Embracing Performance Consulting

The corporate training space needs more industry professionals who are committed to improving human performance and achieving business goals. After seeing how pressing this need is, I have been unable to unsee it. There is no turning back.

In this post, I discuss what led to my performance consulting awakening. I’m confident that my experiences will ring true with many others in the industry, and I hope that what I’ve learned will help instructional designers make the leap from course producer to performance consultant (whether you accept that as your title or not).

My humble beginnings

I started my eLearning design and development business as soon as I started my Master’s program in Instructional Systems. As I grew my portfolio, my client list grew longer and my workload ballooned.

I was enjoying the creative, tech-heavy side of eLearning development. However, since I was marketing myself as an eLearning designer and developer, I attracted clients who already had their minds set on paying for eLearning courses.

This was fine at the time. I was paid well to interview experts, write instructional content, and put it together in an eLearning authoring tool. My clients were always happy with the end-products because they got what they had asked for: professional-grade, interactive eLearning courses with all the bells and whistles…

But what about the learners?

Some of you may be thinking: well, the clients are happy, but what about the people taking the training? They were happy, too.

At least, that’s how it seemed. They would give their feedback in pilots stating that they were “highly satisfied” with the courses, and they would respond to follow-up surveys stating that they would “recommend the course to a friend.” As some of you may be unsurprised to hear, this data is not sufficient to measure the effectiveness of a training intervention.

For the scenario-based training that I designed, I was confident that the recipients would enjoy it and become better at their jobs because of it. These activities that I designed felt useful.

But for the rest of the training that I designed and developed, I had to ignore the voice in my head that was telling me we were wasting a whole lot of the learners’ time. The clients handed me content and asked me to create eLearning from it, paying no mind to whether or not that content would be useful for accomplishing their organizational goals or changing their employees’ behavior.

I didn’t speak up to change anything because, in my eyes, the organization had already decided what it wanted. Because of this, I was always seen as an order-taker instead of a strategic partner.

Despite the likely ineffectiveness of these training “solutions,” the smilesheets with learner feedback still came back fine, but that’s likely because they didn’t know any better. Compared to most click-next-to-continue training, the eLearning that they were seeing was still ahead of the curve.

However, taking these courses was not an efficient way to help them get better at their jobs, and my gut told me that we could do a much better job. Of course, there was no real data to back this up because there were no efforts (beyond smilesheets) to evaluate the eLearning.

Now on to the real question…what about the business?

It’s one thing to do what’s best for the learners and keep the learners happy or “engaged,” but that’s not the function of a learning and development department. For corporate training to remain relevant, we need to focus on the business goal that we’d like to achieve through our training (and non-training) interventions.

Think about it. Whether the clients know it or not, they are paying for training because they need a problem solved at their organization.

Sometimes, that problem gets muddled down into a box that must get checked (looking at you, compliance training), but there will always be real human performance problems that can be solved with a performance consulting approach — and likely not with an eLearning course. When these problems are addressed adequately, it has a direct impact on the bottom line.

Right now, eLearning business is booming. However, when the economy takes a dive and budgets get cut, the vanity courses that are being funded just to populate corporate learning platforms will be the first to go. And why wouldn’t they be when we aren’t measuring their impact on the organization’s bottom line?

So, why make the transition?

The performance consulting approach will withstand the throes of the economy as long as corporations do. I’ll take this a step further and say that using the performance consulting approach is the right thing to do.

It doesn’t waste the employees’ time, it doesn’t waste the business’s money, and it doesn’t diminish your expertise. As learning and development professionals, we have a duty to the learners and to the businesses we serve.

It’s unethical for us to blindly follow orders to solve performance problems in the same way that it would be unethical for a doctor to prescribe medication for a patient’s self-diagnosed health problem. (You can read more about my take on the ethics of designing training here.)

I’ve made the transition because I can’t see it any other way. Real solutions require real analysis, and assuming that we can throw training at any performance issue is a mistake with potentially serious consequences.

How have I made the transition?

After I could no longer ignore my inner voice telling me to focus more on creating real solutions and less on designing courses, I decided to seek out resources from time-tested experts in the field.

I started with Map It by Cathy Moore and Performance Consulting by Dana Gaines Robinson, which are tomes of high-value content for those seeking a performance consultant mindset and process.

I’ve also been consuming videos, books, and articles about performance improvement, consulting best practices, and the business of design.

Using what I’ve learned, I’ve worked with a few of my clients to start performing in-depth analysis before recommending solutions. When the solutions require training, I work with them in the same capacity as before; however, this attention to their business goals has changed the relationship; I’m treated more as an equal and less as an order-taker.

If you’re in the position where you’d like to make the leap, I highly recommend starting the transition. Map It is a great place to start if you’re already in the field and looking to improve your approach.

As always, feel free to reach out if you have any other questions.