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Learning and Performance: Get Angry, Make Changes

By Susan Fisher, ILG Contributor

Three Ways to Streamline Employee Performance Improvement

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Remember that iconic catch phrase from the 1976 movie Network? Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) was commenting on modern American society, but it’s been running through the back of my mind lately — about formal training in the workplace. OK, I may not actually be as mad as hell, but I do think much employee training is a waste of time.

I know I’m not the first person to say this; check out the work of various learning industry thought-leaders1. Or ask people who actually have to take the training.

What’s more, I personally love to learn! In fact, sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor impart knowledge was my favorite activity in college. And I’m happy to discuss the luminescent colors of Vermeer or how France lost North America until the cows come home.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”2

But there’s learning to know and there’s learning to perform. In the world of workplace learning, it’s the latter we primarily need to do, right?

During my career, I have often been enamored of the latest new thing: interactive laser discs, CBT, WBT… e-learning, mobile learning, microlearning, social learning, adaptive learning, digital learning… gamification, storytelling, rapid development tools, agile, interactive video, curation… AR, VR, MR, AI… chatbots, machine learning, blockchain… and others that I’m sure have arisen since I wrote this. Don’t get me wrong: these technologies, models, and methods have enabled (or promise to enable) some great things, but they tend to distract us from the essential purpose of what we create or deliver with them.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”3

Slowly over the last decade or so, with the help of industry thinkers smarter than me, three basic principles about workplace training/learning have coalesced in my brain:

  1. Treat learners like adults.

    People old enough to hold down a full-time job are old enough to know when they need information (i.e., help) to do that job. They don’t need to be enticed or — most especially — forced to learn. (Corollary 1: If you need to know whether they learned it, give them a test. Corollary 2: Knowledge tests don’t necessarily need to be a set of multiple choice questions.)

  2. Provide most learning on the job.

    People learn most effectively when they’re transforming new information into performance of an actual task. We all know this is true, at least intuitively — think about your own learning experiences — but there’s also plenty of research to back it up. This transformation simply doesn’t happen when task performance occurs a month, a week, or even a day after the person receives the new information. Receiving and using information must occur at the same time.

  3. Restrict formal training to situations where it’s truly needed.

    Instructor-led workshops or e-learning courses still serve some learning needs, such as the history of the industry, or the rationale and contents of a new company policy, or demonstration and practice of a sales conversation. Otherwise, “fuhgeddaboudit”!4

Performance support is a broad category of learning and information assets that serves principle #2, and I believe it’s the solution that makes sense 90% of the time. What’s more, it’s a solution that’s pulled by worker-learners as needed (meeting principle #1).

As learning professionals, we all need to get with this program. And don’t worry, you can even use many of the aforementioned technologies, models, and methods to make performance support solutions.

“I do wish we could chat longer, but… I’m having an old friend for dinner.”5

More on designing and developing performance support in the real world will come in future posts. In the meantime, keep thinking “performance first”!

1Such as Clark Quinn; see his book Revolutionize Learning & Development (Wiley, 2014)
2The Captain (Strother Martin), Cool Hand Luke, 1967
3Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986.
4Lefty (Al Pacino) and Donnie (Johnny Depp), Donnie Brasco, 1997
5Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), The Silence of the Lambs, 1991.

A woman and some of her coworkers smiling while working in a computer lab.

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