As a new budget year approaches against a backdrop of economic fluctuation, senior executives are posing more frequent and pointed questions about return on investment to the learning and development community.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many executives remain unconvinced of the value of learning and development initiatives. Other priorities such as new product development or new advertising and marketing initiatives often may take precedence in the budgeting process.
Faced with scrutiny of their operational effectiveness, CLOs must remain focused on key business goals and priorities, along with what needs to be in place to achieve the expected results. By deploying internal performance consultants who help keep the proverbial eye on the ball, CLOs can ensure that the focus remains on performance, not just on the learning process. A performance consulting strategy can propel the organization toward those business goals and help the CLO establish stronger relationships with executives and line management.
To be fair, everyone is asking performance questions. Performance produces results. It’s not that these questions shouldn’t be asked — in fact, these are the same questions a good performance consultant would ask about learning.
Making the Move
Historically, performance consulting involved a heavy focus on numbers and the management of the business. But today’s organizations have already become nearly as lean as they can be. So, rather than simply tasking fewer people with more work, performance consultants help increase efficiency without increasing the workload. They are looking for pockets of effectiveness within a business and examining ways to replicate that success.
Most larger organizations already have identified opportunities for improvement and come to outside resources to seek specific assistance that they themselves cannot or prefer not to provide, perhaps lacking the time, resources, manpower or strategies to design or deliver solutions. In other cases, organizations have tried various tactics and aren’t getting the necessary traction or performance lift. In such situations, there are usually deeper-seated organizational development or strategy execution issues that have not been uncovered or fully addressed.
Performance consulting uses training as a catalyst to achieve results, driving organizational effectiveness by releasing the discretionary effort of employees. The purpose of a performance consulting process is to get as much clarity and direct connection as possible among learning content, the environment in which employees are expected to use the skills and how the skills drive business results. In other words, one should be able to connect skill application to a measurable difference in performance of individuals, groups, business units and the entire enterprise.
Performance consultants can help clarify precisely what skill application and performance is needed to produce the targeted business results. By virtue of working closely with their business colleagues, as well as functioning as a cohort of performance consultants, they can function as an effective community of practice. They serve as sentinels embedded within their assigned business areas and become the eyes and ears of the CLO, who can then use their input to craft a more targeted learning and performance strategy.
Factors to Consider
When managing a performance-consulting relationship, the CLO needs to remain aware of how the consultants are perceived and the work that falls to them. They are not a replacement for the organization’s management and leadership chain. While they can study, observe and analyze work that is underway and provide insights to managers, they can’t and shouldn’t assume all coaching and reinforcement responsibilities. CLOs should take care that managers are making the time to model, coach, reinforce and measure how their work groups are doing.
It’s also dangerous to assume that it’s possible to simply reclassify traditional trainers as internal performance consultants. Not every trainer can or wants to assume that particular role. Effective performance consulting requires a deeper level of business acumen, organizational development skills and perhaps even knowledge of industrial and organizational psychology to do it exceptionally well.
Generally, organizations that have tried to relabel their trainers as internal performance consultants have found many lacked adequate perspective, depth of understanding of the business and the necessary
background in organizational development and systemic performance. Thus, their business management “customers” have been unimpressed. A trainer cannot automatically be renamed a performance consultant. They must deliver results, or line management’s patience will expire quickly.
Rather, performance consultants who are carefully selected, well-equipped and have established solid relationships within the business are able to deliver at the level expected by the executive team and thus are viewed as highly valuable internal partners.
Performance Consulting at Work
The best performance consultants have an intimate knowledge of the economics and operating models of a business. With that in mind, CLOs must provide that information or make connections with others who do. Consultants need access to key players who guide, design or perform in roles that govern those operating models. They need access to financial analysts and others who measure business results.
The steps of a performance consulting process might include:
• Analyzing the organization to gain an understanding of how its operating models and customer relationships work together to produce the desired business results and how human capital performance contributes directly to all those moving parts.
• Engaging in organizational assessment, analyses, behavioral observations and related studies to discern those competencies (skills, knowledge, abilities and motivations) that predictably produce superior performance.
• Identifing gaps between existing and desired performance, as well as specific strategies for systemically creating improvement.
• Drawing upon the Lean Six Sigma methodology and other such systems, processes and related performance techniques to isolate and resolve problem areas.
• Engaging in constructive modeling, coaching, reinforcement and measurement of performance with business unit or line management “customers” and their respective work groups.
• Working collaboratively with people at all levels to gain in-depth understanding of their strategic targets, how they are expected to execute on strategies within their respective roles, how they need to apply skills and knowledge to drive expected performance, how the culture inside the organization and within the market space operates, and how to best equip people with the capabilities that most effectively influence performance.
Consider the example of an insurance company with a number of business units. Corporate leaders wanted to establish a fresh brand for the enterprise as a whole, so that any customer working with a specific business area might see the value of working with another unit as well, plus be recognizable as an existing customer and have a consistent branded experience throughout.
This represented a significant change in the company’s operating model. Instead of a high degree of autonomy for each business unit, the organization is now looking at consistency of the customer’s experience across all businesses, while each unit is actively addressing the real needs of the client.
Meanwhile, there was a realization that the company’s reputation for excellence in underwriting needed to be bolstered with new, consultative business development skills. The company decided to move beyond the temptation to quickly “sell on spreadsheets” to more deeply understanding and directly supporting the real needs of customers. This became the genesis of a significant cultural transformation for a company that was already financially secure and enjoyed a favorable reputation.
Because the company’s associates needed to learn a more consultative approach, this required the addition of new sales skills and the development of new organizational habits and practices — the learning that lies at the heart of performance consulting.
Part of the implementation strategy addressed the fact that such a widely dispersed organization would not be able to easily and uniformly undertake the application of these new skills and the new operating model, plus deliver on the new brand, without some help.
The organization decided to deploy a group of performance consultants to reside in the field and provide direct assistance to the dispersed regions. They carefully selected a group of people, most of whom came from within the company’s ranks and could operate as internal performance consultants to guide the process. These individuals required strengths in classroom training, but also had to be able to address organizational development issues, understand business context and ascertain cultural environment issues.
This group is geographically dispersed to provide embedded services directly to the various regions and the sales managers and leaders who reside there. They have the depth of knowledge to apply and teach the necessary skills, while serving as day-to-day observers of employees’ progress.
The company has been working the process for nearly a year. Employees now have learned to examine and understand clients’ business issues and can then determine the extent to which the organization’s expertise would apply. Shifting employees to a more consultative role has helped support the new brand and the intended customer experience and is contributing to business growth across the organization.
It’s worth noting that moving to performance consulting involves a different deliverable for the organization than traditional training. A performance consultant looks beyond readiness to learn about other factors in the environment in which employees operate, which could be unrelated to development programs. They attend to anything connected to the capability to drive performance and results.
By focusing an organization’s employees on common objectives and giving them the essential tools of learning and empowerment, it’s possible to achieve results beyond most expectations. CLOs who can effectively deploy skilled performance consultants will quickly earn a reputation for improving business performance — a feat that establishes them as effective and valuable strategic partners on the executive team.