The Performance Paradox – Rachel Burnham

I believe that for L&D professionals to be become truly effective one of the changes we need to make is to stop focussing so much on learning.   I realise that sounds a little crazy because helping people to learn things is what we are all about – isn’t it?

I have participated in many beautifully facilitated and wonderfully crafted sessions with clear & focused learning outcomes, including interactive activities which involved participants in sharing experiences and from which we were all able to identify things we had learnt.  (OK – perhaps I exaggerate – I’ve also participated in some sessions which were dull, overly filled with slides and poorly run – but that’s another story).   But if what we are learning isn’t relevant to what we are doing in the workplace, if there is no encouragement given to use what has been learnt, if there is no compelling incentive to overcome our human tendency to return to what we were doing previously, then what chance is there that what we have learnt will have any impact at all on what we do at work and the results we achieve?

We need, as L&D professionals, to focus not on learning but ‘performance’.  Unlike school teachers we are not in the business of ‘education’ but in the business of business – well at least of enabling the people in our organisation to contribute more effectively to achieving the organisation’s objectives. So, that means that we need to keep our focus on ‘performance’.   As Clark Quinn puts it in ‘Revolutionize Learning & Development’ ‘The focus of learning and development is to prepare people, but we need to focus on people doing, and work backwards to how we prepare them.’ (2014)

Everything else that we do follows on from this focus on performance.

If we are identifying needs – we need to consider not just the knowledge, skills & behaviours that learning addresses, but anything that impacts on the overall performance of individuals & teams.  So that means considering factors such as: access to equipment; resources; systems & processes; management support; information & feedback provided; or organisational culture and deciding if they could be affecting performance and if so, addressing these issues alongside any learning needs.

There will be times when a learning solution simply isn’t the most effective answer.  Increasingly, we don’t need to have all the knowledge to do our jobs effectively in our heads, but at our fingertips – in performance support tools and accessible through our network of colleagues & external contacts.  In our complex and fast-changing world, we can’t possibly manage to have all the knowledge we need within our heads, so we have no choice but to learn to access it as & when we need to.

This means designing learning solutions that may run alongside performance support tools or with other changes designed to address these other factors which are impacting on performance.

By focusing on ‘performance’ from the outset, we do aside with concerns about the ‘problem of learning transfer’ because it is hard-wired into our thinking right from the start.   Evaluation of the impact of L&D becomes more straight forward – we focus on the impact that the total package has had on – you guessed it – performance – using the measures used by the organisation.

So, it makes perfect sense – let’s focus less on learning and more on performance!  Sometimes less is more.

About the author – Rachel Burnham

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  Rachel is particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow Rachel Twitter @BurnhamLandD

1 Comment
  1. Ceil Tilney 4 years ago

    Nice post, Rachel – and on a topic near and dear to me. A few decades ago, we transitioned from the “training” function to the “learning” function, in part out of exactly the motive you describe. We realized that the person embracing new ways of working was the important actor, not the expert in front of the class. Sadly, the majority of programs didn’t actually change anything but the label. Calling training “learning” doesn’t make it any more performance focused.

    Hence we perpetuated the dog-training model. Why does a dog learn new skills? Because we want him to. What’s the dog’s motivation? To please us. Contrast that to organizations: why do people learn new skills? Because they perceive value in doing so, and are motivated to go through the discomfort of change. If a learning program isn’t targeted on behavior change that people see value in enduring, it’s a waste of time.

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