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Performance Management — a cautionary tale

September 21, 2006

In my previous post, I defined what I meant by “performance-based learning.” In this one, I want to tell you a story about the danger facing a related movement – the Performance Management movement – you know the idea of managing performance through an LMS or a third-party tool that every analyst is talking about? Obviously, performance management and performance-based learning are related concepts. One is about you measure performance and one is about how you improve it. Simple, right? Maybe not. Read on.

Here’s the context and the prelude:
This past week I was at a client site to discuss their need for custom learning and content development tools – in this case, Firefly and Firefly Publisher (a software simulation tool, and it’s big brother, a collaborative content authoring tool). The client is an existing LMS customer who has recently purchased an enterprise license of our LMS (KnowledgePlanet). Since our LMS also has some pretty sophisticated performance management features, they also planned to use the LMS to manage skills and competencies, report on skill gaps and do some limited succession planning in the future. The key for them was the value in being able to link skill gaps and succession planning models directly to learning. They saw this as a key advantage to the solution. Keep that in mind.

So fast forward to this past week. I had been asked to go to the client site to discuss tools and custom eLearning. As an expert in both areas, I didn’t need to do much prep. Just loaded the usual demos, worked on a few simple conceptual PPT slides and off I went. In retrospect, I should have been slightly more curious about a company that had all the cutting edge learning and performance infrastructure anyone could ask for, and yet wanted an overview of our custom content and tool capabilities. Relative to all the planning that goes into an LMS and performance management strategy, eLearning content development is pretty straightforward: task and audience analysis + performance objectives + learning and corporate culture + infrastructure + timeline + budget = courseware design and cost. Not exactly rocket science. And as for the tools we offer, they speak pretty well for themselves and are recognized as industry-leading solutions so again, not a lot of research or demo required to determine fit.

So what the heck was I doing there? Well, as it turns out, this well-respected “everyone knows their name” company who is spending significant dollars on a massive LMS and performance management initiative had zero, yes ZERO, eLearning to distribute with either system. Zero, like nada, zilch, nihilo, zip. None. Nor did they have any in-house expertise to build any. Nor did they have any budget to hire new people to build any. They did have some limited budget for custom content development. And they also had some limited budget to train their “coordinators” to build some simple custom content.

I was there to discuss our custom content capabilities and to show them our tools, specifically to help them determine if they were “too complex” for their “not courseware developers, not instructional designers, not trainers — some other job function” resources to use successfully in developing learning. I was also there to help them budget for eLearning for the coming year so they could outsource key projects as budget allowed. Needless to say, I was surprised and alarmed. Given the consultative nature of our sales process, I was also confused as to how we could have sold such a complex solution to a customer with so little understanding of what it was going to take to be successful. As it turns out, there wasn’t much we could have done differently on this front.

So let’s see, what’s wrong with this picture? Here is just a partial list:

Cart before the horse
Building infrastructure before you build courseware is like building a house before you have any furniture, curtains, rugs, silverware, dishes, or a TV (which may be ok if you leave money aside to do this after you buy a house, but not so OK if you don’t…). Building infrastructure before you staff instructional designers and course developers and content experts is like building a restaurant without planning for chefs, hostesses and wait staff. And trying to build a training practice staffed with people who have zero ID or training program? Ugghh. “The tools you choose are the least of your worries…” came to mind at least half a dozen times. I wanted to tell them that their plan was sort of like buying a Corvette and filling the gas tank with sand, but I didn’t.

Poor alignment between goals and methods
In any talent management or performance management engagement, the central goal should not be the identification and quantification of gaps. Nor should the goal simply be succession planning or a comprehensive catalog of skills and competencies by job role. All of this is secondary, even tertiary, to the real business goal – improved performance leading to the successful completion of business objectives.

Tracking does not improve performance, identification of skill gaps does not rectify them, having a succession plan doesn’t magically endow the successor with the requisite skills. What does? Training, learning, practice, mentoring, cognitive and task-oriented apprenticeships, systems changes, process changes… Central to any performance or talent management initiative, therefore, is the need for comprehensive training and support plan, a significant chunk of which will need to be e-something – eLearning, e-Performance Support Systems, e-documentation, e-Seminars (recorded or live)… Logistically speaking, if the org is big enough to consider comprehensive talent or performance management, they are almost certainly too big to do all the required training via live instructors.

Poor alignment between business units internally
How was it that we were able to sell an entire LMS without visibility into the content development plan? Simple really. The infrastructure purchase and the content development responsibilities were aligned with different business units. IT owned infrastructure; HR owned corporate training; each business unit owned it’s own training development. No one had the big picture. HR started the performance management initiative which clearly required technology. So IT took the lead and worked with HR to define needs and what not (this ultimately became another bit of irony since the entire thing is hosted by us and therefore requires nearly zero IT involvement from the client 00 in other words, IT never should have drove this process in the first place). Along the way, a few questions were asked of the business units but no one seriously inquired as to the existing state of content or existing budget or existing skill sets. Since there were no complaints, HR just assumed training was under control at the business unit level and that once a corporate LMS and performance management strategy was unveiled, the content would just start populating itself. Sort of a “if you build it, the content will come” strategy.

