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Giants of the Past Offer Words of Wisdom

By Jim Naughton, ILG Contributor

Start with Performance First to Get to the Right Learning Solution

My colleague and a former ILGer Susan Fisher is what you would call an expert in turning e-learning into e-performance. Her approach has made me stop and think… where have I heard this before? Is it possible to help workers in the moment they’re performing a task? Could that reduce — or even eliminate — the time we traditionally pull people away from work to engage in training?

Emphatically, yes!

Suddenly, I heard the echoes of great teachers and mentors who preceded me and shaped so much of my thinking about how to improve performance. You see, if you start with performance first, you always arrive at the best solution later. Let me whisper some of the wisdom of the ages from giants of the past… Thomas Gilbert, Joe Harless, and Geary Rummler.

Starting with Rummler, who said maybe one of the all-time best quotes in the history of things:

“Pit a good employee against a bad system, and the system will win most every time.”

Drop the mic, Rummler. Truer words have never been uttered.

As simple as it sounds, most managers think quite the opposite. A typical manager heads straight for the people issue and thinks, “why can’t HR find me better people,” which is followed by the commonly heard “ and then the Training folks should be able to prepare them to be flawless on day one.”

But wait…that’s the opposite side of Rummler’s point.

Perhaps we can convince our managers that the solution is in the system!

Ah, the system. What specifically does that mean? Well, I happen to know from a few good sources that Geary knew a fellow by the name of Thomas Gilbert quite well. Gilbert talked about the system as the environment in which people work.

In the work environment, Gilbert zeros in on exactly what’s most desperately needed by saying, “…in my experience, one stratagem tends to pay off more often — and pay off dramatically: to improve the data designed to support performance.” 1

So, hang with me here.

Rummler said that it’s the system, not the person.

Gilbert said that improve the data people use on the job.

Okay, so what’s the answer then?

Let’s give people things they can use in the moment of need when they’re at work. But we can’t do that if our paradigm is only to train people and take them away from their work.

Maybe we need some encouragement to change our paradigm. That brings me to my last point, which is made so eloquently by the late great Joe Harless.

He said, “Inside every fat course, there’s a thin job aid crying to get out.” 2

Fast forward his plea to the year 2020… job aids that we use as we work can be produced in any media format. It’s not merely a document now. We can provide exceptionally short and targeted web, video, and document resources to support performance.

If designed properly, these resources can be used to fulfill the vision of Rummler, Gilbert, and Harless. Better yet, these can reduce learner time in training and increase performance!

So, if we truly ask ourselves how to create better outcomes and performance, we lead ourselves directly to the answer. We can give people help that supports them in key moments in addition to a moderate amount of traditional preparation in formal training. In doing so, we’d be champions in the eyes of our stakeholders… the valued resources that Rummler, Gilbert, and Harless taught us to be.

Jim Naughton is a freelance senior performance consultant. He has more than 40 years of experience in the training and performance improvement industry. Jim was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2018 to 2023.


1 T. Gilbert, Human Competence, p. 175

2 J. Harless, Performance Technology and Other Popular Myths, 1985

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