Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training, a Review

Books / Learning
Performance Consulting

Performance Consulting

A little while back I used my company‘s global learning community of practice to ask its members who their learning gurus were. It was an interesting exercise because it gave me some insight into which people and ideas have influenced the current learning practice in the company. I was expecting names like Stephen Downes, George Siemens or Jay Cross to come up, instead we had an interesting discussion about the word “guru” and people mentioned names like Robert F. Mager (famous for the question: could they do it if their life depended on it?), Betty Collis and Peter Senge.

One of the books that was mentioned in the discussion was Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training by the Robinson couple. This 1995 book (hello CD-ROMS!) seems to be a bit of a classic in the field. The blurb on the cover says: “The world is changing and HRD must change with it. Every HRD and training professional who wants to have a job past the year 2000 should read this book.” Reading the book it struck me how many of its lessons were still not in regular practice in many businesses today (i.e. the blurb was wrong!).

The book tries to explain how the traditional role of the trainer (focus on what people need to learn) can be progressed to the role of a performance consultant (focusing on what people need to do to perform well). A trainer (and the learning function as a whole) describes and solves training needs. A performance consultant looks at business, performance, training and work environment needs. The idea is to have the learning department be part of the business conversation. By breaking out of the conspiracy of convenience (see barrier 3 in this Charles Jennings post) learning professionals would be able to create a “Performance Relationship Map” to really impact business results:

From page 55 of the book

From page 55 of the book

Using this map you can see that what the operational results should be, drive what the on-the-job performance should be. These can then be compared to how they currently are and internal and external causes (the environmental factors) can be identified. This very simple model is probably in the tool kit of any organizational effectiveness consultant, but is still not something many people in the learning space would explicitly use.

The book then describes how to get the information to fill in this map. What I really liked is how they decided to use the people who excel at their work, the best performers, to find out what performance should be like and define the benchmark to measure the current performance against. This is a simple trick that learning designers could start doing right now: don’t go and find the Subject Matter Experts to ask them what people should know about a particular topic, instead ask people who are great performers what it is they actually do and ask their managers why they are such great performers. That is a much better starting point for designing a learning intervention.

The majority of the book is devoted to building the performance relationship map. What really surprised me that once you have identified the gaps, the proposed solutions for closing the gap are still so traditional. Even though the authors quote Geary Rummler saying “Pit a good employee against a bad system and the system will win most every time” and even though they come up with the equation Learning Experience x Work Environment = Performance Results, they fall way short in their solutions for closing the performance gap and don’t actually look at changing the system.

They don’t talk about new models for training and learning. How the work environment could be changed receives half a page in the book (find it at the bottom half of page 269). It is a bit odd that you would spend a whole book explaining how to do a needs analysis and then write in chapter 11 (of 13): “If all we did was obtain data, Performance Consultants would be of limited value. The ultimate test of a consulting project is how the information is actually used to make desirable changes.” This means they have left the most interesting questions open. Could I maybe get your recommendation for literature that would give me more information about the next step: how to close a performance gap? I would prefer books that have taken the rise of educational technology and the Internet truly on board.

Bonus: One nice reference that I came across in the book was to The Consultant’s Calling by Geoffrey M. Bellman. The Robinsons quoted the following passage (in the context of defining what a contract might mean):

I attempt to create a contracting process with my clients that is alive and adaptable, not one that is fixed in ink. I encourage trust between client and consultant. I see anything that smacks of mistrust – as defensive legal contracts can do – as damaging to the partnership I want to establish. I favor written communication that records what we decided so we don’t forget our responsibilities. I keep files tracking the work the client and I are doing together, but I balk at anything written that suggest we need to protect ourselves from each other.


BTW, this was post number 100 on this blog! I seem to have finally found some persistence…

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Hans,
    I was originally inspired by the work of Mager and Pipe and when I found Robinson and Robinson I finally found a name for the work I had been doing in the UK. Working with L&D, HR and Business Partners I gradually simplified the performance technology theory and jargon into a 7-step model that you can hold in your head. Add to this the key skills of listening and asking open question and you have a powerful tool to overcome the “solutionering” that most of our clients rush into. If anyone wants any more read “How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting” available from my web site or contact me for a chat Regards Nigel

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