I am beginning to think that the training industry’s attention on performance outcomes isn’t such a good thing. There. I’ve said it. I know it’s oddly sacrilegious, and yet I feel good about having made the statement.
Actually, the feeling’s been growing on me over the last few years. It started at an ASTD conference when I heard — from colleagues I respect — several offhand comments denigrating our pursuit of performance outcomes. Ouch. Then I took a look at a study from ASTD and IBM that showed the chief executive officers hold the learning organization accountable for competence, not performance. Mmm. Over this past Spring, I read a book of collected writings on Critical Human Resources Development, and many questioned the dominance of the performance lens in how we conceptualize our work. Huh….
As I’ve been working on reconceptualizing how we think about the scope of our outcomes in design, the idea has crystallized. In the learning and development field, we should consider the learning to be our applauded outcome, and let the performance that results take care of itself. There is enough complexity and challenge in studying what promotes and solidifies learning, in discovering processes that make learning efficient and applicable, in figuring out the role of organizations, and managers, and peers, and learners themselves in the learning process – we don’t need to be obsessed with a “higher” calling or a more important outcome than the learning itself.
Performance is important, no doubt. As learning professionals in organizations, I think that we should be promoting learning that we believe is tied to organizational results and achievement of business goals. And I subscribe to learning theories that tightly connect learning to the context in which it is to be used (e.g. situated learning, social learning, community of practice, experiential learning theories). But our job, I think, is to ensure learning, not to ensure performance. Performance, and the design of environments that support performance, is the job of a company’s management team, and the purview of performance consultants who are trained in diagnosing a wider array of supports and barriers to performance. We don’t need to do their job; we need to have a more solid understanding of how to do ours.
That being said, the more that a learning professional understands the full context of what promotes performance (and learning is a part of that larger system), the better he or she will be at crafting learning interventions that work in concert with all the other parts of the system. Performance is an important downstream outcome, and performance context is critical to learning. But don’t we have enough of a challenge in this fast-paced, ever-changing, noisy world just to ensure that we’ve provided all the necessary ingredients to achieve learning?