Learning vs performance?

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Written by Paul Matthews on 3 October 2016
I was quite hurt. An experienced L&D manager posted some feedback on my book “Capability at Work” and said it had nothing new, and that he had been doing what the book recommended for over 20 years. He said he hadn’t bothered to read beyond the first couple of chapters.
This is in contrast to the huge amount of positive feedback I have heard about the book, so it got me thinking about what he was seeing that was so different. I think I know what it is.
The book is about performance consultancy, and he was getting this mixed up with learning consultancy. There is a difference. A very big difference.
Learning consultancy is what you do when you figure out a learning solution based on the assumption that learning is required to solve the performance problem presented by the business or the operations managers.
Performance consultancy is what you do when you look at the presenting problem as part of a wider performance system, and figure out what levers to pull in that system to change the system outputs to get the performance you want. It is about determining the solution, or the range of solutions, that could solve the performance problem, and learning is only one of many possible solutions.
So performance consultancy MUST precede learning consultancy.
I believe my erstwhile critic was doing learning consultancy, and maybe doing it very well, but he missed the point of the book.
Think of the L&D department is an organism, and therefore it has a cell wall, which has filters or chemical receptors which govern what gets into the cell and what is denied access.
You don’t want rubbish in the cell.
You don’t want poisons in the cell. You don’t want stuff getting into the cell that will disrupt its functionality and cause inefficiencies in operation. Basically, you don’t want stuff in there that shouldn’t be there.
Think of performance consultancy as the L&D cell wall filter keeping out the ‘poisons’ that will stop the cell functioning effectively.
What happens is that people come to L&D saying they have a learning need because they have a performance problem. The reason they do this is because they have this background assumption in their thinking, usually completely unconscious, that training equals learning equals performance.
So, reasonably by their thinking, they come and ask for some kind of learning intervention. The way that L&D departments respond varies from immediate acquiescence to the request, and they take the order for the training course, or they do learning consultancy.
That is, they ask the business what learning they need to make sure it aligns with the needs of the business, and many other questions to make sure it is the correct learning. Underlying all of these questions and this learning consultancy process is the implicit assumption that learning is the solution to solve the operational manager’s business problem.
This is a false assumption, and has led to huge waste in terms of training courses that are “aligned” to the business, and yet unsuccessful in solving the business performance problem.
I have been talking recently with a large organisation who are changing the structure of their L&D department, and within that process they are creating a role called “learning consultant”. When I asked what this role would entail, they showed me a list of competencies, and talked about the activities they see people in this role undertaking. From the activity description, it sounded like performance consultancy to me. In effect, they want these people to act as a filter between the business and the L&D department. So, great role, wrong title.
I remonstrated with them about the choice of job title saying that if you call someone a learning consultant, that’s what they think they’ll be doing (despite job descriptions to the contrary), and that’s what other people both in the business and in L&D will think they are doing.
They will be focusing on the fact that they need to figure out a learning intervention, as opposed to stepping back and looking at the wider performance system to figure out what changes are required to achieve a better output from the performance system.
If I said I am a tax consultant, or a marketing consultant, or a sales consultant, you would make assumptions about what I do. So saddling someone with a job title that gives people an incorrect view on the role, particularly when it is a brand-new role in the business, is not a great idea.
Of course, if you think about it, the job title is like catnip to the operational manager who is suffering under the disability of thinking that learning equals performance and wants a learning intervention, even if, as is true in most cases, it is not what he needs. That is why the operations side of the business is quite happy with the new job title, because it is what they want, and not what they actually need.
Learning vs Performance. There is a BIG difference!
About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance improvement. 

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