The future of learning might focus significantly on the integration of work and learning. This naturally draws senior-level learning executives’ attention to issues of performance and how to increase its levels among strategically targeted areas of the workforce. But is learning always the direct link to performance? According to Harold D. Stolovitch, emeritus professor at Université de Montréal and principal of HSA Learning and Performance Solutions LLC, the answer is no.
There are many factors that can impact the effectiveness of learning programs. Often these factors are ignored or undiscovered until after an initiative has been launched, completed and judged a failure by one or more internal and even external standards. Stolovitch said that’s why it’s critical to perform pre-learning analysis to determine if learning is indeed the best option to achieve desired performance goals. Analysis can uncover influential hidden variables and alleviate those post-training accountings where it’s necessary to explain wasted investment dollars and unchanged on-the-job behaviors.
“Performance we define operationally as being the valued accomplishment that we achieve from costly behavior,” Stolovitch explained. “In other words, you do something, you get something. There are many factors that go into that. Among them is the skill and knowledge to do and to achieve. Learning is one of the factors required in order to perform, and for most things in the workplace we do require skills and knowledge in order to perform. The acquisition of those skills and knowledge is the learning portion, and it’s one of the critical ingredients for most workplace performance. But we often attribute more to the learning than is there. We think if someone has to be able to do something, we need to provide a learning environment for them to go about doing it. That may or may not be true.”
Furthermore, having someone learn something is no guarantee that the employee will demonstrate that learning on the job in a meaningful way. In order for performance to evolve, other additional factors might be required. It might be necessary for learning to partner with other departments in order to realize the full benefits of initiatives and interventions. “You can learn how to put out a fire, but if you don’t have the equipment for it, you won’t be able to put out the fire. You won’t be able to perform,” Stolovitch said. “Learning is basically defined as change in yourself. Learning permits you to acquire new behaviors that lead to performance, and it’s one of the ingredients that’s important for performance, but it’s not sufficient. Often we link the two together, you have “learned something,” then you’re able to perform, and the reverse is also true. Because you can perform something, one assumes that you went through some kind of learning cycle.
“Learning can be mission critical for productivity if there are two pieces,” Stolovitch said. “If the person lacks the skills or knowledge to do something, then absolutely it’s mission critical. But is it sufficient? Almost never. We waste a lot of money in training because we make three links that are slippery slopes. The first is that in order for a person to do something we assume that learning will be the main path for it, when it may not. It may be that just providing people with incentives to focus their attention in a particular way will be sufficient for them to perform. The other is, let’s say that the skills and knowledge are absolutely necessary and people don’t have them. We make the assumption that by creating some sort of training program that will be the best way to do it, and it may or may not. Training is an efficient means to achieve a learning result, but it may be that the pupil requires seasoning and practice. It may be that they need to observe a lot in different cases. Most of our learning comes in informal channels by our life experiences. The third slippery slope is we assume if we have trained them and they have learned that they will be able to perform. If we don’t provide clarity as to the expectations, a proper feedback system, the right resources, the right incentives, selecting the right people, we may find that as much as they have learned they will not perform properly.”
If learning is not always linked to improved performance, which is the bottom-line result most all senior-level learning leaders are after, the next question is what will improve performance and what role does learning play? This is where analysis, a concentrated examination of external factors that might affect employees’ ability to do their jobs, comes in. “Let’s say we have a performance that’s necessary,” Stolovitch said. “Our XYZ is not selling well in the market place, and the executive in question makes the assumption that ‘They don’t know how to sell it.’ They then say, ‘Let’s train them up.’ There is the big danger. They’ve made a link between the performance and what will solve that performance problem being some kind of learning system before they’ve really examined the factors that are really affecting it. What if they’ve poorly priced XYZ? What if there is other competition in the marketplace? What if the salespeople see that it takes a lot of effort to do it for not a very good commission? Do an analysis to determine what are the factors affecting it before determining that the sales force doesn’t know how to sell and therefore we’re going to train them up. Executives have to always start with, ‘Why is it that we’re not achieving that result?’ If we have a new technology, a new product, a new competitive market, the assumption very naturally is that we’re going to have to train them up to meet the new conditions and the new performances that are required. That may or may not be true, but one thing will be true. And that is if we have to ‘train them up,’ it will not be enough. It’ll be one part of an entire group of interventions that will achieve their performance success. (Learning leaders) need to think systemically.
“Very little of the training programs that we conduct actually get translated into on-the-job application and results change even though we do it with great earnestness, and we may do it well,” Stolovitch said. “The reason for that is first of all, we may not be focused on the right audience. In a high-tech company, the sales people were not selling a package of services even though they expected that it would be very popular in the marketplace, and so they said train them up. But what they didn’t realize is that the sales people who sell the service, their sales are triggered by the people who sell the hardware. The hardware people make the introduction that later allows the service salespeople to make their sale. No one was focusing on these hardware people, and they were an integral piece. Another thing we found in that package is that even when there was another opportunity for a sale, the sales people didn’t necessarily sell that integrated package because they found that if they sold individual services they got overall higher commissions than if they bundled everything together into this package.
“Sometimes we simply expect too much from training,” Stolovitch said. “I did an audit where $5 million was spent upgrading the technical capabilities of technical personnel in a very large corporation because there was an aging population, a lot of retirement of the senior technical people, and the company felt that it had not done enough for the junior people. I found that while everyone loved the training, felt they learned a great deal and there were smiles on everybody’s faces, I could not find a link between that investment of $5 million and any application on the job. That’s because no one ever suggested how it might be applied on the job, number one. Number two, there was no follow up. The classes were wonderful, but people went back to the same stimulus conditions as before, and as a result they did the same old thing. The answer that senior management gave me was, ‘Oh well, these are long-term things. It will take awhile before they use them.’ That goes counter to anything that we know about learning. You know the old adage, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Expecting people to some day use it is a pipe dream and a waste of money. No follow up, no support, no incentive or any control for them to apply what’s been learned, and a good time was had by all, to the tune of $5 million. I’ve seen this (scenario) endlessly repeated.”
In addition to an examination of the external factors that can affect learning and performance, there should also be an examination of the internal factors that affect the learning audience. Were the right people chosen to do the job? Do they have the capabilities to achieve what’s required? “You really have to examine what it is that you wish to accomplish,” Stolovitch explained. “Frequently information comes to senior management, and they make a silly training decision. You have a climate study that finds that your employees are disengaged. They have very negative feelings about the company, and they feel that this is not a place that really cares about their input or about them as human beings. So senior management makes the decision (to order) a communications course for all first-level supervisors, as if that is going to cure the problem.
“(After) you have done your best to help people perform, you’ve trained them, provided the other support mechanisms, and all of this is based on a good analysis that really links what you did with what you want as the outcome, if you don’t measure it, you’re not going to get it,” Stolovitch said. “They say if you don’t inspect it, don’t expect it. You must put into place good evaluation systems to determine if what you’ve done links to what you want to achieve. The sad, sad fact is that training groups or learning and development groups spend so much time on their solutions and interventions that they don’t put the energy into verifying to see if they work or not, and senior management, shamefully, either does not request that measurements be made or doesn’t really believe that you can measure this stuff. That is so false. It’s incumbent on senior management to demand measures of performance that link the performance to what it is that the learning and performance support people have done. There are methods to measure return on investment, and they should be demanding that the ROI be shown.”
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