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Is it about learning or performance?

August 9, 2010

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I care about learning.  I spend most of my time helping clients develop great learning strategies.  In a perfect world, I could ignore the messy world of performance. But, since I work mainly with corporate clients, and also because I subscribe to Dan Pink’s theory in Drive (we all seek autonomy, mastery and purpose), I care about performance, too.  If learning isn’t pushing towards improved performance on some level, then it’s aimless and has the potential of becoming a navel-gazing exercise.  And nothing kills credibility in the organizational world than a bunch of navel-gazing HR/OD/Learning fluff!

My last post was about performance management.  I argued that the  performance review naysayers were throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water and that there are some redeeming aspects about a performance management system.  I still believe that.  I think the whole finger pointing at the performance review is actually a red herring.   The angst isn’t about the performance appraisal, it’s about “the man”.  You know, feeling oppressed and downtrodden and all that.  Since there are more folks who are unemployed or underemployed, there are lots of axes to grind right now.  Sells a lot of books about dumping the performace appraisal.  Kind of preying on the powerless.  But, I digress…

So, learning or performance?  Aren’t they inexplicably tied? 

If you learn something and your performance doesn’t improve, why not?  Is it a conscious thing?  Learn. But. Don’t. Improve.  <imagine grimacing face/voice as though it was really, really hard> If you don’t learn anything and your performance improves, maybe it wasn’t a skill/knowledge deficiency after all.  What if you learn something and your performance improves, but no one tells you or notices?  Do you regress or keep going?  Or worse, yet, what if you learn something and your performance declines and no one notices! 

The problem with some of the arguments around performance appraisals (that I’ve seen anyway), is that people are given goals, ratings, feedback and have no input.  Managers are portrayed as idiots, power hungry, politicos who don’t actually care about employees and use the performance appraisal to lord their power over the underlings.  Well, I’m sure not every manager is like that, and I’m sure not every employee is a mindless drone. 

I think what people are rebelling against is the powerlessness and the impersonlization of the “system”.  Couldn’t we envisage an alternative where individuals are driving their learning and performance, with managers facilitating the process?   The notion of someone else assessing your performance seems to be antiquated and wrong in today’s climate, but I think I have the answer….personalization.  The PKM/PLN/PLE stuff is all over the blogo/twittersphere, why divorce it from performance?

If we really wanted to change things – we should encourage performance management to go open as well.  When I was a manager, I pushed for as much team goal setting and performance discussions as I could.  It falls apart when compensation and sucession planning is tied to individual performance, but I’m not ready to throw out that baby, just yet.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 5:05 pm

    I don’t think I can answer for the individual whether it’s learning or performance. (I’m using performance in the Tom Gilbert sense of producing worthwhile accomplishments.)

    The individual’s own goals and standards could well mean that learning for its own sake is the desired result — the means become the end, as it were. And that’s okay with me, as long as I’m not paying their tuition.

    When I think of an organization, though, I think of a group of people sustaining efforts over time to achieve goals they’ve at least signed on to. That might be the people running the food bank at the local church, or it might be groups fitting into larger groups at a formal organization (nonprofit, like the Red Cross, or for profit, like Boeing).

    The thing about the organization is that it’s an entity that can potentially outlast the time that any individual spends with it. To me, that says that even when the organization actively encourages individual learning, sooner or later it’s hoping that some of that learning connects to the results the organization hopes to achieve.

    In other words, yes, it’s about performance.

    I disagree somewhat with your contention that dislike of performance appraisal is about the man. In my experience, it’s more often dislike of arbitrary, hurried, ill-thought-through systems that don’t connect well either with valuable accomplishments as the individual sees them, or with the organization’s goals (again, as the individual understands them).

    As you point out, the individuals ought to have extensive input into goal-setting — though the individual at, let’s say, Baer Paints needs to accept that sooner or later her job’s accomplishments are about paint. Maybe she negotiates great deals with suppliers. Maybe she conducts focus groups to better identify customer wishes. Maybe she helps run an efficient and friendly customer service enter.

    Even if she’s the corporate event planner, and could do the same kind of job in the automobile or software or healthcare industry, where she actually is, is in paint.

    I’m not neglecting learning. It may be a high goal for the individual; I see it as a kind of enabler for the organization. Not that we want everybody thinking nothing but paint, paint, paint, 24 hours a day… but there are talents that we don’t perhaps need, and people whose lives may be better fulfilled in other endeavors than a paint company.

    If you don’t really like fiddle music, then you probably don’t want to stop in too many dance halls on Cape Breeton Island.

    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      August 10, 2010 10:38 am

      Dave – thanks for your comments – and thanks for stopping by, I admire your blog very much.

      I worry, as a consultant, that I might get too theoretical – we have that luxury, I think – and push for an idealized notion that isn’t very realistic in the messy world. That’s why I reacted to the “get rid of the performance appraisal” stance. My goal is to help my clients wherever they happen to be, and most of them are struggling with performance management – as you point out tying individual goals to organizational goals is near the top of their lists – (incidentally it could be one argument for a “system”). One of the other things they struggle with is to link their various programs together cohesively and ensure that the executive and management of the organization actually support it, not just give it lip service. For example, every exception of merit increase that a manager pushes through the HR dept, ends up perverting the process. I don’t know the answer, I just know that it’s the reality my clients face. As a learning pro, I think performance is something we have in common with the HR groups – we should collectively be interested in performance and work together to develop a solution.

      What do you thnk of a Personalized Knowledge/Learning and Performance Environment? Too idealized? Look good on paper, too hard in reality?

  2. August 10, 2010 11:41 am

    PKM is not divorced from performance, in my opinion. But a key challenge with PKM adoption on organizational level is who owns the platform. My preference is for each person to choose their own open tools and platforms and then allow the organization to connect or harvest information. Without ownership, it’s difficult to have individual engagement. Of course, this becomes a control issue, as does everything around social media and the networked workplace.

    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      August 10, 2010 1:23 pm

      Great point on ownership Harold. It’s a big old grey world isn’t it? Sometimes it would be so much easier if it was just black and white, instead of millions of shades of grey…

  3. August 23, 2010 9:08 am

    Yes, I agree that from an organizational perspective, learning and performance are tied. Why would an organization pay for learning if there were no lift in performance? One exception might be compliance related training (i.e., training that must be conducted in order to comply with a rule, law, etc). I agree with Dave’s comments re: organization is its own entity.

    I also agree with Harold but think that ownership needs to be defined. The more important questions is – who creates the guidelines for use of the platform (wherever it exists)? Often in companies, the owners (e.g., IT) enforce the guidelines that have been created by other entities (e.g., Legal Department).

    Have you seen
    Dan Pink’s
    recent post that included a link to the Netflix Freedom and Responsibility culture? I think you would find this interesting and relevant to your post.

    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      August 23, 2010 9:15 am

      Hi Dennis – thanks for your comment – yes, I am a follower and bit of a fan of Dan Pink. I agree with your observation “why would an organization pay for learning if there were no lift in performance” – but have to say that in my experience organizations have no idea if there is a lift in performance, don’t tie it to the learning initiative and many, many times the proverbial left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to! Have you found this as well or are you connected to far more progressive and enlightened organizations than I am?

      • August 26, 2010 4:47 pm

        Hi Holly – I’ve also seen many examples of not connecting learning to performance (or results). In my experience, there is usually a training group within a company that is partnering with a business group and doing this well.


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