The caveat of the performance centre

One of the more exciting ideas to emerge from the corporate learning space, which I hasten to add is yet to be realised, is to transform the Learning & Development department into a performance centre.

Rather than charging L&D Consultants with marketing the team’s lovingly crafted interventions, or reacting to random solution-first requests from the business – We need a team building workshop! – the Performance Consultant analyses the real needs of the business and identifies the relevant solutions.

This is not a novel idea. For example, I am aware of an Australian bank that established a performance centre over a decade ago, while Helen Blunden recently shared the following via an OzLearn chat:

On the face of it, this makes sense to me. I subscribe to the notion that the point of learning in the workplace is to improve performance, and the raison d’être of the performance centre is to shift our focus to its namesake.

Loose nails.

However, I do have a caveat: If the performance centre is populated with L&D types, then the solutions they devise are probably going to be L&D oriented.

This won’t appear to pose a problem unless you appreciate that not all performance ailments are due to an L&D deficiency. On the contrary, poor performance may be caused by myriad factors such as:

  • A flawed process
  • Obsolete technology
  • Inadequate resourcing
  • Noise or other disturbances
  • Office politics
  • Interpersonal conflict

…or any number of human conditions:

  • Stress
  • Sickness
  • Demotivation
  • Exhaustion
  • Laziness

…not to mention one of my favourites offered by Joyce Seitzinger in the aforementioned Ozlearn chat:

Of course! Recruiting the right person for the role in the first place!

My point is, while poor performance may well be due to a lack of capability, it might not be either. An effective Performance Consultant must determine the root causes of the problems – whatever they may be – and respond accordingly. Do former L&D Consultants have that skillset?

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

10 thoughts on “The caveat of the performance centre

  1. Thanks for this great post and calling it out Ryan. This is correct. I believe that many Learning professionals simply never had the foundational training in identifying performance problems. My background came from a focus on analysis of performance problems using all sorts of different tools, interviews, surveys and approaches with training being only needed if the issue identified knowledge or skill gaps. However, many people have not had this background, experience or study. Hence why I get so frustrated when I get tasked to work on a project that hasn’t been properly analysed and I am expected to just deliver a training program.

    In my experience, Learning teams have focused too much on training assessment and needs and having a Certificate IV rather than focusing on performance improvement. It also shows that there are minimal if any providers in Australia around performance consultancy. There are providers on how to be an effective internal business consultant but nothing really focused on models, analyses, organisational scans, human performance systems. So how can we expect people who have been in learning without the foundational performance improvement skills to think other than training?

    This is the gap I see with using current teams of learning people without adequate retraining into this new mindset and approach. Many people don’t even know what it means and what they need to do move into this space. Others are happy being facilitators or e learning designers which is fair enough but to have organisations say to their learning teams that they are all performance consultants now is a flawed strategy.

    Thanks for calling this out in your post. This surely must be on the agenda as a matter of priority.

  2. wow, interesting point you’ve raised here Ryan – and even more so in light of Helen’s comment (thank you both!).

    You’ve both expanded my understanding on this – absolutely right that not all poor performance is knowledge, skill or learning related. The new push towards ‘turning’ L&D people into ‘performance consultants’ is an acknowledgement of this fact.

    That this is now being acknowledged is progress in itself (as Ryan says in opening – even this is not yet actually happening in most organisations – in all honesty, I don’t know that many in the ‘OD’ area in my org would even have heard of the term ‘performance consultant’,…).

    In my org, just questioning the business on their objectives rather than simply saying yes to design and deliver a training request is a new way of thinking so we’re still several years away from acknowledging this need for performance consulting – let alone properly trained performance consultants. And Helen, I have to admit I wasn’t / am not aware of all of the tools and skills involved in systematic performance consultancy – so thanks for bringing that up. Lots to think about here….!

  3. In a recent post I asked the question is learning all about performance. My struggle with this post was the point you are making in this post. I am comfortable knowing that learning is about performance. However, as you quite rightly have said, performance is not about learning necessarily.

    Because of that, I cannot be a performance consultant. I am and always will be (well kind of) a learning professional. Performance happens to be an outcome of that, but similarly it is not the sole outcome.

    Thanks for helping me get clarity with this.

