The Importance of Performance Consulting
by Guy Burghgraef, CalHR Statewide Training Coordinator,
Statewide Learning & Performance Management,
and Nathan Parker, CalHR Operations Manager,
Statewide Training Performance Consultant
To train or not to train, that is the question. The pun on the famous Shakespearian line may seem trite, but it is a question the performance consultants ask themselves when confronted performance problems. Seasoned training professionals with a PH.D. in everyday observation recognize that training is not always the answer to every performance problem. In fact, training is often the choice when organizations don’t know what the problem is, such as:
Training for the reasons bulleted above is often times reactive, costly, and may not be the appropriate intervention to solve the performance problem, but the thought that if you throw enough training at the problem, maybe it will go away. Know that philosophy is so detrimental to the training profession; trainers need to look beyond reactive training bulleted above and diagnose true performance problems to identify the best training or non-training intervention. To get to this level, the training community should consider adding performance-consulting skills to their quiver.
So, what is performance consulting and why should I as a trainer care about it? Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson, who authored “Performance Consulting: A Practical Guide for HR and Learning Professionals”, are recognized as the foremost experts in Performance Consulting. They defined performance consulting as the “systematic and holistic approach when analyzing and improving human performance to achieve business goals”. This holistic approach forces the training professional to look beyond the traditional training world for the answers on how to improve performance. Other work place factors, which will be discussed later, may contribute to performance or behavior gaps on the job, and all the training in the world will not resolve those issues. As a discipline, the importance of understanding performance consulting and how to apply it takes a greater presence on stage every day.
Having looked at performance consulting as an activity leading to results, let’s look closer at the role of Performance Consultant. Two simple nouns joined together become so much more powerful than their individual meanings. At the risk of over simplifying, Performance Consultants consult about human performance. For our purposes performance can be defined as maintaining or increasing value while maintaining or decreasing costs. Note that “value” is always defined by the customer. ATD has developed a bevy of knowledge on the subject of human performance and indeed many trainers may well have some exposure to performance analysis and interventions. Performance consulting is the art and science of improving performance through the most appropriate interventions.
The consultant must think diagnostically and behave prescriptively. The Performance Consultant needs to be prepared to ask questions like:
The Performance Consultant must be both brave and authentic. Not afraid to ask challenging and probing questions.
A trainer’s role in determining if training is necessary is best served when they can clearly identify that a performance deficiency is due to a gap in knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors (KSAB). But what happens if the performance problem is not attributable to KSABs? Most performance-consulting professionals will also tell you that there are other factors that affect performance. The worker’s environment and motivation also play a role. The importance of proper performance diagnostics might be compared to a car owner who tries to repair a failing transmission by changing his wiper blades; it makes him feel better but not for long.
A performance consultant will collaborate with others to diagnose the performance problem prior to recommending a remedy. As a performance consultant, there are some diagnostic questions that should be asked to determine the performance problem so the best intervention can be recommended. Langevin Learning Services has some diagnostic questions that have served me well. These questions require me to act as an investigative journalist and ask:
o Should be involved in the performance conversation
o Sets performance standards
o Is the ideal performer that others may be judged against
o Benefits from the performance if done correctly
o Needs to happen that is not happening
o Would happen if the process was working
o Would good performance look like
o Tools and processes are needed to perform the job
o Job aids do people have access
o Should the job happen
o Should performance be measured
o Should the process be followed
o Should the process start and end
o Should deadlines be met
o Should the process or steps be followed
o Often should the process be followed
According to a hrVillage.com article (and as mentioned above), environmental factors and motivation may also play a factor in the worker’s performance. But how does the office environment affect performance? Well, think about it, office environment could be affected by the temperature in the office, how the office is laid out, and ergonomic challenges. How many of us have fallen asleep at our desk because it is too hot in the office? How many of us have had to go across the floor, building, or campus to meet with the boss? And how many of us have experienced or had witnessed colleagues suffer from repetitive strain injuries due to poor ergonomic set up at work? Motivation can also affect performance. Workers may not be motivated to perform due to workplace conflict, burnout, or feelings that work is no longer fulfilling and this cannot be turned around with more training.
The final question performance consultants will ask is “the problem worth solving”? This is where the performance consultant needs to access more of the finance side of their brain. A key step in answering this question is determining how much of the performance gap is costing the organization versus the cost of the performance intervention. This is ultimately a business decision as are all performance issues.
The successful performance consultant is a multi-disciplined individual who focuses on outputs, deliverables and results. They act as analyst, coach, mentor, and confidant. They are conversant in the art of training and the language of business. They invest in themselves and are not afraid to “speak truth to power.”
Increasing your performance consulting skills over time will become more important. This is especially true considering how much organizations spend on training every year. Collectively, over $62 billion was spent on training in 2013 alone. Organizations are awash with anecdotal stories that training expenses can be trimmed because training is too expensive. But organizations are also awash with anecdotal stories of workers who fail to perform. In an era of thin budget margins and pressure to reduce the bottom line, the performance consultant will successfully bridge these two worlds by pin pointing performance issues and recommending appropriate cost effective strategies, whether they are traditional training or not.
But more important than understanding the basic dollars and cents of training is the performance consultant’s understanding of business finance. This understanding of finance is a key step to making performance consultants more of a strategic player in the organization and will have immediate benefits. An effective performance consultant is armed to build a strategic relationship with operations and organizational decision makers and be able to influence spending when important decisions have to be made.
So in answering the question “To train or not to train” we must answer with an emphatic: “It depends.” If your reason for training is to improve performance then train if and only if that training will yield an increase in performance that extends beyond the cost of the training. If you are training for any other reason, then proceed with the understanding that you do so without the expectation of improving performance.
Statewide Training Coordinator, Statewide Learning & Performance Management
Operations Manager Statewide Training
P.1 - Performance Consulting: A practical Guide for HR and Learning Professionals – Dana Robinson
“Consulting skills for trainers: collaborative performance improvement” – Langevin learning services
© ATD Sacramento Chapter Mail@tdsac.org
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