Posts Categorized: Performance Improvement

Bureaucracy = Death

Seth Godin’s quotable Bureaucracy = Death raises a number of issues on why preventive actions are seldom taken by bureaucratic organisations. Seth talks about the effects of bureaucracy on marketing, but it also results in inertia in healthcare, education, et al. I doubt that his idea of a Chief No Officer would be embraced by many companies or institutions.
My belief is that it is the basic nature of managerial organisations that is the prime contributor to a reactive versus a preventive mindset. Why were the levees around New Orleans not maintained? Why is there no funding for programmes such as Canada’s Participaction, but we continue to add more expensive acute care machinery to our hospitals? Why is early childhood education ignored when it is a prime contributor to healthy, contributing citizens? And finally, what can we do to change this?

Gloria Gery on Performance

I read Gloria Gery’s Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) in 1994. At the time, I was responsible for training development on a helicopter that the Canadian military had just purchased. EPSS became a key reference book for my approach to training design and the later creation of a specification for computer-based and web-based training. The focus of our team became much more one of performance versus training, and luckily I found that air crew were very open to the idea of performance support.
Jay Cross and Tony O’Driscoll have just written an excellent review on Gloria’s contribution to the work, learning, performance field. According to Jay:

The first time I heard Gloria speak, seven years ago, she provided the mantra of my efforts, "Training will either be strategic or it will be marginalized."

In my experience as both an internal and an external consultant, I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Gloria Gery was ahead of her time, as there is still a shortage of good references on how to develop performance-centred workplace interventions. EPSS Revisited is a more recently published book on the subject but as I have noted there are few how-to resources on EPSS and fewer on workflow learning.
In the words of Gloria Gery:

Performance Support focuses on work itself while training focuses on the learning required to do the work. Integrating resources in the workplace is inevitable, and the need is urgent. Filtering resources so people get the tools and resources they need while actively working is the goal. Work process and roles are the primary filters. The mechanisms vary: portals, performance-centered workflow interfaces, enterprise applications, integration projects, etc, but what’s important is that performer be able to name that tune in one note, to perform in exemplary fashion.

New Role for Instructional Designers?

Elliott Masie in his latest Trends newsletter asks this question:

What is the next role for Instructional Design?

My experiences in instructional design over the past ten years is that it hasn’t changed too much. In the military I learned how to apply the systems approach to training as well as how to create computer-based training, instructor-led training, etc. My conversations with e-learning companies, instructional designers and academics shows that instructional design is still wedded to the course as the basic unit of instruction (I use instruction instead of learning because the former is usually the focus). I believe that there is still a huge gap that instructional design could fill, given the right tools and perspective.
Let me start by saying that my most memorable projects in the learning field have been those that created non-instructional solutions, specifically performance support. These have included online job aids and just-in-time tools to do some specific task. The tools are not that fancy but the analysis required to find the right tool for the context can be quite time-consuming. The cost savings are usually evident and rather significant.
However, you will be hard-pressed to find a program that focuses on "how-to" develop performance support solutions, because developing courses is so much easier. Don Clark has a good graphic on Performance, Learning, Leadership & Knowledge. This is a good place to start to look at the non-instructional side of performance design. My own experience shows that non-instructional interventions (EPSS, KM, CoP) are very intensive at the front end (analysis) but require fewer resources in the middle (design). In traditional instructional design you may spend up to 20% of your project costs on analysis, but for performance support this amount could go up to 80%. Once the solution is clearly specified, it doesn’t require a factory floor of instructional designers and can be developed by a small team of programmers, graphic artists, etc.
The next role for instructional design should be to get out of the course in a box metaphor. The web as a medium is better suited for non-linear, non-instructional learning programs than for ADDIE-developed courses. Just as the printed book changed academia, so too the web is changing training and education. Get used to it.

The Individual is the Organisation

Yesterday, at the QSC opening, I was able to have a much too short discussion with Robert Paterson about organisational change. The gist of our conversation was that since all change happens with the individual, why focus on the organisation for any cultural/organisational change? This has me thinking about my own business, which I have summed up by stating that my consultancy focuses on "Improving organisational performance at the intersection of learning, work and technology". Perhaps a better, and more pragmatic, focus would be on "Improving individual performance …". The lesson being that you should focus your energies on what you can change, and that would be by helping people, one person at a time. It’s pretty well what I am doing, I just haven’t stated it that way.
I think that a focus on individuals could also reduce some of the inherent frustration of consulting. Even if the organisation has not implemented the change, or just parked the report on a shelf, you can walk away from a project knowing that you have helped someone. It’s a parallel activity within a project but could be the most rewarding.


