The Pivot From ‘Learning’ To ‘Performance’ with Guy Wallace

September 17, 2020

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At the beginning of 2020, David James spoke with Guy Wallace, a pioneer of performance-focused L&D, on The Learning & Development Podcast.

This conversation explored Guy’s 40 years of experience, what’s getting in the way of this important pivot and what it’s going to take for the L&D profession to shift its orientation from ‘learning’ to ‘performance’

Read on for some of the insights Guy shared in that conversation, or tune in to episode 37 of The L&D Podcast for the whole conversation.

“We Can’t Get There From Here”

The late Geary Rummler wrote in 1969, “We can’t get there from here.” What he was espousing was that there was a need for people in the training field to take a more performance orientation to become Performance Improvement Technologists – with technology being the application of science. He was looking for the science of performance improvement to take hold. That was 50 years ago. We’ve made a start to begin that procession from trainingcontenteducation to impacting performance.

Training Requests for New Hires Should be Expected but Training Requests for Problem-Solving Should be Suspected

Our clients come to us because we’re all about training or learning or whatever label you want to put on that instruction. That’s who they go to because they think that that’ll help them solve their problems but underneath that I believe they really want performance impact. They want to improve the performance situation and they see training or learning as a means to that end. I’ve seen this as a consultant since 1982.

But we don’t look at the current state performance situation. We don’t understand what the variables to performance are. We don’t understand what the barriers are that people are dealing with. We just give them reasonable-sounding content on topics (I’m overgeneralising a little bit). 

That’s our main practice. That’s what Guys seen as he assesses his clients’ existing content for reuse purposes. They talk about topics but they don’t go that final mile so to speak to get to:

“Here’s how you apply that in your performance context.”

Why is it that we are unable to take a performance orientation to the content? Guy thinks a lot of it has to do with poor practices or non-existing practices with analysis.

“Are You Sure it’s a Knowledge and Skill Problem?”

Another thing Guy learned from Joe Harless back in the ’80s is that he would say it this way at conferences: When your client asks you to produce some training for their needs, the wrong response is to say in a whiny voice, “Are you sure it’s a knowledge and skill problem?” He said, and Guy learned from it:

“Sure, I can help you. I can help you even more if you let me do front-end analysis. Here’s what we’ll produce. Here’s how we’ll go about doing it.”

That would resonate with many clients unless they truly didn’t understand the performance context. They were a middleman, brokering the request to the training organisation.

“Inside Every Fat Course is a Thin Job Aid Crying to Get Out.”

This was another saying of the late Joe Harless. He had this task, tens of thousands of engineers in a company, and they needed training. He did his front-end analysis and he came back with a four-page job aid that saved the company millions of dollars in delivery costs because instead of bringing everybody together and shipping it for them in training content, he produced a four-page job aid.

The client complained because that was an awfully expensive four pages but wasn’t looking at what the cost savings were. 

But we, in L&D, produce too much content. Again, we’re trapped in our training or learning paradigm where instructional content is what we do, rather than thinking about the clients trying to use us as a means to an end of performance. Most often, training is involved, learning content is involved, instruction is involved, but it’s not the main lever that we might use to affect performance.

This was his [Joe Harless’] lament that we’re producing tons and tons of content when we could have been producing pages of job aids. 

The concept of job aids, which is nowadays called Performance Support and sometimes Workflow Learning (depending on how you define those terms) is nothing new. Geary Rummler and Tom Gilbert called this Guidance back in the 1960s. Joe Harless started calling it Job Aids back in the ’70s perhaps even in the ’60s. Gloria Gery called it EPSS (Electronic Performance Support Systems). That was when you were embedding the Performance Support into a computer application as people did their jobs. These concepts are not new.

Now that digital technology has advanced and we’ve got desktops and laptops and smartphones, we can deliver these job aids. Back in the old days, the big deal was to laminate them because they’d get finger smudges all over them as most people use these things. 

Nowadays we can centralise the repository of performance support/job aids, and we can keep them evergreen and up to date so that they don’t go stale and become irrelevant to the performers’ needs. We can allow access to these things so that people can get them that help in real-time.

Find out more in episode 37 of The L&D Podcast.

Nobody Gets Credit for Creating Job Aids

We, in Learning & Development, report out activity measures as if they’re meaningful. We don’t report out measured results, because we don’t know what their performance and their measures were in the first place.

We don’t establish baselines of those measures, and we don’t see if we’ve had an impact and an improvement in those numbers. We report out butts-in-seats. Nowadays, it’s butts-on-sites. We’re not tuned to that; we’re used to helping support those activity measures rather than truly understanding performance. If we were to give out some simple job aids and let people go to someplace on the company internet and download them, we don’t know if they’re using them. We’re not measuring the impact in performance, so we can’t take any credit for that.

Now, if you were to go to the client group and ask them what do they think, they probably gave you the big thumbs up and they’re happy as hell because they’ve got stuff that helps them.

This is a Paradigm Shift for Many in our Learning and Development Functions

They need to go on the educational journey to learn more about this, to find quick, easy ways to do this. Everybody’s under time pressure, so you have to find quick ways to do analysis and design so that what you develop really has a prayer of impacting performance. Guy thinks it’s a worthy pursuit and has been trying to share what he’s learned from others and his own experiences because that was how he was brought up: people freely shared.

His professional society was one where you could walk up to anybody, a Joe Harless, or a Geary Rummler, and they would listen to you and answer your questions and invite you to go to lunch or to the bar in the evenings and talk about this further. Guy states that there are many resources and in today’s world, with videos. There’s a lot that can be learned and gleaned from the past, but we don’t want to get all caught up in the past. Those people didn’t have the technology available to them to understand how to really meet their clients’ performance situations and challenges.

Learning and Development Will Either Disrupt or be Disrupted

Are you ready to start disrupting L&D from within? Download the The L&D Disruption Playbook or speak to our L&D experts.

About Guy Wallace

Guy Wallace is a Performance Analyst and Instructional Architect and has been designing and developing Instruction/ Training/ Learning and Performance Support content for Enterprise Learning and business critical target audiences since 1979. In 2010 he was the recipient of ISPI’s Highest Award, approved by two successive Boards of Directors, Honorary Life Member, for his contributions to the technology of Performance Improvement, and for his contributions to the Society.

Connect with Guy on Linkedin and Twitter

Connect with David James on LinkedIn and Twitter

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