So why didn’t we know? After all, we sold them the solution. Didn’t we do our homework? Sure we did. We asked and were told there was content in every business unit. Business unit reps were in a few sales and consulting meetings and never raised any concerns. The IT guys didn’t seem to have any idea what content meant and the HR folks were mostly concerned about system admin and reports and the like. So even though we asked the right questions and we seemingly got the right answers, the reality is that we didn’t have the right people at the table.

In retrospect, the business units were woefully underrepresented. And as it turns out, they often sent different reps to each meeting. They were often asked at the last minute because HR forgot to invite them, and worse, because they were in the business units actually delivering business value, they often had deadlines and commitments that resulted in missed meetings. It also became clear as we learned more that the business units just assumed HR was going to take care of all the training. It never even crossed their minds that they would need to build hours and hours of training without any additional support or staff. After all, their main job was production and generating revenue, not developing training.

So in the end, IT and HR were both well-represented, but no one was really representing the learners or the business units. HR and IT both had executive level involvement. The business units had managers and directors. HR and IT had dedicated resources and time to spend on this initiative. The business units tried to find time in-between production. Because of this, the one group who was expected to do the most to make the roll-out successful had the least input and the least involvement. And, as a result, the one group who was supposed to benefit the most is the least likely to see real benefits from the solution.

Change management and failure to plan
What happens when the systems go live and there is little to no business-unit specific eLearning available? What will be your opinion of this system? What would your CEO’s opinion be? What’s the likelihood you will view the Talent or Performance Management System as a success if you can’t improve your talent or performance in any new or valuable ways? How likely are you to embrace it?

At the end of the day, Performance Management is not about measuring performance, it’s about improving performance. To do true performance management, you can’t just put an architecture in place to measure gaps and manage succession planning. Learning must be connected to the plan, and not just hypothetical learning you might someday build but real learning and training resources that exist today. You must plan for how you will actually change the performance of the organization. While it’s true that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, it’s equally true that you can’t improve anything just by measuring it. Knowing that the convenience store is a mile away doesn’t help me get there. For that, I need a pair of sneakers, a bike, a car, or some other conveyance to move toward my destination. In the case of corporate performance and the personal performance of individual employees, there are a number of appropriate vehicles that should be considered: eLearning, simulation, performance support, process changes, systems changes…

While all of this may seem blatantly obvious, I’m not seeing nearly enough attention devoted to this in the hype around Performance Management. HPT (Human Performance Technology) and ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement) should be factoring significantly into these discussions, but so far, there’s a lot of talk about saving money by automating process and not much at all about improving the bottom-line through performance improvements. True visionary companies are not the ones who put in place architecture to measure and track; true visionaries are the ones who measure and track so they can make tactical improvements in the performance of individual employees to better enable the organization to achieve its business objectives.

Lessons learned
So lessons learned on my end? Don’t make even rudimentary assumptions about the state of the organization, regardless of it’s reputation in it’s vertical. Do ask more questions about the whole strategy and the overall plan. I’m not sure this would have changed much in this case as this organization was hell-bent on buying an integrated LMS and performance management solution, but maybe for a more enlightened organization, more of the right question will put the focus where it needs to be – on performers and performance and the methods and means by which to improve both.

I also think I’m going to spend more time talking about the importance of connecting the overall learning strategy to organizational goals. For years, the pendulum was toward architecture — LMS’s were king. Then it seemed to swing back to content for awhile with simulation tools and Wikis and interactivity tools leading a counter-charge in favor of content. Now I think we’re back the other way where analysts seem to be focusing on infrastructure again, this time with Perfomance Management and Talent Management. As with LMS’s, these buzz words don’t really don’t mean anything in the absence of a content strategy.

I don’t know. Maybe they are making the same mistakes I did and assume that the need for content is self-evident. Clearly however, this is wrong. Now, more than ever, we need to think about a holistic strategy to address performance: including Wikis, functional or departmental blogs, podcasting, simulations, collaboration, PSS, nano-learning, etc… Layering yet another heavy infrastructure into a content-weak model seriously undermines the likely success of a solution or any chance for real business impact. On the one hand, it’s sad to still have to focus on such basic issues as connecting a learning and performance strategy to organizational goals. On the other hand, maybe this need never goes away and we just need to keep hammering home the idea that the biggest value of elearning lies in actual performance improvement, which is inextricably tied to quality content.

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