Worthwhile’s Anita Sharpe mentioned productivity measures and how the US Government measures output instead of real productivity. Anita quotes Kevin Kelly (10 Rules for the New Economy) :

"Any job that can be measured for productivity probably should be eliminated from the list of jobs that people do. . .Where humans are most actively engaged with their imaginations, we don’t see productivity gains — and why should we? Is a Hollywood movie company that produces longer movies per dollar more productive that one that produces shorter movies?" 

A similar question came up at Nine Shift on whether "productivity is no longer a valid measurement".  Dan Pink sees the world moving from an Industrial/Information economy towards a Creative Economy. These new economic conditions, created by Asia, Automation and Abundance will require "right-brain" skills in design, synthesis and empathy. If you agree with Pink, which I do, then it becomes obvious that industrial era measurements will be useless in the next economy.
Unfortunately, most measures of creativity are not as clear-cut as those for more technical and physical skills. In the interim, we will have a mismatch between what is measured and what really matters.

Solving Tough Problems

Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane is a short book with a powerful message. It is a series of stories about Kahane’s progress from an analytical researcher with a degree in physics to an internationally-recognized facilitator of participatory problem solving. I picked up this book in Montreal last week and later noticed that Kahane is originally from Montreal. He tells the story of his early work with Shell and the likes of Peter Senge and then the eye-opening Mont Fleur sessions in South Africa just prior to the end of apartheid. A major theme in the book is how to overcome "apartheid" thinking:

My analysis also allowed me to recognize a widespread "apartheid syndrome". By this I mean trying to solve a highly complex problem using a piecemeal, backward-looking, and authoritarian process that is suitable only for solving simple problems. In this syndrome, people at the top of a complex system try to manage its development through a divide-and-conquer strategy: through compartmentalization – the Africaans word apartheid means "apartness" – and command and control. Because the people at the bottom resist these commands, the syndrome either becomes stuck, or ends up becoming unstuck by force.

At just under 150 pages, this is a short book but one that I will read many times over. The main lesson for me so far is that it is necessary to focus on listening, and that many answers are already there; we just have to relax and let them come to us. I see learning in the same way – when the learner is ready, the teacher will appear. As Kahane says, "If we want to help resolve complex situations, we have to get out of the way of situations that are resolving themselves".

This way of approaching complex problems has worked, but requires a shift in approach, much like Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This is where we don’t actually let go of our left brain analytical processes, but park them in order to open up our right brain conceptualization and feeling abilities. Here is some advice from Kahane’s colleague at Shell, Alain Wouters:

There is not "a" problem out there that we can react to and fix. There is a "problem situation" of which each of us is a part, the way an organ is part of a body. We can’t see the situation objectively: we can just appreciate it subjectively. We affect the situation and it affects us. The best we can do is to engage with it from multiple persectives, and try, in action-learning mode, to improve it. It’s more like unfolding a marriage than it is like fixing a car."

I strongly recommend this book for anyone working in groups, meetings, committees or any other form of social organisation.

Seeing What’s Next

I had previously written about Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, and more recently Seeing What’s Next. This last book gives new business entrants (upstarts) and incumbents a theory-based set of tools to understand and use disruptive innovations. One of the strategies for upstarts is to target non-core customers of the incumbents. These come in three categories (overshot, undershot and non-customers) and by targeting these customers entrants can avoid direct confrontation, while developing skills and expertise in areas outside the core business of the incumbents. Once the entrants have grown "under the radar", they can grow to directly confront the incumbents.

Roger Kaufman has reviewed the book from the perspective of a human performance technologist (HPT) in April’s Performance Quarterly. Kaufman states:

This book, which is not written by HPT professionals, brings powerful illustrative value to our field. I highly recommend it, as it will stimulate your thoughts – and likely your actions. Seeing What’s Next is about one way for organizations and individuals to cope with the future.

