January 2011

I am clearing out some stuff I have been wanting to write about but don’t have time.  I commend it to you without comment.

Michael Hyatt provides practical advice for busy people

Cole NeSmith writes about the conflict of creativity and safety

Chief Learning Officer has articles on peer to peer knowledge sharing and embedded learning

ASTD has an article on the future of social learning

Seth Godin writes about two types of learning


The design of a performance improvement solution resembles traditional instructional design.  You must articulate goals and objectives and any unique conditions that apply to the performance.  It must be clear how the goals and objectives will close the performance gap.   Where human performance technology differs from instructional design is in the nature of the solution.  An instructional designer designs and implements learning solutions.  A human performance specialist can be responsible for redesigning work processes, individual and organizational development, and developing training.  Below I will summarize two projects I have worked on to illustrate these points.

Receiving Certification
Receiving product shipments correctly in stores is critical to ensure correct accounting and to optimize sales.  While this is a critical function, it does not need to be performed by management.  Associates can follow the steps to scan merchandise into the store’s inventory and coordinate with the manager to resolve any problems.  To be successful, an associate must be able to demonstrate competency with the receiving processes and pass a test on specific policy issues.
The solution was to create training materials based on receiving processes and to develop a test covering important policy issues.  Store managers were provided with the training materials and instructors for using them.  The test included references to the policy manual to ensure they provided the correct information to associates if they missed a test question.  To ensure accountability, a checklist was created for manager’s to sign and date when an associate completed each part of the certification.  This enabled supervisory staff to review compliance easily and quickly.

Search Warrant Writing
Writing a search warrant is intimidating and requires specialized writing.  It is intimidating because a police officer will have to present their warrant to a judge for approval.  Most officers do not have any idea what to expect that to be like.  It is common practice for an officer to ask his or her colleagues for an example when they have to write their first warrant.  This can be helpful to get started but it can also perpetuate mistakes.
The solution to this performance issue was to create a tool similar to TurboTax to help officers write their warrant.  The goal was to provide court-tested language for specific parts of the search warrant (certain parts of the warrant are case-specific and can’t be provided).  We also created training to demystify the process of preparing and getting a warrant signed by a judge.  We taught officers what to gather and how to prepare the information for their warrant.  We also walked them through the process of presenting the warrant to a judge and what to do at the court house.
Both of these were made available online through a secure website to facilitate access.

Cognitive Interviewing
The gap in this project dealt with interviewing victims and witnesses of violent or traumatic events.  Ideally officers would be able to gather detailed information from victims and witnesses in these circumstances.  However, the affects of the event interferes with a victim or witness’s ability to recall the event accurately.
We determined that the performance problem was process related.  Officers were using traditional interviewing techniques when a more advanced technique was required.  We convened interviewing experts to determine the best technique to teach and to design training that would equip officers.  Our design provided background on how the brain stores information and specific methods for retrieving memories.

A key word in this series is “design.”  It would be understandable for a person to ask “when is he going to get around to discussing design?”  I’m almost there.  Before I do, I want to review where we have been in previous posts.

Whenever an organization is dealing with a performance problem, the focus must be on results (ISPI standard #1).    You may think training is required.  You may discuss who is or is not doing what they’re supposed to do.  Some may suggest investing in new software or systems.  Resist these temptations.   Focusing your efforts on results will put your discussions into the right context.  This will enable you to collect the right information, understand the true cause of the problem, and come up with a solution that will achieve the desired results.

Focusing on improved results sets the tone for the entire effort.  You must also consider the situation or context (ISPI standard #2) and decide what resources are required to effectively achieve the desired results.  With a clear understanding of the context and the right people on the project (ISPI standard #4), it is time to do a detailed analysis of the problem (ISPI standard #5).  Your preliminary research and partnerships will help.  Throughout all of this, resist the temptation to draw conclusions too soon.  Patterns will emerge.  Solutions will seem appropriate and attractive.  Wait until you have all the data and have analyzed it before you draw conclusions.  Let the data reveal the true nature of the problem and what is causing it (ISPI standard #6).

I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen an organization decide training will solve a problem without any idea what results they are trying to achieve.  They see that something is going wrong so they automatically assume training will fix it.  What do you train on?  Who decides what the training should be about?  How will you know the participants got what they’re supposed to get?  To find the right answer you have to ask the right questions.  Here are some ideas to get started.

  • What are your expectations (be specific)?
  • What does “wrong” look like?
  • What does “right” look like?
  • Who is doing it “right?”
  • Why is this person doing it “right?”
  • Why can they do it “right” and others can’t?
  • How will we know we have achieved our goal?

This process does not have to take months to complete.  Depending on the scope of the situation, performance improvement can be achieved in weeks or possibly even days.  Do not automatically assume that this process will consume a lot of time and resources.  It is not unusual for this process to save money.

This is a time-tested approach to achieve a successful outcome.  It isn’t always glamorous, but it works.  With the review behind us, lets get on with the discussion of ISPI standard #7, design.

Resuming my overview of ISPI’s performance standards, the focus of this post is cause analysis.  According to ISPI, “some causes are obvious, such as new hires [who] lack the required skills to do the expected task.”  Training should be a part of the solution for onboarding new hires.  However, one should not always assume training will resolve every need a new hire or any other employee has.

What is implied in the quote above, but not explicitly stated, is the fact the underperformance can be caused by factors that are not fully resolved through training.   These can include organizational priorities, lack of access to resources or individuals, inadequate or defective tools, poor morale, ineffective incentives, or ill-defined processes.

Settling on a solution because it seems right or because it is the way you have always done things is a common mistake.  I encourage you to look beyond the obvious and explore what else could be causing a performance problem.  This may take some effort and will definitely be challenging but you will be well on your way to coming up with a solution that will actually improve performance.