Sunday, September 24, 2017

Learning and Performance Together

Rachel Burnham writes: I have written before about how important it is to focus on performance in L&D and in my blog post ‘The Performance Paradox’ I even argued that we need to focus a little less on learning to do so.   So I was really looking forward to be at ‘Learning Live 2017’, the conference organised by the ‘Learning and Performance Institute’ where there is a shared emphasis on impacting on performance. I have already written more broadly about my experience of this event in a previous post, so here I want to focus more specifically on my reflections around the relationship between learning and performance, which were challenged during the event.   

The emphasis on performance came strongly through right from this start of the event, with the Learning Live Question Time Panel and particularly the contributions of Charles Jennings such as ‘Be passionate about performance’, ‘The only metrics that count are business metrics’ and an observation by one of his colleagues that he shared, that ‘Learning is the intelligent by-product of continuous improvement in an organisation with a learning culture’. All of these I agree with most strongly.  In other words, for those of us in L&D, learning is not an end in itself, it is a tool to improve the performance of individuals, teams and the organisation and the learning may come from focusing on improving performance.

There was also the comment that we should stop using the term ‘learners’ and instead just refer to employees or staff.   Here I differ – I have heard this challenge before and I know that sometimes in L&D we can use the term ‘learners’ and end up distancing ourselves from those doing the learning or negate the wealth of experience and insight brought by those people we work with and serve.  The term can form part of a false separation of learning from work, when the two are increasingly intimately woven together and learning very frequently occurs through work itself.  However, I still like to use that term – instead I see myself as a ‘fellow-learner’ - I know I always learn so much from the individuals and groups I work and I acknowledge this freely.  I often use the phrase #alwayslearning.

But my taken-for-grantedness of this emphasis on performance was challenged at the event with a couple of comments from the floor.   Not everyone present shared this thinking about the importance of placing performance at the heart of what we do. In fact one person said ‘It sounds as though learning is a dirty word’.  They had understood the emphasis on performance as a devaluing of learning.  I was surprised and went over to talk to one of the people who had raised this challenge.  I am so glad I did, because we had a most interesting conversation as a result and continued talking over lunch. 

As a result I have realised how easy it is to assume that everyone has travelled the same path I have and has seen the link between learning and performance in the way I do.  I realise that I don’t always articulate my thinking clearly that learning and performance are both important.  That I don’t always make clear that I place stress upon performance, not to negate the value of learning, but because too often as L&D professionals we have limited its impact, by not thinking sufficiently about performance ie putting that learning into practice.  And by neglecting to focus on performance we have sometimes tried to apply learning as a solution to a problem it can’t solve or can’t solve on its own, if other factors (resources, communication, organisational design, workflow, etc) are involved.  

I came across a similar challenge earlier in the summer, when I had the opportunity to participate in an eLearning Network event whilst covering this for Learning Now TV – if you haven’t come across the eLearning Network before and have any interest in improving the quality and effectiveness of elearning I can highly recommend it.   Once again, I had been talking about the importance of focusing on performance, rather than learning and my neighbour challenged me on this.   In discussion, what came through was that the term ‘performance’ had different connotations to each of us.  She had previously worked in an organisation that focused on a deficit model of performance management, which was highly target driven and seemed quite exploitative in the way it drove the performance of employees to work harder.  So the term ‘performance’ to my neighbour came with an awful lot of negative baggage.  Whereas ‘performance’ to me, is simply about focusing on the ‘doing of work’ and about the effectiveness and ease of that.   I think that by focusing on effective performance at work more clearly, we will be making it easier to do our jobs and in less time.

But neither this does mean I don’t value or encourage learning for its own sake either.   I love to learn whether about L&D or other topics.   I’ve been learning Greek and I am fascinated by particle physics.  Sometimes, I set out to learn about something or how to do something with a very clear practical performance goal in mind, but very often I don’t.  Earlier in the year, I learnt how to use Snapchat, because a friend suggested it and only later have I worked out some ways of using it to aid learning – it is great for Working Out Loud and reporting on events (for an account of this see Mike Shaw's blog) .   In the Spring I started on a collaborative learning journey with Niall Gavin to find out about the use of VR and AR for learning – initially out of sheer curiosity, which resolved into a decision to share our learning with others in a series of blogs and vlog conversations (and watch out for a forthcoming update).  However, I doubt that I will ever, ever make use of my limited learning around particle physics for any practical purpose – I just want to know and have my mind-boggled.

And in self-development, in personal learning, that is absolutely fine – and in my book to be encouraged.  It taps into what Phil Race describes in his ripples model of learning ‘wanting/needing to learn’. Sometimes we need to learn something, sometimes, as humans we just want to learn something – our curiosity is fired up and that gives that drive to learn something irrespective of any immediate need to use it for any practical purpose.   And it may never lead to any to practical gain, but then again it might at some point down the road. Who knows where it will lead us, what connection it might spark, what path it may lead us on or what pleasure it may bring us.

However, in L&D our focus needs to be on the performance of the organisation both now and in the future and we need to keep that in mind.

When we talk about the relationship between learning and performance, we usually speak as though learning comes first and in the right conditions leads to improved performance.  I have been musing on whether this is always the case.  With the use of performance support tools (such as job aids, video ‘how to’ guides, templates), we can help people to work more effectively immediately, we can enable people to perform here and now.   So performance can be tackled first, before any learning has happened.   But in some circumstances, if you keep on doing that task with the aid of the performance support tool – can the knowledge get embedded, can the skill be built, can a new habit be developed - so that eventually you have learnt through doing?  Or if you use the performance support tool, do the work and then reflect on why that works and how it can be done even better – have you then learnt?   Perhaps in these situations performance comes first and then learning?

Learning and performance are both important for those of us in L&D roles.   If we focus on one to the neglect of the other, we won’t be as effective as we can be, as we need to be.   They are entwined.

Rachel Burnham

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the use of digital skills for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.  

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