I have been stimulated to take some of this book’s ideas and create the following graphical representation of how an upstart company should look at the "Signals of Change", especially from non-market conditions. Upstarts should use their asymetrical sword & shield and focus on non-consumers and overshot customers, such as those paying too much for what they really need (think bloated word processing applications where customers use only 20% of the features). By avoiding the cash cows (Undershot Customers) of the incumbents, upstart companies can develop asymetrical skills in new fields before the incumbents know what hits them (think Voice over IP and traditional telcos).

Learning through Blogging

When you write a blog, your thoughts and comments, right or wrong, stay online for a long time. In reviewing what I have been jabbing about for the past year, I’ve pieced together some of my previous conclusions – warts & all:

Starting with learning in general:

It seems pretty clear; the basic unit of learning is the person. This person is indivisible. All learning activities, products and strategies must be centered around the person. We can then go on to develop environments for many people, but the individual is the building block – not the learning object, the course, the programme, or the institution. All of these are temporary organisations that the individual may use, or be part of.

And moving on to learning at work:

My conclusion for a while has been that knowledge cannot be managed, and neither can knowledge workers. It will take a new social contract between workers and organisations in order to create an optimally functioning enterprise. Adding management and technology won’t help either. This is the crux of everything in the new "right-sized, lean, innovative, creative" economy – getting the right balance between the organisational structure and the knowledge workers.


Training without clear performance objectives, that are relevant to each learner, is useless.

And on the positive side:

What’s exciting about workflow learning is that the technology has caught up to some of the theory, and the globalized economy is making workflow learning (or something resembling it) a necessity.

Not only possible, but cheap:

An organisation’s entire KM effort could start with simple technologies. It could provide a blog to everyone, letting workers blog as they wanted. RSS aggregators could keep an eye on blogs of interest, and maybe even a blog rating system could be included in the performance management system. Yes, the better writers would get better rankings, but so would those who solve problems. A bottom-up approach to KM, at a minimal cost, makes a lot more sense than betting that some centralized system, with a huge training bill, will solve all of our problems.


What I like best about open source is that the development process is a real meritocracy, much like being an entrepreneur. In small business, if you don’t deliver, you can’t make an honest living.

And finally:

Informal learning, facilitated by the likes of blogs & wikis, works well for general education, and for continued learning outside of the "classroom". Informal learning (education in the broadest sense) is messy by its very nature. Training, such as how to drive a car, can use a more scientific method to
optimize training time, achieve the desired performance and reduce the risk of accidents. Training and education can even use the same tools, like simulations, but not the same approach. Education and training are complementary, but distinct.

Still a work in progress 😉

The Relevance of Grades

Are you a teacher, educator or trainer? What kind of evaluation method does your organisation use? Which one makes more sense to you?

Behavior-based grades = grades based on irrelevant behavior-related criteria.

Outcomes-based grades = grades based on knowledge competencies and what one has learned.

From Nine Shift, are a number of critical posts on the state of Western education.

Performance Technology – the missing piece

This week at the LearnNB quarterly meeting the key area of focus was gaming, especially Serious Gaming. The interest in gaming reminds me of the interest in online learning around 1997. I think that e-learning, however you define it, and serious gaming, however you define that too, each have their place – as possible interventions for improved performance.

However, there is still a lack of pertinent discussion around the essential component in this whole business – analysis, or figuring out what solution is best. We have to better understand how we get from perceived problem to viable solution when dealing with human performance. How do we go from, "Our sales staff aren’t producing" to "let’s use the sales simulation game". ISPI provides a venue for those discussions, but sometimes it’s a voice in the wilderness.

Another source of information is Jay Cross, with workflow learning, based on some of the principals and theories of HPT. Jay recently highlighted some excellent presentations from Training 2005, and Harold Stolovitch’s handout is a great aide-memoire for any HPT practitioner. You have to have some background in the field to decipher these notes, as the detailed explanation is lacking, but just the section on feedback is well worth reading. Feedback is often misunderstood, and frequently misused. Jay also refers to a Rummler-Brache white paper on business defragmentation (neat term), in this post. As anyone in the field knows, Geary Rummler has advanced much of our praxis.

Until we extend performance analysis into the everyday business workplace, we will continue to chase after each new performance tool. Every tool has its place, but good diagnostics, based on validated theory & practice, will help to make real progress in improving performance.