as-schools-do to Mager’s behavioral objectives to performance and performance support.

    And both organizations and individuals are at many different points along that journey.

    I think it’s an oversimplification to say that “a complex work environment” means “innovation is more important than following established procedures.” Manufacturing and processing, which deal with atoms as well as bits, aren’t going to disappear.

    If they do, say goodbye to your computer, your vitamins, your medication, your power grid — and your bicycle.

    Of course innovation matters. To see what happens when it stops, take a look at Detroit, where Chrysler’s market share has dropped below 10% and GM has managed to lose more market share than Ford ever had.

    At the same time, both manufacturing and processing increasingly depend on precision, which demands standardization, which demands procedures.

    The individual worker, even on the pharmaceutical packaging lines I worked at recently, can and will come up with effective ways to alter, expand, or replace procedures. But that individual can’t implement them at will.

    That worker would, however, be grateful to have some help in makign more rational her company’s current methods for helping her acquire new skills and apply new procedures.


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