  4. Sukh – thanks for your comment – this is something I was going to mention in my previous comment but thought it might muddy the waters. Your comment has provided a nice segue: performance not being the sole outcome of learning – Yes!! There seems to have been a recent shift towards equating learning with behaviour change (aka performance) – related to the need to align learning to measurable business outcomes. Whilst I think there is merit in this, it’s worth remembering that learning can occur without a noticeable (or immediate or easily measurable / detectable) change in behaviour or performance. Learning about and within complex domains might be an example – where often there will be a gradual shift in thinking or mindset not necessarily impacting performance (although possibly detectable if the individual were to say, narrate their thinking over time). There may eventually be a change in behaviour but it’s likely going to be a result of many intersecting factors. This has always been the challenge of working in learning (and equally performance) – it’s complex.

  5. Thanks for your post Ryan,

    I don’t think performance consulting is or should be limited to L&D practitioners or an L&D solutions mindset.

    It shouldn’t matter who the performance conversation starts with. Regardless of whether it is me or another member of the HR/L&D/OD group we should all be able to work with stakeholders to:
    1. Define/Understand the problem or need
    2. Identify the current vs. future state (outcomes/impact to be achieved)
    3. Conduct root cause or performance (needs) analysis.

    At this point I believe the consultant should act as a broker, bringing in the relevant expertise to shape the solution. For example, I might need to bring in Rem & Ben or Employee Relations to explore Motivational elements of the solution; ICT, OD or process design/improvement experts to support Environmental elements of the solution; in addition to any instructional design, eLearning or other L&D specialists that will support any knowledge and skill elements.

    Who I bring in will depend on my areas of expertise and the needs of the solution. This approach is also stakeholder centric as they are engaged at all stages of the process, without having to do all the grunt work themselves.

    I agree that we need to look at how we define, recruit and develop against the broader consulting and performance analysis skillsets. I’m not sure that everyone needs to be a performance consultant or necessarily be ‘client’ facing. We do need specialists and experts, but what should be common is the need for all of us to have a broader understanding of what performance is, the factors that enable or inhibit it and the connection between our expertise and the holistic solutions that drive performance.

    Our specialist project managers or program offices use an agreed project management methodology (i.e. Prince, PMBOK). Our sales teams generally use an agreed sales methodology (i.e. SPIN). It makes sense to me that HR, L&D and OD would adopt an agreed performance consulting and analysis methodology and build the capabilities to support it in practice.

    This approach means we are professional, consistent and working as a function. I also think it can help us to work more effectively and provide more responsive solutions as a function.

    Most of the organisations I have spoken to over the last twelve months do not have a common consulting model, or if they do, it is not common across the broader HR, L&D, OD group. I think there is some low hanging fruit, as well as a deeper level of work to be done.

    Perhaps there is an opportunity for HR, L&D and OD to start the change by conducting performance analysis on themselves to identify the root causes and create a holistic performance solution that will support development and sustainment of the performance consulting capability.

  6. wow, great response Andrew! Gives a really comprehensive picture of what this could look like – an integrated HR-L&D-OD model is really insightful. And you’re right: even though these groups are often structured under the same overarching umbrella, they don’t work to the same processes and workflows; their roles are seen as separate.

  7. Thanks Tanya – I’ve been thinking about your point about HR seeing their roles as separate and of the different workflows/processes. I think this ‘separateness’ is the key reason why our solutions aren’t as efficient, coherent or as effective as they might be.

    I suspect the adoption of a Performance Consulting operating model across HR would mean that many HR processes/workflows would need to change. This is easier said than done, as many practitioners are stuck in the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mindset and may struggle to let go.

    What are your thoughts?

  8. Quite right, Andrew. In yesterday’s Learning Cafe Unconference, the point was reinforced yet again that the role of the HR practitioner (and the L&D practitioner in particular) needs to shift from service provider to strategic partner. Without a focus on performance, it’s hardly aligned to the business and hence not “strategic”.

  9. Learning has a a key role to play in becoming a strategic partner providing valuable input into direction and assiting business to achieve outcomes, not just receive learning. As professionals we need to stand up and be accountable for delivering the correct learning for individuals to be able to deliver the outcomes, and strategic enough to resist requests for “I want” learning. Understanding the issues and formulating a plan for resolving these issues takes a strategic partner approach – but to do this you need to understand the business, listen more than talk, and be prepared to deliver actions that show results.

  10. Thanks Michael. The (proactive) strategic partner approach really resonates with me, above and beyond the typical (reactive) service provider approach.

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